The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 23 | Summary

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Summary

Energized by the prospect of seeing Ellen, Newland experiences only a brief prick of conscience when he lies to May about having business in Boston. He arrives the following morning and finds Ellen siting on a bench in the Common. He pretends to be surprised to see her, and he realizes he has forgotten her voice. She explains she has just refused an offer made by her husband's envoy. The count will return her money if she agrees to "sit at the head of his table now and then."

Ellen tells Newland, "You're not changed." She is hesitant as he insists they take a boat ride alone, because she doesn't want him to say provocative things. He claims, "All I want is to listen to you." Ellen tells Newland she knew he was behind her that day in Newport when she stood on the pier. She didn't turn around on purpose and had gone walking to "get away from [him] as far as [she] could." Newland laughs with "boyish satisfaction" and admits he came to Boston to see her.

Giddy as they prepare to take a boat ride, Newland Archer repeatedly exclaims that "everything's predestined." Waiting outside the Parker House while Ellen leaves a message for the envoy, whom she was to meet a second time, Newland sees a familiar face he can't place.

As the boat ride begins, they share a "blessed silence." Archer fantasizes they are embarking on a grand journey far from all they know, but says nothing lest he spoil the moment. When they secure a private dining room, Newland feels they are "two old friends who had so much to say to each other."

Analysis

Newland has now lied to May three times in regard to Ellen: first, when she confronted him before their wedding; second, when he said he was going to buy a horse but went to the Blenkers'; and now, about his purpose for going to Boston. The deceptions come easily to him. In Newland's mind, May's innocence means she is easily deceived but lacks the ability to deceive others.

As in Book 1, Ellen appears to be Newland's fate, but now he no longer views this as an unpleasant part of his duty, thrust upon him by New York society. Until now, Newland has felt the terror of entombment, the quality of life-in-death that he sees in those who share his lifestyle. Now, as he is about to take a private boat ride with Ellen, he experiences a positive sense of fate for the first time. He is meant to be here with Ellen; the fact that the whole thing is carried off so easily is, for Newland, an indication that fate is on his side. At the moment, he no longer believes he is the man "to whom nothing was ever to happen."

This chapter makes clear the degree to which Newland lives his life in the realm of fantasy. He and Ellen aren't "old friends"; she is his wife's cousin, with whom he shared several charged but brief encounters over a period of several weeks. They aren't boarding a ship to sail away to a new life together; they are taking a boat ride meant for tourists. The Ellen that Newland is obsessed with is a product of his imagination, so much so that he is even startled when Ellen speaks. Newland is in love with the freedom he imagines Ellen represents.

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