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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 32 | Summary



Newland Archer attends the opera Faust, just as he did on the night two years previously when he first met Ellen Olenska. He notices May is wearing her wedding dress, a new bride's custom she has rarely observed, and that May appears to be exactly the same innocent girl he got engaged to. Recalling the generosity she displayed when she urged him to end their engagement if he loved someone else, he decides he will now come clean with her about Ellen and ask for her to set him free.

Claiming a headache, Newland takes May home early. Stepping out of the carriage, she falls and tears her wedding dress. He begins to make his confession, but as soon as he mentions Ellen, May says there's no point discussing her. That morning, it had been decided that Ellen would return to Europe, to live separately from her husband. Archer begins to laugh wildly, and May says Ellen came to this decision after their talk the day before. May tells Newland, "I wanted her to know that you and I were the same—in all our feelings ... She understood my wishing to tell her this. I think she understands everything."


Every time Newland is on the verge of confessing the truth or making a decisive break with his circumstances, May or someone in her family intercedes and prevents him from following through. The pattern happens again in this chapter, when May informs Newland it has been decided, without his knowledge, that Ellen will return to Europe. It is clear the Mingott clan is undertaking complicated machinations behind Newland's back. Newland always makes the mistake of assuming the ball is in his court. Blinded by fantasies and desires, Newland misreads his family's words and arrives at misinterpretations that suit his own fancy.

For example, Newland misinterprets May when she describes having spoken to Ellen in the previous chapter. He assumes May is petitioning him for help in resolving her feelings toward Ellen. In reality, May was alluding to a conversation that has somehow prompted Ellen's sudden decision to leave New York, as she now reveals. May's words are cryptic, and Newland fails to understand their significance. Newland smugly believes May is innocent, insensate, and lacking in cleverness, and the reader may wonder how much contrary evidence May needs to present before Newland amends his view of his wife.

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