The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 18 | Summary



Upon seeing the roses, Ellen is incensed, asking, "Who is ridiculous enough to send me a bouquet?" She sends them to Ned Winsett's sick wife. Mrs. Manson departs, leaving Ellen and Archer alone. Ellen isn't surprised when Newland brings up the matter of Count Olenski's latest letter, but says her aunt's belief that she will return to him is one of "many cruel things" that "have been believed of" her.

Newland tells Ellen of May's urging him to end the engagement if he loves another woman more, which Newland says is "ridiculous." When Ellen asks if Newland cares for another, he replies he "doesn't mean to marry anyone else." Finally, he admits, "There is another woman—but not the one she thinks." He says he would marry Ellen if it were possible. Ellen becomes emotional: it is only impossible because Newland himself convinced her not to divorce her husband. Newland suddenly realizes Ellen didn't commit adultery with her husband's secretary. As she cries, he holds her and kisses her, saying, "I'm still free, and you're going to be."

Ellen tells Newland she realized New York's low opinion of her only after her grandmother "blurted it out one day." She always thought Newland was exceptionally kind, because he "hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference." Because of Newland's influence, Ellen realized her own happiness was worthless if it was gotten by hurting others. Newland kisses her shoe, and she cries, "I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. I can't love you unless I give you up."

When Newland sneeringly tells Ellen to go be with Beaufort, she cancels her plans for the evening. He says he has the right to end his engagement, and Ellen replies, "Ah, you've taught me what an ugly word that is." Just then, a telegram arrives, announcing that Newland and May's wedding will be held in four weeks, shortly after Easter. Newland finds a similar telegram waiting at his house, which he "crumple[s] up ... as if the gesture could annihilate the news it contained." When he tells his sister the news, his uproarious laughter confuses her.


Now that Ellen has been made aware of New York's low opinion of her sexual purity, she puts on a show of rejecting the bouquet. She means to make it clear to both her aunt and Newland that she would never even consider engaging in such scandalous behavior. She has sacrificed her right to freedom in order to protect her family's well-being, and she displays integrity by sticking to her decision, even when Newland tells her he wants to marry her and will end his engagement with May to do so.

Newland realizes he has condemned himself to not getting what he wants because of his failure to check his assumptions and communicate frankly with Ellen about her past. Newland was certain Ellen was an adulteress who wanted a divorce so she could marry her lover, and it was on the basis of this assumption that he urged her so vehemently to drop the matter and made the implication that it would hurt her family. Believing the simple fact of a divorce would hurt her family, Ellen became convinced against it; she remains unaware that Newland thought she had other secrets and motives. He has made a similar error with May by lying that he loves her and wants nothing more than to marry her as soon as possible. Now his efforts toward a hasty marriage bear fruit, just when he has changed his mind about the situation.

Ellen has resigned herself to a life alone. Her situation, however, is not without certain comforts: she has the peace of knowing she has done what is morally correct. As she says, "The emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light." Newland doesn't understand this kind of moral integrity, because he has little of it. When he complies with expectations, it is because of his training, not his deep moral convictions. When he lies and deceives—as he did to May during the previous chapter—he feels no moral anguish. Ellen points out Newland's moral opportunism when he claims he has the "right" to end his engagement: since Ellen had no right to freedom at her family's expense, neither does he.

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