The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 22 | Summary

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Summary

Professor Emerson Sillerton and his wife, Amy, are holding a party for the Blenkers, the unconventional family Ellen is staying with. Polite society regards Sillerton with suspicion because he is wealthy but does "revolutionary things" like practice archaeology. Society feels his wife, who is of aristocratic lineage, shouldn't have to endure such things. The Wellands receive the invitation disdainfully, but Mrs. Welland says she'll go to the party out of social obligation.

Mrs. Welland, who lives by the principle that every moment of one's life must be scheduled in advance, is distressed by Newland Archer's failure to plan out his time. May is anxious about how Newland will spend the afternoon of the Sillertons' party until he tells her he plans to go see about buying a horse.

Buying a horse is a cover for Newland to go to the Blenkers' house, where he knows Ellen Olenska is staying. He doesn't want to see her but feels compelled to "follow the movements of her imagined figure," imagining this might make "the rest of the world ... seem less empty." He approaches the shabby house and notices a decoration, a "wooden Cupid who had lost his bow and arrow but continued to take ineffectual aim." Spying a pink parasol that he thinks belongs to Ellen, Newland is kissing the handle when he is startled by one of the Blenker girls. The parasol is hers, and Ellen has been called by telegram to Boston. Newland says he'll be in Boston the next day, and the girl tells him Ellen is staying at the Parker House.

Analysis

Newland's reawakened obsession with Ellen robs him of the ability to keep up a pretense of a normal, busy life. His idleness is as shocking and unacceptable to Mrs. Welland as is the fact that Professor Sillerton is an archaeologist. Neither are respectable pastimes for a gentleman to take. Newland is expected neither to work for a living nor to remain idle, an untenable paradox, just as Victorian women are expected to be innocent and pure before their marriage and worldly wise and pleasing to their husbands after.

It is only the opportunity to be in a place where Ellen has been that rouses Newland from his lethargy. He is lovesick—not just for Ellen, but for the way of life she represents. He has no way of achieving his desires, but, like the wooden Cupid without bow or arrow, he continues to "take ineffectual aim" by devoting his time and energy to fantasies. In the moment, the Cupid represents what Newland will be, for his whole life, if he fails to take action. While the Blenker girl is speaking to him, Newland has a vision of himself as "a man to whom nothing was ever to happen." Impulsively, he decides to travel to Boston to see Ellen the following day. Although he went to the Blenker house hoping only to sense traces of her presence, the necessity of meeting her suddenly consumes him.

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