The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 17 | Summary

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Summary

Newland returns to New York and learns Ellen Olenska visited his mother while he was in Florida. She makes it clear she doesn't like Ellen: "Dear May is my ideal," Mrs. Archer says.

Newland Archer asks Mrs. Manson Mingott to use her influence to persuade the Wellands to advance his wedding date. Mrs. Mingott says her family is "all alike! Born in a rut, and you can't root 'em out of it." Ellen, she says, is the only member of the family who is unconventional, as she herself is, and she asks Newland why he didn't marry Ellen: "Now it's too late; her life is finished." Ellen arrives and says Newland may call on her the following evening.

Newland arrives at Ellen's to find Ned Winsett, Ellen's flamboyant aunt Medora Manson, and Medora's friend Dr. Agathon Carver, "founder of the Valley of Love Community." That night, Dr. Carver will lecture at the Blenkers' house on the topic of his "illuminating discovery of the Direct Contact." Medora Manson thanks Newland for persuading Ellen not to divorce her husband and says she has herself brought a letter for Ellen from the count, "my poor, mad, foolish Olenski." Describing Ellen as "unforgiving" and "sensitive," Medora thinks Ellen is foolish for giving up her luxurious and interesting life with the count, who she describes as remorseful and "adoring." She asks Newland's help in persuading Ellen to return to the count. When Newland cries he "would rather see her dead," Medora points to the huge bouquet of red roses and pansies on the sofa, saying, "Am I to understand that you prefer that, Mr. Archer? After all, marriage is marriage ... and my niece is still a wife."

Analysis

Although they are unconventional, Mrs. Manson Mingott and Medora Manson are not so unconventional as to approve of a woman getting a divorce. Both seem to find Ellen's feelings on the matter irrelevant, especially given that her husband is a wealthy man with an aristocratic title. When Mrs. Manson Mingott says her favorite granddaughter's life is over, she means Ellen will now never be able to have a husband or family. These things were the measure of a woman's life in Victorian times. Interestingly, both Mrs. Mingott and Medora Manson are widows, a status that allows them to enjoy a life of travel (in Medora's case, and in Mrs. Manson Mingott's when she was younger) and the wealth of a deceased husband (in Mrs. Manson Mingott's case). Being widowed is the only way a woman can be respectably liberated from a marriage, and certainly the only circumstance under which she could consider remarrying. Ellen is not so lucky—her husband lives.

The bouquet of red roses and pansies on Ellen's sofa are weighted with meaning. They have certainly been sent by a man, who is not identified. In the Victorian language of flowers—the Victorian era was a time when flowers were used to send subtle messages—red roses signify passionate love, and pansies signify thoughts. The bouquet is indicative of a clandestine love affair. By pointing at the flowers, Medora Manson implies Ellen's choices are two: either return to her husband or engage in dishonorable adulterous affairs. It is probable that she interprets Newland's horror at the prospect of Ellen returning to her husband as a sign he wants to have an affair with her.

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