The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 21 | Summary

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Summary

Back in New York, Newland settles into a comfortably busy routine much like he had before the wedding. It all seems to be "a fairly real and inevitable sort of business." May is a good wife in the ways expected, and their life is harmonious. Newland regards his old feelings for Ellen Olenska as a "momentary madness." But readjusting to such a life leaves his mind "a rather empty and echoing place."

Like most New Yorkers, Newland and May summer in Newport by the sea. Away from New York, Newland's sense of discontented unreality returns. At the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club at the Beauforts' house, Medora Manson tells Newland that Ellen is going through a "morbid, unnatural" phase "of abhorrence of the world." Newland has a dissociative experience at the mention of Ellen.

Julius Beaufort, who has lately seemed to acquire unimaginable wealth, is rumored to be on the verge of bankruptcy for having "speculated unfortunately in railways." He comments that May will win the archery competition, but it's "the only kind of target she'll ever hit." The comment unsettles Newland, who wonders if May's "niceness ... [is] only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness." He knows he has "never yet lifted that curtain."

They visit Mrs. Manson Mingott and learn Ellen is spending the day at her house. Ellen has moved to Washington, and Newland hasn't seen her for a year and a half. Ellen has gone walking, and Mrs. Mingott sends Newland to find her. Newland approaches Ellen, who stands on a pier with her back to him. He thinks she doesn't know he's there, and she appears as an unreal "vision of the past [that] was a dream." He asks himself, "What am I? A son-in-law." When Ellen doesn't turn to him before a sailboat passes a lighthouse, he walks back to the house and says he couldn't find her.

Later, May says perhaps Ellen finds them all boring and would "be happier with her husband." Newland finds her remark to be both cruel and evidence of her simplicity. May says if Ellen didn't want to suffer, she shouldn't have "married abroad." Back in the "systemized and affluent" atmosphere of the Welland household, Newland is overcome by the sense that his life there, composed of a "chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next" is "unreal and irrelevant." In contrast, his moment of watching Ellen on the pier is "as close to him as the blood in his veins."

Analysis

Newland Archer has an unstable sense of what is real and what is unreal, of what is important and what is unimportant. His core values and his fundamental experience of life seem to be entirely susceptible to his surroundings and his most recent experiences. Wharton creates a strong link between certain places and certain states of being: New York is not just a place, but also a state of mind. The same is true for the "funny little house" Ellen once had in the unfashionable part of town. As Newland moves from place to place, his inner world shifts. What seemed normal and acceptable in New York now seems entirely unacceptable and even incomprehensible in Newport.

Beaufort's disparaging comment about May, which implies she is too "nice" to be clever, interesting, or attractive, gives Newland troubling food for thought. Like the rest of New York society, Newland values things, and people, only as much as others do. So when Beaufort wanted Ellen, Newland's desire was enhanced, and now that Beaufort shows no interest in May, his own interest wanes.

Newland's brief non-encounter with Ellen, during which he watches her from behind and contemplates his life, has a mind-bending effect on him. He questions reality and his identity: he has to ask himself what he is, and he reminds himself he is his role, a son-in-law. The feeling of unreality persists, and the obsession with Ellen, dormant for over a year, awakens and takes hold of Newland's soul once more.

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