The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer is intent on advancing his wedding date, but Mrs. Welland refuses, and after a day of customary betrothal visits, Archer is left "with the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped." He calls on Ellen Olenska as she'd requested. Her shabby house is in an unfashionable neighborhood populated by artistic types. Its decorations are so unconventional as to be indecipherable to Newland Archer. Waiting for her to return home, he is filled with dread as he imagines the unbearably repetitious future awaiting him once he marries May.

Newland Archer tries to impress upon Ellen Olenska that only the grace of the van der Luydens has prevented her from being "crushed" by the "powerful engine" of New York. Ellen Olenska suggests the van Luydens' power derives from their infrequent social appearances. She asks for Newland Archer's guidance in understanding the social dynamics of New York, and he counters that she is opening his eyes to things about New York that long exposure had blinded him to. In her presence, New York seems distant and small. When Newland Archer advises Ellen Olenska to heed the advice of the women around her, she begins to cry, saying their expectation that she always hide the truth makes her deeply lonely.

The intimacy of the moment is shattered when the Duke of St. Austrey appears with Mrs. Lemuel Struthers. Newland is put off by the social gaffe their appearance entails, but Ellen Olenska enthusiastically accepts Mrs. Struthers' invitation to her Sunday-night musical soiree. As an afterthought, Mrs. Struthers extends the invitation to Newland, and it is clear the Duke would prefer to go alone with Ellen. While Newland Archer is at the florist's sending May Welland's daily bouquet of lilies of the valley, on impulse he anonymously sends yellow roses to Ellen Olenska.

Analysis

Newland Archer is experiencing a change of heart. His excitement at marrying May Welland is fast eroding and being replaced with a sense of despair. In her authenticity and boldness, Ellen Olenska provides a foil for May Welland's conventionality. Newland Archer has never been faced with such a woman as Ellen Olenska, and her presence galvanizes him. While it is true that even the society of the van der Luydens may never make Ellen into May, it is becoming increasingly obvious that he lacks the power to turn May into an Ellen.

Just as Newland recognizes that the van der Luydens' tomblike mansion is a perfect reflection of their character, he understands Ellen Olenska's home, filled with unconventional decorations arranged without consideration for custom, is a perfect reflection of her character. The power of Ellen's strange living room is such that it gives Newland the feeling he is in another country. Simply by sitting in an unconventionally decorated room, Newland has the perception that New York society is not a powerful, crushing machine, but rather something small and silly. Similarly, Newland stops seeing the van der Luydens as untouchable bearers of divinely given authority as soon as Ellen offhandedly questions this status.

It does not take much for Newland to start questioning all his received assumptions about life. A few exchanges with a woman he barely knows, a few minutes sitting in a strange room, and Newland's world turns upside down. This is perhaps the reason why New York's social code permits its followers no leeway of thought or behavior. As soon as one steps outside its prescriptions, even tentatively and for a moment, one might recognize how ridiculous and arbitrary it is. If enough people gain this perspective, the whole edifice will collapse. Yet just as quickly, Newland is drawn back into his habitual narrow-mindedness by the presence of the Duke and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers. Not only have they intruded upon his intimacy with Ellen, they are in a larger sense outsiders intruding into the tight, protected world of New York society.

Ellen doesn't understand that her desire to be accepted into society is incompatible with her desire to speak the truth. Newland Archer's advice is for her to follow the other women, but they have completely repressed their authenticity—a task Ellen finds painfully lonely. Her crying suggests she is in fact unable to repress her authenticity, while signaling the trust she has in Newland to express vulnerability in his presence. When Newland witnesses Ellen's vulnerability and comforts her, they share an intimacy he has never experienced with his fiancée, May. It is telling that he follows up their encounter by sending Ellen yellow roses, which signify love.

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