The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

As Newland Archer walks through the "Bohemian" neighborhood to Ellen Olenska's house, he reflects on the cultural abyss separating this nearby community of artists and unconventional people from "polite society," as well as on Ellen's knack for "revers[ing] his values." Julius Beaufort is already there, discussing Ellen's upcoming visit to the van der Luydens' estate, Skuytercliff. Beaufort is trying to persuade Ellen to return to New York in time to attend the musicians' oyster supper he is hosting. She expresses interest but dismisses him without committing.

Alone with Newland, Ellen confesses she is trying to quash her interest in the arts, exclaiming, "How I hate to be different!" She explains a divorce will allow her "to be free ... to wipe out all the past." Awkwardly and by implication, Newland tells her social custom frowns on divorce and it would cause "a lot of beastly talk" if Count Olenski carried out his threat to tell New York how Ellen plans to marry the man with whom she has already committed adultery. When she objects that her freedom is worth more than talk, Newland becomes certain Ellen does in fact intend to marry her lover. Newland then implies it is Ellen's duty not to hurt her family by causing a scandal. Since Ellen is already financially independent, a divorce isn't worth "what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful." He argues that although "it's all stupid and narrow and unjust ... one can't make over society." She reluctantly concedes and curtly dismisses him. When he kisses her hands, he finds them "cold and lifeless."

Analysis

Ellen is beginning to realize what society expects of her, and the strictures it places upon her make her unhappy. Rather than spend time in a vast, cold mansion with two elderly people, she would prefer to attend Beaufort's dinner and enjoy the lively company of musicians, but she has learned that Beaufort and those like him are not accepted by the society Ellen is trying to be a part of. Ellen's life in Europe was lively and unconventional, filled with artistic and intellectual appreciations. To fit in with New York's upper crust and please her family, Ellen must deny her nature, reject these interests, and restrict herself to experiences deemed acceptable by polite society.

At the start of their conversation, Ellen takes for granted that her husband's cruel treatment is sufficient legal reason for divorce. While Newland seems convinced Ellen's husband treated her awfully, he is far more concerned about the assumption that she is an adulteress, a breach of social etiquette that can never be acknowledged, even though he has himself been involved in an adulterous affair with a woman. Newland essentially presents Ellen with a choice: she can either sacrifice her kin for a negligible amount of "freedom," or she can sacrifice this small freedom and spare her kin. When Newland frames it this way, Ellen chooses to be unselfish and drop the matter of the divorce—but the decision immediately drains her vitality, leaving her hands "cold and lifeless."

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