The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters XIV-XV

Summary

As Newland leaves the theatre he meets Ned Winsett, an acquaintance and writer. Winsett is bitter about working for a women's weekly to support his family while he struggles as a writer. He suggests that Newland consider politics, where he can "get down in the muck" and accomplish good.

Newland is unhappy when this conversation ends because after he is married, these discussions will not occur. Three days later he receives a message from the Countess saying she is visiting the van der Luydens' country estate and wishes he were there also. He contacts the Reggie Chiverses, rescinding previous excuses to visit them and plans a country weekend near her.

Newland seeks the Countess at Skuytercliff, but she is out and he sets off to meet her. They go together to the privacy of the Patroon's house, another van der Luyden property. During their visit, Newland's reaction to Ellen is becoming clearly sexual: his heart beats rapidly and he imagines her putting her arms around his neck. Their reverie is broken by the arrival of Julius Beaufort. Newland is annoyed by Beaufort's undeniable pursuit of the Countess. The next day Newland is back in his office, his reverie in the country a fading dream.

Newland receives a note from the Countess asking to see him. Considering several possible replies, he gives up and flees for St. Augustine, where May is wintering with her parents.

Analysis

Wharton emphasizes the totally separate worlds of the leisure class and the artisans through the conversation between Newland Archer and Ned Winsett. Newland has never been invited to Ned's home or met his family. Newland does not seem to realize that soap, cleanliness, and fashionable clothing cost precious money to those in the lower class. Ned must face realities totally unknown to Newland, such as putting food on the table and a roof over his family, and if that means writing for a women's weekly, that is what he must do. He suggests that Newland get into politics, saying that Newland's class is a leftover from Europe and will never cause social change until they "get down in the muck." While the rich worry about social change, they do not dirty their hands with politics. Newland tactfully sidesteps the subject, but continues to be unfulfilled by the "gentlemanly pursuit" of law, where he reads newspapers each day in his office.

The unthinkable is becoming a conflict in Newland's mind and Wharton takes the opportunity to pursue this struggle. She spins a scene of pure romance and escape by placing Newland and the Countess together in the Patroon's cottage. Newland first sees the Countess in a red cloak against the snowy landscape, and he is enchanted by her exotic difference from the society ladies he knows. She appears to expect him when she says, "Ah, you've come." For the first time, he imagines her embrace and his total attraction to her is evident. When Beaufort arrives, Newland measures his chances with the Countess against Beaufort's and considers what might attract her to Beaufort. Even when he is back in New York, Newland cannot focus on his beloved new books, except for a book of poetry that raises his passionate longing. In considering a future without Ellen, Newland realizes, he is suffocating in the future planned for him by his upbringing and his promises. His decision to flee to Florida and May causes the reader to question whether he is trying to fight his temptation for the Countess — a socially unthinkable attraction — or his decision to pursue his social duty and stay with May.

Glossary

bock a dark beer traditionally drunk in the early spring.

epistolary style of or suitable to letters or letter writing. Here, the distinct manner of the Countess' letter writing.

grand tour a tour of continental Europe, formerly taken by young men of the British aristocracy to complete their education.

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