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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 24 | Summary



Ellen explains that she moved to Washington because of its reputation as being home to "more varieties of people and of opinion" than New York. Newland is offended when she calls New York "stupid" for its "blind conformity to ... somebody else's tradition." He snidely mentions Beaufort and asks why she doesn't "go back," since "we're damnably dull. We've no character, no color, no variety." She says she stays because Newland taught her "under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison."

Breaking his promise to not speak provocatively, Newland says he's "the man who married one woman because another one told him to" and calls his life "a sham." Ellen reminds him they must always consider May first, because it was to protect her from "disillusion and misery" that they sacrificed their mutual desire to be together. Watching Ellen cry, Newland has the thought that "he should never again feel quite alone," which is quickly replaced by a sense of "waste and ruin" because they will never be together. Ellen tells him she won't go back to Europe as long as propriety is maintained between them. In this way, they can be a small part of each other's lives without ruining May's.


Ellen has committed herself to not hurting May, while Newland is troubled by no such commitment. In his mind, New York is conflated with May, and both are conflated with a certain state of mind: it is all "dull," a "sham"; it is "waste and ruin." As an outsider, Ellen sees something quite worthwhile "under the dullness." By contemplating New York society's dedication to appearances and family and ultimately refusing to pursue a divorce, she adopted a moral code of "do no harm." Ellen feels that the moral purity of her decision—to restrain herself and sacrifice her desires in order not to harm her cousin—is finer than any worldly pleasure or experience could be. If Ellen goes back on her decision and loses her self-restraint, her life in America will lose its meaning. Although New York is too boring for Ellen to realistically make a life there, she considers New York society to have certain moral virtues, as she interprets them, that she has not encountered in Europe.

By contrasting Newland's reflections on New York society with Ellen's, Wharton adds greater nuance to her depiction of New York's culture. Were she to present only Newland's thoughts on the matter, which vary from smug and unquestioning acceptance to absolute horror, it would be easy for the reader to condemn the culture. Instead, Wharton presents the reader with a variety of impressions about New York culture. Is it repressive and insincere, as Newland often feels? Or does it possess a morality worth adopting as one's own, as Ellen has done? Is Newland deceived, or is Ellen? Are they both correct?

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