The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapter XVIII

Summary

The Countess finally comes into the drawing room and, seeing the crimson roses, becomes angry and asks her maid to take them to Ned Winsett's wife, who is ill. Her aunt is also sent on to Mrs. Struthers' salon and, finally, Newland and Madame Olenska are alone.

He hurts the Countess' feelings by asserting that her aunt thinks she will go back to the Count. She cannot believe that Newland gives credence to this, and she turns the conversation to his wedding. Newland tells her that May thinks he wants to hurry the wedding in order to forget about someone he loves more. When Madame Olenska asks if he does indeed care more for someone else, he sidesteps the question, saying he will not marry anyone else. A long pause follows.

The carriage comes and the Countess should be leaving, but Newland takes her hand and says there is another woman that he would have been with if it had been possible. This angers Madame Olenska because he was the one who made it impossible by talking her out of a divorce. Her words make him realize that the "scandal" she worried about was not her own; she was worried about the scandal of divorce for the Mingott family.

Newland tells her that he loves her. She cries and he explains that they can still have each other because he is still free and she soon could be. Recklessly, he says he will not marry May. But Ellen Olenska, unable to hurt May, says, "I can't love you unless I give you up." Irrationally, Newland snaps that Beaufort will probably replace him. Nastasia, the maid, comes back with a telegram. It is for Ellen from May, who says that old Mrs. Mingott's arguments worked, and they will move the wedding to right after Easter.

When Newland arrives at his home, a second telegram is waiting and Janey has stayed up to find out what it says. He asks her the date of Easter and when she replies, he laughs ironically, and realizes he will be married in a month.

Analysis

This amazing chapter states the novel's dilemma the strongest thus far. Wharton's expert use of irony shows that Newland's arguments about suffering, endurance, and denial — that social, religious, and class standards must be upheld or all is chaos — have not been lost on the Countess. She has learned from him that one cannot win one's freedom by sacrificing the happiness of others. She reminds him that his own selfish interests have to be sacrificed for the good of honor, family, and principles. Ironically, these were his very thoughts earlier in the novel.

In many ways, Ellen Olenska is an adult Edith Wharton, living a European life of intellect and the arts, outside the boundaries of New York society. Wharton came to realize in her own life that men such as Newland Archer do not understand women but need them to settle down and lead responsible lives. Men must support and protect women and not hurt them by having affairs or engaging in shady business ethics. (See "About the Author.")

The ironic timing of May's telegram shows she has once again anticipated Newland's moves and robbed him of his chance. Despite thinking her dull and conventional, Newland does not realize how manipulative she is.

Glossary

ubiquitous present, or seeming to be present, everywhere at the same time; omnipresent.

chignon a knot or coil of hair worn at the back of the neck.

"Ah, don't make love to me!" in nineteenth-century attitudes, this remark of Ellen's means "do not flirt with me or pretend to pursue me romantically."

inscrutably not easily understood; completely obscure or mysterious.

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