The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 30 | Summary

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Summary

Arriving at home on foot, Newland realizes that he forgot his promise to May to meet her at his grandmother's house. Her quiet resentment wearies him, as does the thought that for their entire married life she will never once surprise him. She tells him the Beauforts have decided to remain in New York. When he opens a window and begins to fantasize about escaping to "a whole world beyond his world," she chastises him, saying he'll "catch [his] death." Newland thinks she doesn't realize he already feels dead. The idea that she could die young and leave him a free man occurs to him as a wonderful possibility.

After a week, during which Newland feels it significant that no one mentions Ellen Olenska to him, Mrs. Manson Mingott summons him alone. She teases Newland pointedly and a bit maliciously about Ellen before announcing that she and Ellen have decided, against the rest of the family, that Ellen will live with her. Newland thinks the only possible reason for this is that Ellen has decided she must be near him, and he voices his approval. Mrs. Manson Mingott insists it is his job, as a lawyer, to convince the rest of the family to accept this plan.

She mentions Ellen is out socializing with "cousin" Regina Beaufort. Ellen changed Mrs. Mingott's mind about Regina by pointing out that she, like Ellen, is married to a "scoundrel" that other people insist she must remain with. Mrs. Mingott says Regina is brave, and she dismisses Newland with instructions to keep their conversation private.

Analysis

Newland feels uneasy that nobody has mentioned Ellen to him in the week since he met her at the station and she arrived at her grandmother's house alone. Now, the narrator's description of the conversation between Newland and Mrs. Mingott gives the reader a sense that Mrs. Mingott might be manipulating Newland. She teases him about Ellen in a manner that implies she understands there is a romantic attraction between them. Wharton describes her "twinkling at him maliciously" and her eyes "suddenly as sharp as pen-knives." She touches Newland's hand with "a clutch of little pale nails like bird-claws," and smiles "on him with all her ancient cunning." The reader may wonder what Mrs. Mingott's true intentions are in commanding Newland to advocate for Ellen to live in New York. It is suspicious that she has so quickly reversed not only her previous conviction that Ellen must return to her husband but also her opinion of Regina Beaufort.

The argument between Newland and May is ostensibly about an actual window, but at least for Newland, it has symbolic meaning. The window is the means by which Newland contemplates the world beyond New York; it is the threshold at which his strongest fantasies of rebellion and escape occur. Symbolically, Ellen Olenska functions as another of Newland's "windows." He needs the window open; May thinks open windows dangerous. Because she fears the world beyond what she already knows, she keeps her windows shut. Newland shuts the window when a second fantasy of freedom seizes him: if May died, she could no longer keep his metaphorical windows shut.

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