The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 31 | Summary

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Summary

Newland is relieved that Ellen intends to live with her grandmother, because it is easier than his plan, which was to leave May and go with Ellen to Washington, "or as much farther as she was willing to go." His relief turns to "distaste" as he reflects that society is more understanding of adulterous women than adulterous men. Women are held to lower standards of truthfulness, being "enslaved" and "subject" creatures, but men who commit adultery are viewed with contempt. He tells himself that he and Ellen are unique and therefore exempt from anyone's judgment.

Newland walks to Beaufort's house and Ellen emerges, as he expected. Just then, Lawrence Lefferts and another young man pass by. Newland tells Ellen to meet him at the Metropolitan Museum, the only place in town where they can have privacy.

Standing before a display of ancient Greek artifacts at the museum, Ellen remarks that "cruel" time eventually renders everything irrelevant, like "these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass." Ellen tells him she decided to stay with her grandmother so that they can have more clandestine meetings, but she and Newland agree that a clandestine affair feels wrong. Ellen proposes they have sex once, after which she will return to her husband. She is unwilling to hurt her family by running away with Newland. They make plans for her to "come to [him] once," two days later.

May tells Newland she's had "a really good talk" with Ellen, and she regrets judging her for being different. He thinks May is obliquely asking him for help in overcoming her negative feelings for Ellen. Moved, Newland is on the brink of telling May the truth, but he decides not to when she segues into the normal tiresome chatter about Ellen's social gaffes. When they hug, May "tremble[s] in his arms."

Analysis

At first, Newland is relieved, thinking he can now have an affair with Ellen under the family's nose. It is, after all, quite convenient—and less difficult than running away. For all his fantasies of escape to another place, it is clear Newland doesn't really want to leave New York and all it represents. It is too much a part of him, and his fantasizing is nothing more than an end unto itself. It is the fantasy that makes Newland feel alive—not the actuality.

However, he is also worried about being judged for his philandering. Society's contempt would make it hard for Newland to have his cake and eat it too. Newland overcomes this anxiety with yet another fantasy—the fantasy that he and Ellen are unique. In reality, as their clandestine museum meeting makes clear, they are no different than any other couple who has ever snuck around to be together. It is an old, tired story—and one Newland realizes he is actually unwilling to reenact, because its commonplace nature intrudes on his idea that his relationship with Ellen is special.

Ellen claims she wanted to be in New York because she would be less likely to hurt May there. Living under her grandmother's roof, secret meetings in other towns would be impossible. But now, with Newland before her, Ellen caves. She suggests a compromise: a one-time liaison and then a return to her husband. This would allow Ellen to satisfy her desire for Newland, at least briefly, while minimizing the damage to May and making her family happy about her decision to return to her marriage. It is, however, also an enormous sacrifice for Ellen, and that she is willing to return to her cruel husband in exchange for one sexual encounter with Newland speaks to the depth of her desire for Newland.

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