The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Custom dictates that Newland Archer and May Welland now embark on a series of "betrothal visits." They first call on Mrs. Manson Mingott, who expresses her approval. As Newland, May, and Mrs. Welland are preparing to leave, Ellen Olenska arrives, accompanied by Julius Beaufort. Mrs. Manson Mingott welcomes Beaufort, who is a friend of hers, and Ellen tells Newland to visit her soon. Newland silently judges Ellen for having appeared in public in Beaufort's company, and knows that his mother is thinking the same.

Analysis

Like every action undertaken by respectable members of New York society, the engaged couple's visit to secure the matriarch's approval of their engagement is merely a social formality. Even her approval of the match is no surprise, given that the engagement between Newland and May was long deliberated by their families and approved of before it was finalized by May's consent. It is a marriage not just between two individuals, but two families, and all of genteel New York is similarly bound together by a complicated network of matrimonial ties.

For the second time in the novel, things veer off script only when Ellen Olenska's presence is introduced. She has again violated the social code, this time by going out in public with a married man of dubious reputation, rather than hiding in shame as she is expected to. Again she seems happily and completely unaware of her error.

Mrs. Manson Mingott serves as a foil to Olenska. Like Ellen, she is unconventional; unlike her, she is accepted because of her family position. She is both a voice of authority within New York and a constant challenge to its expectations. The reader may wonder why her reputation is not tainted by her friendship with Beaufort, nor by the scandalous decorations and layout of her unfashionably located house. The answer may lie in the fact that, as an independently wealthy widow with an indomitable will, Mrs. Manson Mingott need not answer to any man. Additionally, she has never been the subject of rumors about her sexual conduct.

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