The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

The onstage parting of two lovers in a play Newland Archer attends reminds him of Ellen Olenska, as it recalls her "mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience." Contemplating the matter of Ellen's adultery, he thinks it natural that "young ... frightened ... [and] desperate" Ellen would be "grateful to her rescuer," named as "the secretary" in Count Olenski's letter, and sleep with him. Nonetheless, this puts her "on a par with her abominable husband." He assumes Ellen's fixation on how a divorce will bring her freedom is a "dumbly-confessed error," evidence that the count's charges against her are true. The family is greatly relieved when Newland informs them Ellen has agreed not to pursue a divorce.

Newland is forced to speak to Ellen when he is summoned to the Mingott box. She asks him if he thinks the actor on stage will send the actress "a bunch of yellow roses tomorrow morning." Newland realizes Ellen knows it is he who has been sending her unsigned bouquets of yellow roses. Ellen embarrasses Newland by expressing her gratitude for his advice about the divorce, and he leaves as Julius Beaufort arrives.

May Welland is away with her parents on their annual winter trip to St. Augustine, Florida. Newland wanted to go but remained in New York, unwilling to be "convicted of frivolity by the whole Mingott clan." In a letter, May urged Newland to be attentive to "lonely and unhappy" Ellen in her absence, as he is "almost the only person in New York who can talk to her about what she really cares for." Newland is charmed by the innocence May demonstrates in writing of Ellen's lonely helplessness, when Ellen clearly has the attention of many men in the community—but is also aware that "May's ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination."

Analysis

Newland's assumptions about Ellen and May reveal his misogynistic tendencies, but Wharton renders him with a nuance that prevents the reader from simply condemning him. He is not a bad man, but a product of his time, when society took for granted that women, being weaker and possessing a deliberately cultivated innocence, needed the protection of stronger, cleverer men. Nonetheless, Wharton's treatment of Newland's thoughts about both Ellen and May—here, that May is simple and Ellen is a victim of her own uncontrolled emotions—is a subtle critique of this culturally implanted misogyny. Even Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen's grandmother, who as an independently wealthy widow enjoys unparalleled social freedom, displays an internalized misogyny when she claims she cannot understand why Ellen would want to be "an old maid, when she has the luck to be a married woman and a Countess."

May's letter provides an early hint of her awareness regarding Ellen and Newland. Newland assumes she is too innocent to really understand anything about Ellen's life or character. Perhaps she simply made a lucky guess. Because May will not speak of "unpleasant" things to him, Newland assumes she is shallow and unintelligent. The attentive reader, however, will notice evidence to the contrary as the narrative progresses.

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