The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters IV-VI

Summary

The "precise and inflexible" engagement ritual begins. Newland, May, and her mother go to old Mrs. Mingott's house, where the pleasantries turn to the family blessing, the engagement ring, and the wedding day. During this conversation, Ellen and Julius Beaufort unexpectedly arrive. Ellen extends an impromptu invitation to Newland to come visit her; however, Newland privately thinks she shouldn't ask an engaged man to call on a married woman. The next evening, Mr. Sillerton Jackson dines at the Archer's and spreads gossipy information with his acerbic tongue. He criticizes Ellen for walking up Fifth Avenue during fashionable hours with Julius Beaufort, a married man. Totally out of character, Newland takes up Ellen's defense, saying that her bad marriage was a matter of poor luck. Later, in the study when the men are alone, Jackson reveals that Ellen was allegedly living with her husband's male secretary a year after her "escape," and Newland defends her again.

After Jackson leaves, Newland sits alone in his armchair before the fire considering his upcoming marriage and the disturbing influence Ellen's arrival has had on his thinking. How could he defend Ellen's deeds when religious and social standards see them as reprehensible? His worst fears are confirmed when the Lovell Mingotts send out invitations to a formal dinner for Ellen, and New York society rejects the invitation within 48 hours.

Analysis

Visiting Mrs. Manson Mingott is intriguing. Her huge physical appearance is comedic and if she had not had such a scrupulous past, she would be a character from a wicked French novel. Her position allows her to make critical comments that others cannot make. Implying that Mrs. Lemuel Struther's arrival is like fresh meat, she personifies New York as a carnivorous creature needing new blood.

In these chapters, Newland begins a puzzling defense of Ellen. While Mrs. Archer questions what their ancestors would have thought of Ellen's behavior, she knows what current New Yorkers think. It is one thing to be ignorant of New York's social code, but another thing to be told and not comply. Newland appears to totally defend Ellen, and it is puzzling that somehow Newland is forgetting the double standard favoring men.

However, alone in his study, we see another side of Newland and his thoughts about women. His society disallows women knowledge about life outside their narrow existence; in fact, his sister Janey is a perfect example. His fiancé, May, is also totally naïve and Newland feels that husbands and wives must live in a world "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." Before Ellen came, he had no problem with this code; why has her arrival had such an unsettling effect on him? Despite his protests to Jackson, "nice" women cannot be as free as men. But why should Lawrence Lefferts' marriage be the gold standard, where a man can have numerous affairs, but his wife must not do the same? Newland defends Ellen's right to be "free," but contemptuously calls the Count's women friends "harlots." Obviously, women who are "free" trouble New Yorkers.

Glossary

embonpoint plumpness; corpulence.

Siren Isle (Gr. and Rom. mythology) home of any of several sea nymphs, represented as part bird and part woman, who lure sailors to their death on rocky coasts by seductive singing.

heiroglyphic a picture or symbol representing a word, syllable, or sound; hard to interpret or understand.

Chippendale designating or of an eighteenth-century English style of furniture characterized by graceful lines and, often, rococo ornamentation.

Patroon a person who held a large estate with manorial rights under a grant from the Dutch government of New Netherland.

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