The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 2, Chapter 34 | Summary



The narrative resumes almost 26 years later, as Newland Archer sits at home reflecting on his life. His and May's three children, Dallas, Mary, and Bill, have grown up in a world very different from that of Newland's youth. He grieves the ending of this world, but also appreciates what is good in the new ways. At the urging of his friend, New York governor Theodore Roosevelt, Newland served a year in the state assembly. Afterward, he began to write for a progressive newspaper. His participation in local "philanthropic, municipal [and] artistic" activities have earned him a reputation as a highly respected "good citizen."

He knows he has "missed ... the flower of life," but he has faithfully fulfilled his duties. May's "blindness" caused her children to "conceal their views from her." She died two years ago, suddenly and of pneumonia, never realizing "that the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself." The new world values individuality and civic involvement, not conformity and parentage.

Newland's eldest son, Dallas, will soon marry the popular Fanny Beaufort, the daughter of Julius Beaufort and Fanny Ring. Dallas, an architect, calls Newland from Chicago, insisting his father join him on a work trip to Europe. Having been thoroughly bound by habit and duty, Newland now finds himself "shrinking from new things," but he agrees to go.

In Paris Dallas shocks Newland by announcing he's arranged for them to call on Ellen Olenska. His fiancée, befriended by Ellen in Paris, insisted they visit her. Dallas surprises Newland by alluding to his old love for Ellen, and he paraphrases what May told him on her deathbed: "She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted." Newland replies, "She never asked me," and Dallas responds that Newland and May never told or asked each other anything, but "just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath."

Spending the afternoon in solitary contemplation of the upcoming visit, Newland realizes nothing now prevents him from being close to Ellen, who for years has existed in his mind, quietly, as a vision of what he lost. But when he finally stands before her apartment, he becomes indecisive and Dallas goes in alone. Gazing at her half-shut windows and imagining her inside, he says, "It's more real to me here than if I went up." A servant drawing the awning provides "the signal he waited for," and Newland returns to his hotel.


This last chapter takes place around the turn of the century. Newland now looks back on the past, just as Wharton has done in writing the novel. Wharton was a child in New York in the 1870s, and she began writing The Age of Innocence toward the end of World War I.

Like Wharton, Newland has witnessed the death of the old order, which he often resented but never escaped when he was young. Larger cultural shifts, rather than his own ability to rebel, have drawn Newland out of his fantasies and into a life where he has become a "good citizen." When society demanded he be an idle gentleman, Newland played that part. Now that the ideal has shifted toward valuing civic, cultural, and political participation, Newland plays that part, and he plays it well.

At age 57, Newland is presented with one last chance to be close to Ellen Olenska. There is no one to stop him now; he is a widower, and everyone who would have been offended is dead and buried. To meet with Ellen would no longer be a social transgression, which leaves the reader to wonder if offending society was always a part of Newland's goal in pursuing her.

Regardless, Newland makes his own decision now to preserve his understanding of the past and not see Ellen. The past is a relic, and he wants to preserve his memories of her, however inaccurate they may be. Standing outside her apartment, Newland realizes that the most vivid parts of his life have always been his private inner experiences of his own desires and fantasies. In the end, he chooses to preserve the integrity of his inner vision rather than take the risk of letting reality intrude upon it.

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