The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 15 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer calls on Ellen Olenska at Skuytercliff, where he encounters her walking through the snowy woods. Sensing her distress, he becomes concerned that her allusion to "running away" was not mere feminine exaggeration. She refuses to explain and instead challenges him to a footrace that leaves them both giddy. Newland, delighted to realize that Ellen wanted him to come, senses in the air a "mysterious brightness," and "the ground seemed to sing under their feet."

Ellen is upset because she has realized the family thinks of her as "helpless and defenseless." Newland wants to know what happened, but Ellen says they speak different languages and adds, rhetorically, "Does anything ever happen in heaven?" Finally she agrees to explain herself, if they can find some privacy.

They enter the patroon's house, the modest stone dwelling built by Henry van der Luyden's ancestor in 1612. Ellen tells Newland she can't be unhappy while he is near. "I'm improvident," she says. "I live in the moment when I'm happy." Newland becomes excited, thinking she was fleeing New York because of her affection for him. He expects her to embrace him, but the moment ends when Beaufort comes walking up. He is "clearly annoyed at finding" Newland there.

Newland decides Ellen actually left town to escape Beaufort's romantic attentions. He tells himself Ellen is a "victim" of her attraction to Beaufort, because he represents the foreign world of Ellen's past she claims to wish to escape. He feels a "longing to enlighten her." After returning to New York, he feels "as if he were being buried alive under his future." Ellen sends him a telegram asking him to visit, and after a night spent deliberating his options, he impulsively boards a boat bound for St. Augustine, Florida.

Analysis

Newland Archer continues to assume he understands Ellen Olenska's thoughts and motives better than she herself does. Newland views women as lacking in self-awareness and fancies himself capable of enlightening them. He has fantasized about enlightening May in the past, but he has decided perhaps she is incapable of being enlightened. Now he turns his attention toward Ellen Olenska and the problem of her enlightenment. Ironically, when Newland is in Ellen's presence, he is the one whose behavior and opinions change.

It is clear Newland is jealous of whatever sort of relationship Ellen and Beaufort have, but he lacks awareness of his own jealousy. Newland thinks Ellen is unaware of the paradox her relationship with Beaufort represents: she cannot release her bondage to her past and become completely "American" in the manner of genteel New York while also consorting with Beaufort, who is worldly but also "vulgar," "uneducated," and "purse-proud." Newland spends a lot of time contemplating how Beaufort is an unfit companion for Ellen, but he does not consider the inappropriateness of his own sharing of intimate moments with Ellen, given that he is engaged to be married to her cousin, May. Wharton ensures that the reader has insight into Newland's character that he himself lacks.

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