The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 29 | Summary

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Summary

Newland Archer is giddy and talkative when he picks up Ellen Olenska in May's carriage. She didn't expect to see him and does not sound pleased when he mentions his discarded plan to see her in Washington. He feels again as if he is seeing her for the first time. She confirms that she shares the sensation and turns to look out the window.

When Ellen upsets him by mentioning May, Newland, in "an impulse of retaliation," tells her of his meeting with M. Rivière. Newland summons the nerve to ask Ellen if M. Rivière is the man who helped her leave her husband. Her reply, "Yes: I owe him a great debt," makes Newland feel silly for assuming Ellen had committed adultery. Newland remarks on her ability to "look at things as they are"; Ellen says she has to, because she's "had to look at the Gorgon," who "doesn't blind one; but she dries up one's tears." The Gorgon also opens one's eyes, never again permitting them to be "in the blessed darkness."

Ellen tells him he shouldn't have come, and she kisses his lips. Newland says he is content to "sit perfectly still beside you, like this ... just quietly trusting" that his vision of their future togetherness will become a reality. Ellen laughs: the only possible reality is for her to become his mistress. Newland says he wants them to escape to a place where "categories like that ... won't exist." There is no such place, not in "Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo," Ellen says. These places aren't so "different from the old world ... but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous."

She points out a paradox: "We're near each other only if we stay far from each other." Newland claims to be "beyond" a clandestine affair built on lies, and she counters that he's never "been beyond this," but she has, and knows "what it looks like there." This last comment pains Newland, and he disembarks suddenly, leaving a confused Ellen to finish the ride alone.

Analysis

The Gorgon is a mythological monster said to turn to stone those who gaze upon her severed head, and here it is a symbol of reality, in all its painful complexity. Ellen knows what it's like to look at the Gorgon, but Newland doesn't. Newland imagines it's not such a big deal—the Gorgon is just a "bogey," he supposes. But Ellen says that looking at the Gorgon does indeed change one. The Gorgon bestows not blindness, but true sight: seeing things as they really are, and with all their implications. This is not the unmitigated blessing Newland imagines it to be. For Ellen, the darkness can be "blessed." She compares constant seeing, the opposite of innocence, to torture.

It is significant that Ellen specifically speaks of Italy when she tells Newland there is nowhere to escape to. For Newland, Italy has long symbolized a sort of "promised land," an exciting place of intellectual freedom and awakening. At the start of his engagement, he fantasized about enlightening May as they read Faust by the Italian lakes. On his honeymoon, he didn't pressure May to go to Italy because he could not reconcile the dullness and blindness May symbolizes for him with the promised land Italy symbolizes. Ellen bursts his bubble. If Newland ran away, all he'd be doing would be trading one place for another. She's been to Italy and to many other places that Newland has never been. Because of her experience, Ellen understands one can't escape one's problems by changing locations. She believes freedom is an inner state—not a function of geography.

His fantasies having been thoroughly challenged and refuted by Ellen, Newland cannot stand to remain by her side, and he suddenly abandons her.

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