The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer lives with his widowed mother and unmarried sister, who adore and respect him as the man of the house. They are part of the "Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction."

Mr. Sillerton Jackson comes to dinner at the Archer house to discuss the matter of Ellen Olenska. Newland knows his mother shares his feelings of annoyance that Ellen's presence forced the premature announcement of his engagement, "but ... it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts." As the subtly malicious gossip proceeds throughout dinner, Newland begins to defend Ellen's right to "be conspicuous if she chooses" and to divorce her "brute of a husband." Alone with Mr. Jackson after dinner, Newland Archer goes further: he insists that Ellen has a "right to make her life over ... if her husband prefers to live with harlots." Describing society's expectations of women as "hypocrisy," he declares, "Women ought to be free—as free as we are."

Analysis

Over the course of dinner, Newland Archer revises his opinion not only about Ellen Olenska, but about New York's social code as well. Newland has previously entertained critical thoughts about New York's narrow-mindedness, but has never given voice to them. He has been devoted to conforming to expectations, not to questioning them.

His offense at Ellen's breach of social protocol now softens into empathy for her. It is the nature of the dinner party conversation that pushes him in this direction: as he grows weary of the predictable gossip and routine judgments, he is galvanized into playing devil's advocate. When he hears how harshly Ellen is dealt with by social authority Sillerton Jackson, his self-protective instincts are aroused. He is, after all, about to marry into Ellen Olenska's family. But Newland goes beyond self-protection when he makes the radical proclamation that women should have the same freedoms as men. It is notable that he says this to another man, when no women are present. This creates the sense that Newland is mostly being provocative and does not actually want his mother, sister, or any other woman close to him to feel as if she has the rights men do. It is also notable that he says this to Sillerton Jackson, who will no doubt proceed to make Newland's unconventional attitude known to others.

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