Summary and Analysis
Newland goes to Madame Olenska's small, rented house "far down West 23rd Street," in a strange, Bohemian quarter. The Countess is not home, so Newland has ample time to look around her drawing room. The room is intimate and exotic, unlike the staid, conservative rooms of his life. He realizes that his and May's future drawing room will be nothing like this; it will be traditional and conservative. Eventually The Countess Olenska arrives with Julius Beaufort who leaves her at her door. She is house hunting because her family will not let her stay where she is even though the street is respectable. Newland counters that it is not "fashionable." Madame Olenska's candor is expressed when she tells Newland, "why not make one's own fashion?" Throughout their conversation she states candid opinions and he is shocked by her frankness. He tries to warn her that New York society does not like honesty, and she should be listening to her female relatives for advice. He would like to warn her to refrain from driving with Beaufort, but he prudently keeps silent. The Countess wins his sympathy when, sobbing, she explains how lonely she is. During her distress Newland forgets formalities and calls her "Ellen" twice, and then guiltily remembers May. The Duke of Astrey and Mrs. Struthers arrive, and she invites Madame Olenska and Newland to her salon on Sunday. Madame Olenska agrees, but Newland is silent. Leaving, Newland stops at a florist shop to order May's daily lilies of the valley. Seeing richly hued, yellow roses, he considers sending them to May; but instead, without his card, he sends them to the Countess.
Newland's conflict continues. On a Sunday walk with May, he mentions sending roses to Ellen; May finds it odd that Ellen did not mention them. Again, he and May discuss the wedding date, and Newland is struck by May's lack of imagination or original thought. Their conversation leads him to regret the sameness of everything, including her expected reactions to his expected comments. The next afternoon Janey announces to Newland that Mrs. Archer is agitated because Madame Olenska has been seen at Mrs. Struthers' with the Duke and Julius Beaufort. In the midst of the argument, Henry van der Luyden arrives, explaining that he went to see the Countess Olenska to pass along some friendly advice. He says that the Duke does not realize "our little republican distinctions" and is leading Madame Olenska into mischief. Because the Duke was a guest in his house, van der Luyden feels he must explain the Duke's actions in an acceptable manner. Likewise, because Madame Olenska told Mr. van der Luyden that she would be grateful for his guidance, he has defended her to Sillerton Jackson.
Newland works at the legal firm of Letterblair, Lamson, and Low. His boss, Mr. Letterblair, asks him to represent the Mingott family in dissuading the Countess Olenska from seeking a divorce. He gives Newland two letters to peruse, one from a French legal firm about finances and the other from the Count. A deadly quiet dinner with Mr. Letterblair emphasizes scandals that have brought down families and Newland's boss states three points: the Mingott family is against divorce, the Countess does not want the Count's money, and it would be wise to avoid a scandal that could only hurt the Countess and the Mingotts. Newland reluctantly agrees to take the case, but refuses to solidify his stance on the divorce until he has spoken to Madame Olenska. He sends her a note and she agrees to talk to him.
Newland is experiencing a conflict of feeling: He is caught in a matrimonial snare, yet he has always adhered to society's rules. With more bridal calls to make from "one tribal doorstep to another," Newland perceives himself "shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped." Should he have told May that he is calling on Madame Olenska? Should he be content with his in-laws' decision on the house he will occupy and with his wife's conventional interior decoration? Wharton highlights this conflict by placing him in Madame Olenska's drawing room, which is charmingly arranged with unconventional paintings. Even the smell of the artfully arranged flowers is exotic. This seems like freedom. Ellen contrasts her drawing room with the gloominess of the van der Luydens.' Why must everyone be exactly alike? Newland has not questioned that idea before.
Madame Olenska is totally destroying the balance in Newland's world, and, to make matters worse, she brings out his protective instincts. When she confesses to her loneliness, he suggests that New Yorkers have opened their arms to her. However, she candidly tells him something he realizes but does not want to accept: New Yorkers do not seem to want to hear "the truth" and she feels very lonely among people who request that she pretend. Her distress causes him to drop his formalities, improperly take her hand, call her by her first name (Ellen), and then guiltily remember his fiancé.
Newland is playing with fire. The vivid yellow roses are too strong for his insipid fiancé but perfect for the Countess Olenska's free spirit. He places his card with the roses for Madame Olenska, but — conscience stricken — withdraws it. Two boxes of flowers, one white and one golden, are going to two women. With one he would live an orthodox life; with the other he would be free. One seems to lack imagination and original thoughts — a person suitably symbolized by bland, white lilies-of-the-valley — while the other represents the passion and imagination of yellow roses.
Newland's conflict is far from over as evidenced during his conversation with May. His concern that she will stare "blankly at blankness" is certainly revealed by her inability to make any decisions herself. Even Newland's desire to travel is followed by May's thoughts of how she will explain this to her mother, who does not understand doing things "differently." When Newland tries to explain his new-found ideas about being free, she counters with the belief that his thought is "like people in novels . . . vulgar. . . ." Newland would like to think he could be unconventional, but May more truthfully realizes that they would both hate resisting social pressures.
First May reminds Newland that he is at heart a conventional person, and then his dinner with Mr. Letterblair adds emphasis to that idea. Through this somber dinner, Wharton reminds the reader that Newland works in an atmosphere of old line New York legal retainers. While he enters the room desiring to rebel against convention, Mr. Letterblair convinces him that a divorce will not be wise for anyone. While Newland reconsiders his thought that Ellen should divorce, he finally agrees to represent the Countess because his concern for her protection outweighs his sense of prudence as an engaged man. He makes numerous excuses for her past, thinking that women in Europe might be drawn into affairs from sheer loneliness. What the Count's letter to the Countess alleges is never revealed, but Newland's reaction suggests that in it the Count hints or states that she had scandal to hide in her past. Newland never questions the Count's statements and his decision is partly based on his desire to protect her and her "pitiful figure."
Newland's motive is also based on his own affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworth. The double standard in sexual liaisons is foremost in Newland's mind. As his mother would say of men's affairs, "such things happened." It was "foolish of the man" but "always criminal of the woman." This double standard is passed down from aunts, mothers, and other female relatives. There are "women we love and respect" and so we marry them, and "women we enjoy and pity" with whom we have affairs. Newland's continuing conflict is between considering Ellen as a person who should be respected and free, or thinking of her as the woman with whom he desires an affair. At this point he decides he will speak with her and save her from the censure of New York society that would be brought on by a divorce for any reason.
vitrines a glass-paneled cabinet or glass display case for art objects, curios, etc.
in extremis (Lat.) at the point of death.
labyrinth a complicated, perplexing arrangement, course of affairs, or the like.
denouement outcome, resolution.
lapis lazuli an azure-blue, opaque semiprecious stone; a mixture of various minerals.
inanition emptiness; exhaustion; lack of strength or spirit.
importunate troublesome; annoyingly persistent.
clandestine kept secret or hidden, especially for some illicit purpose; surreptitious; furtive.
sedulously persistently and steadily; diligently.