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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 8 | Summary



Newland Archer had known Ellen Olenska when she was a precocious, artistic, and unconventional child. Born to "continental wanderers," she was orphaned and raised thereafter by her eccentric traveling aunt, Medora Manson, who took her back to Europe. Rumors reached New York society of Ellen Olenska's marriage to "an immensely rich Polish nobleman of legendary fame," as well as her marriage's disastrous ending and her plan to return to New York "to seek rest and oblivion among her kinsfolk."

At the van der Luydens' dinner, Ellen Olenska repeatedly breaks social protocol by arriving late as well as by having and ending a conversation with the Duke of St. Austrey, whom she knew in Europe. Newland Archer observes in her eyes a worldliness and understanding that all the elder women present lack. When she tells Newland Archer that the Duke is "the dullest man [she] ever met," he is thrilled and intrigued by her frankness. She confesses to Newland Archer that she longs to escape her painful past and "become a complete American again, like the Mingotts and the Wellands, and you and your delightful mother, and all the other good people here tonight," and asks him to her house the next day.


Ellen Olenska is completely unaware of the strings that have been pulled to earn her an invitation to the van der Luydens' dinner. She is similarly unaware that the dinner is actually a means of sending coded instructions to the rest of society. The van der Luydens have chosen to "back" Ellen by inviting her to their house, and the rest of society is expected to follow their lead. In her ignorance, Ellen treats the occasion casually. Her behavior at the dinner conveys her lack of self-consciousness and her attention to the present moment. She censors neither her behavior nor her speech and is therefore radically unlike all the other women present. Newland, always observant, realizes Ellen is more mature and developed as a person than all the other women present, despite her being decades younger than they. She has not been preserved in glacial, lifeless perfection, but has lived a life of instability and adventure. She may be innocent of New York's social customs, but she knows more about the world—and about her own mind—than any of New York's vaunted elders.

Newland's changing feelings toward Ellen are apparent in his delight when she insults the Duke. She speaks truth in a society that buries its truths in codes and silence, and she does it fearlessly. Because of this, it is likely that she will never achieve what she desires and confesses to Newland: to completely integrate into New York society. Such integration isn't possible, for Ellen cannot un-live her past life, which has shown her things the myopic New Yorkers have never seen. To integrate would be to deny and repress all that she is. The support of the van der Luydens will never be able to make a May Welland out of Ellen Olenska.

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