The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer is embarrassed to realize the strange woman is May Welland's cousin, "poor Ellen Olenska." The gossips claim Ellen Olenska has left her husband for his secretary and is now staying with her grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott. Newland Archer has always respected Mrs. Manson Mingott's audacity, but shares his peers' opinion that allowing Ellen Olenska to appear at the opera is going too far.

Newland Archer anticipates that this will cause social "difficulties" for May Welland's family. To show his support for the family, Archer decides to announce his engagement immediately. After an exchange consisting more of body language than words, May Welland agrees to the change. Newland Archer speaks with Ellen Olenska, who had been his childhood playmate. When she makes a joke about the audience at the opera, he is "shocked" at her flippant attitude toward "the august tribunal before which, at that very moment, her case was being tried."

Analysis

New York society judges the family of an individual for that person's actions. Therefore, Ellen Olenska is likely to bring dishonor upon her entire clan, the matriarch of which is her grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott. The source of Ellen Olenska's dishonor is her past and the rumors that surround it. In an age that regards divorce as unthinkable, Ellen has left her husband. Worse, she is said to have committed adultery after leaving him. Her appearance at the opera is a bold defiance of the protocol that demands such discredited women remain out of society's view, and her family is held responsible for this breach in custom. As Newland Archer realizes, she seems unaware and unconcerned about how she is being judged. Her dishonor is also reflected back onto him, as a man who is about to marry into her family.

Ellen Olenska, having spent most of her life abroad in Europe, has not internalized New York's complicated code of protocol and custom. She is innocent about what New York expects of her and how they will condemn her for not meeting their expectations. On the other hand, both Newland Archer and May Welland have completely internalized New York's social code, and this allows them to communicate with few words. Indeed, this lack of verbal communication is one of the most important parts of New York's code and one of Wharton's major themes. This society operates on silence and conventional, scripted pleasantries. Speaking aloud one's true feelings, as well as speaking of anything "unpleasant," are considered major transgressions. The consequences for women who speak their minds aloud are especially harsh—and Ellen has done just that by making a joke about the most respected members of New York society. During their first conversation, Ellen's words, which reflect her authenticity and psychological freedom, shock and offend Newland Archer, although he will come to feel differently.

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