The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The unsettling matter of Ellen Olenska causes Newland Archer to reflect on his own impending marriage with a newfound sense of uncertainty. He has defended Ellen Olenska's actions, but realizes the social code would demand he not tolerate the same in his own wife. He realizes the "experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment" that May Welland lacks makes her a "marriageable girl" but also prevents her from being able to partake in the "passionate and tender comradeship" that he desires in a wife. He begins to see her "frankness and innocence" as "an artificial product."

The Lovell Mingotts plan a "formal dinner" to introduce Ellen Olenska to society, but almost all the invitations sent are declined without excuse. At Newland Archer's request, Mrs. Archer agrees to take the matter before her cousin Louisa van der Luyden, who, along with her husband, Henry, occupies the apex of the social hierarchy because of her aristocratic lineage. Mrs. Archer overcomes her own reluctance to act on behalf of the distasteful Ellen, declaring, "If we don't all stand together, there'll be no such thing as Society left."

Analysis

Upon further contemplation of the social code, Newland Archer becomes more deeply troubled by its inherent contradictions. He is particularly troubled because he sees that the social code will prevent him from having the kind of marriage he wishes to have. In order to uphold his family's honor, he must marry a girl such as May Welland. However, Newland realizes May is constitutionally incapable of being the kind of wife his heart desires. Although Ellen's frankness and worldliness at first shocked Newland, they have now become a standard against which he compares May, rather than the other way around. Compared with Ellen, May is bland and artificial.

Newland is a man who loves travel and books. His personal desire is to expand his horizons beyond the smallness of New York, and he wants a wife who will actively accompany him in these pursuits. He has imagined that he will cultivate these qualities in May, but he now faces the possibility that there is nothing to be cultivated underneath her perfectly acceptable exterior.

Mrs. Archer's undertaking to remedy society's slight to Ellen—and the entire Mingott family—by consulting the van der Luydens conveys the ways power is structured and accessed within this hierarchical society. Because of their relations to aristocrats and their multigenerational presence in New York, the van der Luydens set the standard of behavior and judgment that everyone else will follow. In this society, prestige is not related to one's personal qualities or successes, but to one's family lineage. For example, Julius Beaufort is tolerated in society only because he married a wife who carried a prestigious family name. This inflexible social hierarchy is the opposite of the "American Dream," which suggests that anyone can achieve wealth, power, and prestige through their own actions. The inclusivity of the "American Dream" threatens old New York, which survives by its own exclusivity. Mrs. Archer understands that, as a member of the powerful Mingott clan, Ellen Olenska must be accepted into polite society. Otherwise her presence will only threaten it.

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