The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 25 | Summary

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Summary

After his meeting with Ellen, Newland Archer feels a "tranquility of spirit." He feels "tender awe" at the moral strength Ellen displayed with her promise not to return to Europe unless the temptation arises "to fall away from the standard they had both set up." He feels powerful, for she will remain as long as he doesn't tempt her.

On the street in New York, Newland again sees the familiar face he saw at the Parker House; it is M. Rivière, the intellectual French tutor he met in London. Count Olenski sent him to Boston to secure Ellen's return. This mission having failed, M. Rivière now wishes to discuss Ellen "on behalf of abstract justice." M. Rivière says he met with Mr. Lovell Mingott, and the family all agree Ellen must return to the count. Newland decides May's earlier comment that "Ellen would be happier with her husband" was a test of his opinion on the matter. His dissent confirmed, the family had deliberately excluded him from their conversations on the subject.

M. Rivière begs Newland "not to let her go back." He accepted the count's mission in good faith, but changed his opinion after seeing how Ellen had changed since he knew her in Europe. He realized "that she's an American" who finds "unthinkable" certain European norms regarding "convenient give-and-take" in relationships. If her family knew the details, they would also object to her return, M. Rivière asserts. Although financial necessity compelled him to work for Count Olenski, M. Rivière says he will end his employment upon his return.

Analysis

In the character of M. Rivière, Wharton presents a man of "common" social position (as May remarked disdainfully) and unparalleled morality. A man of integrity, M. Rivière refrains from speaking or acting in ways that contradict his innermost convictions. He acts as a foil to Newland Archer, whose moral compass is easily and constantly thrown off-kilter by his environment.

This is not to say that M. Rivière is inflexible; just the opposite: he demonstrates the ability to change his course as soon as he senses a disparity between his principles and his actions. Unwilling to compromise himself for money, he quits working for the count as soon as he realizes the count's treatment of Ellen is unjust. In M. Rivière's advanced and feminist view, social position, wealth, or allegations of adultery have no bearing on Ellen's right to sever an abusive marriage. M. Rivière lets Ellen speak for herself, rather than letting the count speak for her.

In contrast, Newland talks emptily about women's rights. The count's accusations of adultery proved sufficient for Newland, as Ellen's lawyer, to decide not only that Ellen had no right to leave an abusive marriage, but that she was a naive and passive victim of her circumstances. His opinion has now changed, but only because he wants to possess Ellen himself. Unlike M. Rivière's life, Newland's life is a constant clash between his principles and his actions—or rather, his true feelings and his actions, in part because Newland is not a principled man, and in part because Newland has never confronted his true feelings. Instead, he allows New York society to dictate his feelings for him, while believing himself to be imprisoned and indulging in despairing self-pity. He rouses himself from this state of semi-catatonic despair only by formulating and enacting clandestine plans to pursue Ellen. With a clear conscience, he lies to his wife, for he believes she is simple, and to their family and social circle, for he rejects their priorities.

In this chapter, Newland learns that May's remark was a clever "test" of his stance regarding Ellen. She and her "tribe" are not as simple and unaware as Newland smugly assumes. His arrogant assumption that he holds the power to prevent Ellen's return to her husband is challenged by M. Rivière's passionate plea for Newland to persuade her family that to return would be detrimental to Ellen's well-being. Newland may think himself more clever and enlightened than the people he lives among, but when compared with poverty-stricken, foreign, and "common" M. Rivière, it becomes apparent just how deluded, cowardly, and self-absorbed Newland really is.

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