The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

Newland and May are married soon after Easter. Newland complies "resignedly" with all the predictable formalities of the "prehistoric ritual," all of it being "equally easy—or equally painful, as one chose to put it." Newland realizes he no longer cares about "good form" and that he has spent much of his life concerned with "the manners and customs of his little tribe," while elsewhere people were really living.

When Medora Manson enters the chapel, Newland is shocked and startled. He looks for Ellen to follow, but she doesn't. Newland is mentally absent throughout the ceremony. He perceives May as "a type rather than a person ... primitive and pure." He feels he is "sinking" into a "black abyss" when his new wife exclaims nothing bad can ever happen to them now. She asks him if he saw the lace Ellen sent her. At the mention of Ellen, Newland's "carefully built-up world ... tumble[s] about him like a house of cards."

They take a train to the country house of the du Lac aunts in Rhinebeck, where they will honeymoon. As May prattles on about the wedding, Newland wonders at how "such depths of feeling could coexist with such absence of imagination," and decides May will never shed her unawareness for wisdom or develop her individuality. They learn they are to stay at the patroon's house at Skuytercliff rather than the du Lacs' because of a leaking water tank. May is thrilled, as Ellen told her that the patroon's house was the only American house "she could imagine being perfectly happy in." With false gaiety, Newland exclaims at the happiness and luck that is theirs.

Analysis

The transition to Book 2 signifies that a major turning point has been crossed in the story. Ellen and Newland have confessed their love, and Newland's marriage is about to take place. It now seems Ellen and Newland must stick to the paths they have chosen: Ellen will be alone, and Newland will marry May.

On the day of his wedding, Newland is overwhelmed with feelings of alienation and experiences a disconnection that is so intense, it manifests in his body. He feels the veil has been lifted from his eyes: his life has been a sham because he mistook the social games and dramas of old New York for real life. Wharton significantly uses the language of cultural anthropology to express Newland's new thoughts about his own culture: "tribe," "sacred taboos," "prehistoric ritual."

Newland's private inner shift illuminates a much larger cultural shift away from Victorian and toward modernist paradigms and practices. This shift was in part spurred by the rise of cultural anthropology during the latter part of the 19th century. Anthropology challenged the Victorian worldview, so evident in Wharton's novel, that Victorian culture was culture itself, its cultural and social practices the only correct (and moral) ones. Newland takes an anthropologist's stance toward his culture as he realizes it is no different from or superior to any other culture. New York's strange rituals and taboos are no different from those of the "savage" or "primitive" peoples. Old-money New York is but a little tribe in a big world.

If May notices how far away Newland is, she doesn't let on. Her excitement at just having been married, and at the honeymoon ahead, is too strong. She will honeymoon at the patroon's house, unaware it was the setting for a significant intimate encounter between Ellen and Newland. Newland is in the midst of an existential crisis, but May is "triumphant." Newland's perceptions of May's existential blindness sharpen to the point where he questions her personhood: he regards her not as a living individual, but compares her to a statue, "primitive and pure."

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