The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

As a junior partner at the prestigious law firm of Letterblair, Lamson and Low, Newland Archer is charged by his boss, Mr. Letterblair, to handle the case of Ellen Olenska's divorce, brought to their attention by Mrs. Manson Mingott. Newland defies protocol by asking the case be given to someone else. Mr. Letterblair insists "true delicacy" and the wishes of the family, who are opposed to the divorce, require him to take the case. Newland becomes angry that the family expects him to handle the distasteful matter of Ellen's divorce.

Since their last meeting, Newland has reacquired his feeling of distaste for Ellen Olenska, and his pleasure in May's effortless decorum has returned. But when he reads the divorce papers, including a threatening letter from Count Olenski to Ellen, "a great wave of compassion" takes hold of Newland, and his feelings of "indifference and impatience" recede. He feels he must save her "from further wounding herself in her mad plunges against fate."

Newland reflects on his past love affair with "poor silly" Mrs. Thorley Rushworth. Such affairs are considered normal rites of passage for respectable young men, a means of learning "the abysmal distinction between the woman one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied," and this view is even encouraged by their female elders who, along with the rest of society, judge women who love "imprudently" to be "criminal" and men who do the same to be merely "foolish." He decides Ellen committed adultery out of "sheer defenselessness and loneliness."

Newland and Mr. Letterblair discuss Ellen's case that evening. Mr. Letterblair argues against a divorce, saying "why not let well enough alone," since Ellen is already separated and stands nothing to gain financially. When Newland insists the divorce is Ellen's choice, Mr. Letterblair counters that divorce "might make some unpleasant talk" and insinuates Newland ought to oppose the divorce since he is about to marry into the family. Newland insists that he won't "give an opinion" until he's heard Ellen's side.

Analysis

It is clearly Newland's fate to be drawn into an intimate acquaintance with Ellen Olenska, particularly in regard to her inability to stay within the standards of behavior New York society expects of her. Despite his desire to distance himself from Ellen and savor the prospect of marrying May, who is "nice" and never causes such trouble, he remains entranced with Ellen, who is unwilling to buckle to her family's adamant wish that she not get divorced. Ellen wants a legal opinion, so the family arranges for Newland to speak to her, both as a lawyer and as a prospective family member.

Like New York society itself, the contents of Count Olenski's letter are kept discreet, but the letter fills Newland with a desire to protect Ellen's "secrets," which the count apparently threatens to expose in his letter, if she chooses to divorce him. Once again, upon the word of someone else, Archer's view of Ellen changes, and now he sees her as "an exposed and pitiful figure" and himself as her savior. To his own senior manager, Mr. Letterblair, he begins to champion Ellen's right to speak for herself, only to silenced once more by references to his and her social obligations.

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