The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 26 | Summary

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Summary

As is her habit, at Thanksgiving dinner during the second year of Newland Archer's marriage, Mrs. Archer bemoans the degradation of New York society because of the influence of outsiders. There is gossip that unwise speculations may lead to bankruptcy for banker Julius Beaufort, who is considered responsible for many of these degradations. Mrs. Archer blames Ellen Olenska for neglecting her duty, as the wife of an aristocrat, to uphold New York's "social distinctions, instead of ignoring them."

May displays surprising contempt at the mention of her cousin's name. For her refusal to return to the count, Ellen Olenska has been quietly rejected by her family, whose snide judgments about her "Bohemian" lifestyle in Washington are proclaimed in a tone of concern for her well-being. In the four months since their Boston meeting, Newland has become absorbed in a "sanctuary" of "secret thoughts and longings," and has become entirely "absent" from his life.

Privately, Sillerton Jackson baits Newland Archer by claiming that Ellen is being financially supported by Julius Beaufort and will be destitute when he goes bankrupt. Furious, Newland exclaims that she "won't go back [to her husband] now: less than ever!" When Jackson replies, "That's your opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know," Newland realizes that he has unwittingly revealed his "exclusion from the family councils."

Unnerved, Newland lies to May that he's been called to Washington on business. Her pleasant reply, "the change will do you good ... and you must be sure to go and see Ellen," is a "code" that Newland has no trouble interpreting: May knows that it is because of Newland's counsel that Ellen has defied the family's wishes and become a topic of slanderous gossip. Moreover, she knows the purpose of the Washington trip is to see Ellen. She gives her consent so that Newland can warn Ellen of the consequences of her defiance.

Analysis

Societal decay is a perennial concern and topic of discussion for New York's old-money elite. The purpose of such talk is to delineate and maintain firm in-group boundaries as well as identify and publicly label all those people and practices whose very existence threatens the hegemony, or dominance, of the in-group.

In this chapter, Sillerton Jackson "tests" Newland in a way similar to what May did earlier. Checked out of his real life and absorbed in his fantasies of Ellen, Newland is caught off guard and steps right into the old gossip's trap. His clumsy responses show Sillerton that Newland's emotional investment in Ellen and her situation has destroyed his ability to keep up appearances by adhering to socially prescribed codes of communication. Sillerton also learns that Newland's family is excluding him from important conversations and decisions that would normally require his participation. Newland sees his errors but makes no effort to regain his composure.

May uses nonverbal communication to give Newland a chance to redeem himself. She knows he is lying about his reason for going to Washington, but she doesn't say so. Instead, she makes it understood that he can relieve himself of the suspicion that is forming around him only by using the trip as a chance to convince Ellen to go back to her husband. Newland reads all this meaning into May's silence, much as he did in Chapter 1 at the opera, and it seems certain Newland will take seriously the olive branch May offers him.

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