The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer tells May Welland about sending Ellen Olenska flowers, but not about visiting her. He proposes a number of unconventionalities, such as hastening the wedding date, travel, and elopement, and she puts him off with conventional platitudes, insisting that she doesn't want to be "vulgar." "We can't behave like people in novels, though, can we?" May asks rhetorically. As he contemplates his intention to "take the bandage from this young woman's eyes, and bid her look forth on the world," it occurs to him she might still be unable to see.

Newland Archer sinks into despair over the dismal predictability of his life. His sister, Janey, tells him their mother and the van der Luydens are upset that Ellen Olenska has attended Mrs. Lemuel Struthers' controversial Sunday-evening party in the company of the Duke of St. Austrey and Julius Beaufort. Janey implies it was Newland's duty to warn Ellen Olenska against such behavior. She asks, "Newland—don't you care about Family?" and he replies, "Not a brass farthing."

Newland informs his mother he's unable to take "very seriously" his family's offense over this "trifle." Mrs. Archer counters that the "common" Mrs. Lemuel Struthers' party was Paris-like in its scandalous decadence. Mrs. Archer says that although New York may not be as "brilliant" as Paris or London, "we belong here, and people should respect our ways when they come among us." She expects Newland to explain Ellen Olenska's behavior to Louisa van der Luyden.

Just then, Henry van der Luyden unexpectedly arrives. He has just visited Ellen and given her a warning, "by the merest hint," of New York's disapproval of her going to the party. He says he likes Ellen Olenska and has made this fact known to Sillerton Jackson.

Analysis

Newland Archer begins to see society's preoccupation with conformity to arbitrary standards of behavior as a sign it has lost touch with reality. Where he formerly prided himself on his understanding of society's subtle and complex expectations, the need to concede to these expectations now strikes him as absurd and stifling. He is annoyed at May's refusal to even consider his unorthodox ideas about their marriage and honeymoon. Underneath his annoyance is the prospect, horrifying to Newland, that society might have rendered May forever incapable of making contact with reality or thinking for herself.

He is annoyed that he has been deemed responsible for justifying the actions of Ellen, a grown woman, to the elderly van der Luydens. Ellen's recent comment has made the van der Luydens' authority seem arbitrary rather than inherent, and the whole performance of social offense feels like a predictable waste of energy to Newland.

The constant taking of offense, the obsession with other people's behavior, and the emotional and intellectual delicacy that characterize his mother as well as May Welland now seem to Newland not marks of fine breeding and desirable female innocence but rather indications of blindness. Newland contemplates this ideal of "innocence," which he now associates with blindness and sameness, with "Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them," paper dolls, "patterns stenciled on a wall," and "old maid[s]." The irritation and dread Newland feels at these revelations compel him to break the rule of keeping one's true thoughts silent, and he vocalizes his disdain to his mother and sister.

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