The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer surprises the Wellands with his unexpected arrival at their house in St. Augustine, Florida. He begs off work by claiming to have a cold. When he kisses May on the lips, she is clearly "disturbed" and "startled." Newland intends to convince Mrs. Welland to advance the marriage, but instead she thanks Newland for persuading Ellen Olenska to give up the idea of divorce. Mrs. Welland claims it would have killed her husband if Ellen were to pursue divorce, and she says they all want to protect May from thinking "such things were possible." Mrs. Welland claims Ellen has "unbounded admiration" for Newland, and remarks, "I wonder what her fate will be?" Newland thinks their machinations have ensured Ellen will become "Beaufort's mistress [rather] than some decent fellow's wife," but doesn't say this.

When Newland pressures May about advancing their wedding, his insistence causes May to suspect he is losing interest in her. Newland is completely caught off guard and exclaims, "My God—perhaps—I don't know." "Let us talk frankly," May says; she thinks he has feelings for someone else and doesn't want her "happiness made out of a wrong ... to somebody else." If he has feelings for her, Newland should marry his former lover, Mrs. Rushworth, even if it goes "against public opinion." Newland, flustered and in awe of May's "generosity," is relieved May hasn't guessed his feelings for Ellen. He assures her he has no romantic feelings for Mrs. Rushworth, and he is disappointed when the momentary frankness and courage May showed in confronting him vanishes as soon as she is reassured he loves no other woman.

Analysis

In speaking frankly to Newland about her concerns, May shows a side of herself never before seen, either by the reader or by Newland. Thus far, May has been presented—through the lens of Newland's perceptions of her—as hopelessly naive, completely repressed, and in possession of a carefully cultivated innocence that society conspires to protect at all costs. Her innocence is evident through her body language when Newland kisses her on the lips for the first time—her body language says she is disturbed, but she refuses to speak about it. Newland doesn't consider her capable of communicating frankly or authentically—unlike Ellen.

May has hit the nail on the head with her suspicion that Newland wishes to advance the wedding to put his thoughts of another woman out of his mind. Newland's surprised reaction to May's saying this indicates how unsettled he is that she has perceived something about him that he himself has failed to perceive. Presumably, the idea that May can see through his exterior to what lies beneath unsettles him because it challenges his assumption that May is blind. Newland wants to have the power in the relationship, and May's blindness is a necessary condition for this: either he can enlighten her, or he can conduct his affairs behind her back without her knowing. However, May is clearly much more perceptive than Newland believed her to be.

Flouting all social norms, May says it won't hurt them to discuss the matter, whether it's true or not. New York society does not make a habit of frank discussion, especially concerning delicate or unpleasant matters. May clearly considers the matter of her marriage important enough to warrant frank discussion. This moment is probably the most vulnerable one the couple has ever shared, but Newland decides not to tell her the whole truth, thus beginning a habit of deception that will come to define their relationship.

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