The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 20 | Summary

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Summary

May and Newland begin their married life together with the requisite three-month tour of Europe. She is uninterested in travel, and they do not go to Italy, as Newland had once imagined. He realizes the uselessness of "trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free." Nonetheless, he commits himself to being as "loyal, gallant and unresentful" as she is and imagines a tolerable future life, enriched by his own private "artistic and intellectual life" and by the children they will have.

In London, they dine at the home of Mrs. Carfry and her sister, English ladies who befriended Newland's mother and sister despite New York's taboo against socializing while abroad. May is anxious about wearing the wrong thing and about finding things to say. She is able to converse only about New York. Newland meets the Frenchman M. Rivière, a passionate intellectual and failed writer. Newland envies M. Rivière, who "had fared so richly in his poverty" with a life in "a world in which ... no one who loved ideas need hunger mentally." When M. Rivière says he is considering seeking work in New York, Newland finds it impossible to imagine him there. M. Rivière ends the conversation in embarrassment, thinking Newland has assumed he was asking for a favor.

He wants to invite M. Rivière to dine with them the following day, but May calls M. Rivière "dreadfully common" and can't believe Newland would really consider inviting "the Carfrys' tutor." She says she wouldn't know if M. Rivière was "clever," and laughs when Newland says M. Rivière loves good conversation, saying "How funny! Isn't that French?" The matter is dropped, and Newland reflects, "with a flash of chilling insight," that her dullness is already dulling the most vivid parts of his own life.

Analysis

Newland and May's conversation about M. Rivière, which occurs toward the end of their European travels, makes Newland question the calm optimism he felt during the first three months of the marriage. During these months, he accepted May's blindness, realized there was nothing he could do about it, and consoled himself with the idea he would at least find satisfaction in other parts of his life than his marriage. He focused on what was good in May and abandoned the idea he needed to change her, or that it was even possible to.

May is out of her element in London, where New York's social norms do not apply. She is forced to confront uncertainty, something New York's social customs carefully avoid by providing a code to guide one in every life situation, no matter how small. Her provincialism becomes evident during the dinner conversation. Because a tiny strata of New York society is all she knows, it is difficult for the non–New Yorkers present to understand her, almost as if she were speaking a foreign language.

Newland admires the opposing nature of M. Rivière's life. Newland has plenty to eat, but is starving intellectually, emotionally, and morally; M. Rivière is so poor as to be literally hungry, but lives a worldly and intellectually satisfying life of moral freedom. Where Newland sees a compelling authenticity, May sees a "common" man, one whose social rank is so far below her own she fails to understand—or at least, to acknowledge—the sincerity of Newland's desire to host him for dinner. To May, M. Rivière is not a person, but a type: common, foreign, and French. Although irritated by May's predictable reaction, Newland surrenders to her, realizing at last that even sanctuary from her opinion will not be permitted to him.

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