The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

Walking out of the theater, Newland Archer encounters his friend Ned Winsett, who is surprised to learn his kind and helpful neighbor is Ellen Olenska, a countess. Winsett remarks that perhaps Ellen pays no mind to the "little social sign-posts" of genteel New York because she's "been in bigger places." Winsett, an intellectual and failed writer, has a "savage abhorrence of social observances." His company always prompts Newland to "take the measure of his own life, and feel how little it contained."

Winsett once suggested that Newland remedy his aimlessness by becoming a politician, a suggestion Newland promptly dismissed as inappropriate for a gentleman like himself. Winsett warns Newland the "old European tradition" of Newland's people is "dying" because of its self-imposed insularity and unwillingness to engage with the issues of the day. Winsett suggests the only chances such people have to attain significance are politics or emigrating, neither of which Newland considers a possibility: "A gentleman simply stayed at home and abstained."

Made late for work the following day by a futile search for yellow roses, Newland Archer is preoccupied with "exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life." The time he spends at the office is nothing more than a pretense to fulfill the societal expectation that he have some professional life without actually lowering himself to "the crude fact of money-making." With a feeling of distress, Newland realizes that after his marriage the "narrow margin of life in which his real experiences were lived" will fall away, and he will be like his peers, over whom "the green mold of the perfunctory was already perceptibly spreading."

He receives a note from Ellen, explaining she "ran away" to Skuytercliff, where she feels "so safe," because she "wanted to be quiet, and think things over." Newland decides that, since "women always exaggerated," Ellen's words point merely to a desire to escape "a boring round of engagements." Reflecting on the rarity of the reclusive van der Luydens' encouraging Ellen to stay at Skuytercliff, Newland decides that the van der Luydens, like himself and everyone around him, are driven by a "gentle and obstinate determination to go on rescuing" Ellen. Disappointed that she is out of town, Newland accepts an invitation from the Reggie Chiverses to visit their home near Skuytercliff, which will give him an excuse to see Ellen.

Analysis

The fact that Ellen Olenska and Ned Winsett live in the same "unfashionable" and "Bohemian" part of town symbolizes the similar effect they have on Newland Archer. Although they live in New York, they are both part of another world, and both of them influence Newland Archer to examine his life from the perspective of an outsider. Stepping into this outsider's perspective, Newland sometimes instantly becomes aware of the almost comical smallness of the geographical and psychic landscape of aristocratic New York. At other times, encounters with Ellen or Ned fail to immediately penetrate his social conditioning and instead seem to reinforce his preexisting and unexamined beliefs about what is and what ought to be. However, Newland is a thinking man, especially prone to self-reflection. As he contemplates such encounters and exchanges, considering them in relation to whatever is happening in his life at that moment, Newland is prone to the sudden despair of a man who realizes he is imprisoned when he had before thought he was free.

At one point Newland had admired Ellen's frankness of speech, her habit of saying exactly what she meant. Having read the count's letter and having revised his estimate of her to that of a weak victim, Newland now puts her in the slot of "typical female" and dismisses her words about running away to the safety of Skuytercliff as the meaningless hyperbole he considers an attribute of women in general. He imagines others in his circle have the same fantasy he does, of nobly rescuing Ellen from her own feminine folly. The only prompting Newland needed to lower his estimate of Ellen's strength of character was an incendiary half-page letter written by a husband whose cruelty is unquestioned. This absurdity is Wharton's subtle and brilliant critique of a society that does not let women speak for themselves and refuses to listen to the ones who dare to.

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