The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 27 | Summary

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Summary

The next day, Mr. Letterblair tells Newland Archer that Julius Beaufort is on the verge of bankruptcy because of his "business irregularities." The failure of his enterprise will mean disaster for Wall Street, but Mr. Letterblair's concern is for Beaufort's well-bred wife and for Mrs. Manson Mingott, who has befriended Beaufort and is distantly related to his wife. Newland plans to go to Washington that evening to see Ellen, but a telegram from May summons him to the house of Mrs. Manson Mingott, who has had a mild stroke in the night.

The previous evening, Regina Beaufort called on Mrs. Manson Mingott to request the Mingott clan stand by her and her husband through his bankruptcy. The women of the family—and Newland—are shocked that Regina Beaufort would have the "effrontery" to ask the Mingotts to "cover and condone their monstrous dishonor," and to invoke her maiden name in the request, rather than disappearing with her husband in shared disgrace.

May announces to her family that Newland has important business in Washington that Mrs. Mingott's condition is not dire enough to justify postponing, and she has him carry a telegram to Ellen Olenska containing Mrs. Mingott's summons.

Analysis

It is implied that Mrs. Manson Mingott's stroke is a result of the emotional distress brought on by Mrs. Beaufort's shameful attempt to bypass the social code. Mr. Letterblair hints at this, saying, "there's no knowing what effect this affair may have on" the aged Mrs. Mingott. In the world of the novel, when one member of the family transgresses social norms, the entire family is dishonored and subject not only to shame and possibly social exile but also to ill health. This principle, at the core of old New York's morality, is what makes "family" an institution of power. Individuals must subsume, or include, their personal desires and interests to the welfare of the collective by adhering to a commonly held standard of behavior—as Newland warned Ellen, in regard to her divorce. To do otherwise is to risk not only one's own status but the health of one's family as well. The Mingotts would never think of bearing Beaufort's dishonor by supporting him on the basis of his wife's ties to the family. Dishonor supersedes those ties, and Regina is expected to bear her husband's shame alone with him—just as Ellen has been disowned by the family for refusing to return to her husband.

It is likely that May calls Newland to Mrs. Mingott's house so he may witness the outrage at Regina Beaufort, whose transgression against the institution of marriage echoes Ellen Olenska's. Newland agrees with the principle that a wife's duty is to stand by her husband, no matter what. He seems unaware of his moral inconsistency in holding Regina to this standard but making an exception for Ellen. But then again, moral inconsistency seems to be a characteristic of Newland's whole "tribe." Interpersonal dishonesty is not only tolerated, it is the standard, since truth is rarely spoken and words are used with verbal irony. Nonetheless, dishonesty in business matters—such as what Julius Beaufort is charged with—is a transgression warranting immediate expulsion from the tribe.

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