The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Each year, Regina Beaufort gives a ball. Her lavish ballroom partially "compensate[s] for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past." She came from a wealthy and respected family, and is considered to have married beneath her by taking Julius Beaufort for her husband, whose "habits were dissipated, tongue was bitter, [and] antecedents were mysterious." Despite this, the annual Beaufort ball is a most prestigious social occasion.

Newland Archer arrives late, nervous that Mrs. Manson Mingott might send Ellen Olenska to the ball. He feels less kindly disposed toward Ellen Olenska now than before he spoke with her. He sees May Welland telling her friends of their engagement, and regrets that it had to happen in such a noisy, public situation. Privately, May insists Newland must tell Ellen about their engagement immediately to avoid slighting her. May says Ellen has not come, because she feared her clothes weren't appropriate, but Newland knows this is a polite way of concealing the real reason for Ellen's absence. He is happy to note that his fiancée is dedicated to never speaking of "unpleasant" things and vows to act as if he knows of no blemish on Ellen's reputation.

Analysis

Newland's pleasure at May's failure to acknowledge Ellen's scandalous past, even in a private conversation with him, is reflective of the way New York society prefers to handle such matters. They are acknowledged by not being acknowledged, in a kind of verbal code: Newland understands May's excuse about Ellen's dress is a way of pointing toward what is acceptable while cloaking it in perfect acceptability. May's polite lie also reflects society's feminine ideal. May is highly marriageable because she does not speak the truth or venture opinions that contradict prevailing social norms. She presents herself with a veneer of perfect innocence, as she is expected to. At this point, Newland anticipates May's conventionality and innocence making for a happy and harmonious marriage.

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