The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 28 | Summary

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Summary

At the telegraph office, Newland Archer encounters Lawrence Lefferts, who remarks that Mrs. Manson Mingott must be in grave condition if Ellen Olenska is being summoned. The failure of Beaufort's bank—and the resultant loss of wealth by many of New York's elite—is the news of the afternoon. New York quickly disowns Beaufort and his wife, who is judged all the more harshly since she has aristocratic lineage while Beaufort does not. Mrs. Manson Mingott's doctor, Dr. Bencomb, rediagnoses her stroke as indigestion.

The problem of meeting Ellen at the station flusters the family, who are as unwilling to extend hospitality to her as they are to appear inhospitable. Mrs. Welland upsets her husband by questioning Dr. Bencomb's professional judgment, saying that Mrs. Manson Mingott must have more than indigestion, since she has a "morbid desire to have Ellen come at once, however inconvenient it is to meet her." Mr. Welland, also a patient of Dr. Bencomb's, has constructed his life around Bencomb's diagnoses. Newland volunteers to meet Ellen at the station.

When May questions Newland about his business in Washington, Newland lies that he is free to meet Ellen because his business has been postponed. He knows she has caught him in an unskillful lie, but it is her dedication to pretending that he is not lying that pains him more than the fact of his dishonesty.

Analysis

The failure of Beaufort's bank mirrors an actual historical event, the Panic of 1873. An era of unprecedented speculation and moneymaking came to a sudden halt when the U.S. currency was suddenly devalued and speculators, like Beaufort, were unable to pay their debts. The economic crisis that ensued was the first worldwide depression of industrial capitalism, and it strained all parts of society.

This chapter touches on the ways characters "perform" health or sickness to manipulate other people and situations. Wharton's descriptions of Mrs. Manson Mingott's post-stroke condition—her crooked smile and limp hand—make it clear to the reader she has, in fact, suffered a stroke. Mrs. Manson Mingott uses her stroke to communicate to society her conviction that the Beauforts must be cast out. Once this is accomplished, Mrs. Manson Mingott has the doctor revise her diagnosis to indigestion. The revision is important, because Mrs. Manson Mingott does not want the stroke to diminish her social authority by marking her as elderly and perhaps addled. She and the doctor, with all his medical authority, conspire to erase both the stroke and the Beauforts from New York's collective memory.

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