The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 33 | Summary

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Summary

Ellen Olenska leaves New York prior to her departure for Europe. While she is away, Newland is made to examine the legal details of the financial trust set up for her by her grandmother. He receives in the mail a key that she has returned. He plans to follow her to Europe.

At May's insistence, the Archers host a formal farewell dinner for Ellen on the evening before she sails to Europe. All of New York's aristocracy attends. Ellen is seated to Newland's right, a place of honor normally reserved for Louisa van der Luyden and only conceded to "foreign visitors." During dinner, Newland is aware he is watching a ritual: the "tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe." The kindness and warmth with which Ellen is received by those who once snubbed and disowned her amount to a "conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteration."

Newland realizes his wife and everyone else believes he and Ellen are lovers and his separation from Ellen has been carefully and quietly engineered. The chosen topic of conversation is the Beauforts' disgrace, and Newland realizes this is the tribe's way of showing Newland how they would skewer him if he were to transgress further. Newland feels trapped and speaks loudly of his intentions to travel the world.

After the guests leave, Newland decides to tell May he plans to leave her. He begins obliquely by saying he is tired and wants to go to Asia, "far off—away from everything." May tells him he can't leave because she just found out that morning she is pregnant. She adds that she told Ellen of her pregnancy during their talk two weeks ago. When Newland points out that she just found out about her pregnancy today, May exclaims victoriously that she told Ellen she was pregnant, even though she wasn't sure.

Analysis

As Newland makes one last attempt to break away from his life, May traps him with a stunning coup d'état. Earlier, Newland lamented that his wife would never surprise him during the course of their marriage, but the events of this chapter put the lie to that assumption. It is Newland who is surprised, and it is Newland who has been blind. Only now, after Ellen's departure has been secured, does Newland realize everyone has long thought he and Ellen were lovers. Newland believed he was doing the deceiving, when in fact he has been deceived.

May finally explains what she said to Ellen that made Ellen decide to return to Europe. May intentionally lied to Ellen that she was pregnant. This lie is well timed, as it narrowly prevents the planned sexual encounter between Newland and Ellen. If May's pregnancy were merely fictitious, it would be only a stopgap measure. Unbound by fatherly duties, Newland would no doubt continue to stray away from her. But fate seems to be on May's side, because she actually is pregnant—a fact she reveals, significantly, without ever using the word "pregnant."

Ellen's farewell dinner, like Mrs. Manson Mingott's stroke that was reclassified as indigestion, is an example of New York's practice of "erasing" the truth. May leads the ritual, which is necessary to purge New York's collective psyche of any traces of unpleasantness related to Ellen Olenska. The erasure is accomplished over the course of one evening, and the ritual consists of New York gathering together to pretend to one another that nothing improper ever took place. Newland is the only one who cannot pretend, and he finds himself retreating into his usual escape fantasy. But he is not to escape, no matter how much he fantasizes about it or how many half-hearted attempts he makes. New York, as a place and a state of mind, is too deeply ingrained in him.

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