The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapters XVI-XVII

Summary

When Newland sees May in St. Augustine, he feels assured that their engagement is the right thing to do. He tries to think of an argument to persuade Mrs. Welland to agree to an earlier wedding date, but cannot. Nor can Newland persuade May, who fears that he has changed and innocently asks if he has "someone else" in his life. She says that Newland can end their engagement and she will understand. Newland is momentarily frightened, but then the veil of innocence again covers her eyes and he assures her there is no one else.

Returning home, Newland has dinner with his mother and sister Janey, and he learns that the Countess visited them while he was away. He calls on old Mrs. Mingott to intercede on his behalf over the wedding date. During their conversation Ellen arrives, and, as he leaves, Newland quietly makes a time to see her the following evening. When he arrives the next night, the Marchioness Manson, Ned Winsett, and a Dr. Agathon Carver are in the Countess's drawing room. Crimson roses are evidence of Beaufort's continuing pursuit. When the gentlemen leave, Mrs. Manson thanks Newland for his concern over Ellen and begs him to send Ellen back to the Count because she is giving up a huge fortune for an inferior social position.

Analysis

Newland views May and her mother as totally innocent, unimaginative women who stubbornly stick to "stupid conventionalities." Behind Mrs. Welland's concern for the future of her daughter, however, is an iron will that he somehow misses. Mrs. Welland has no compassion or sympathy for Ellen's predicament, strongly disapproves of "foreigners," totally rejects any discussion or approval of divorce, and consistently rejects arguments to change the wedding date because it might violate the dictates of the season.

May is not as unimaginative as Newland thinks. Sensing something terribly wrong, she trammels on customary etiquette and speaks out about her fears. When she offers to sacrifice herself, Newland admires her generosity and selfless devotion to his happiness. No, nothing is wrong if they can push the wedding up before he is overcome by his growing attraction to the Countess. May has fought back in a way she knows will succeed: Newland is not going to defy convention and break off a well-advertised engagement to the perfect wife.

Wharton is approaching the end of her first book and must increase the pressure on Newland Archer to act. She does so in three cryptic conversations that take place in Chapter 17. The first conversation is with Newland, Janey, and Mrs. Archer. When Newland expresses surprise that the Countess called, Mrs. Archer looks down at her plate and Newland thinks she is annoyed at his surprise. Perhaps, however, she is hiding her concern over Newland's friendship with the Countess. She certainly hints at that by comparing Ellen to "her ideal" — May.

The second conversation occurs with old Mrs. Mingott, who playfully asks why he did not marry Ellen, and then mentions that it is too late now. Under her watchful eye, Newland and Ellen exchange messages that are, as always, in code. When he hears she is going out the following evening, he is annoyed that it is probably with Beaufort, again conveying his attraction.

The final conversation with Mrs. Manson reveals the irony of Newland's position. Mrs. Manson implores Newland to help Ellen have the best life. That life is married to the rich Count under their social rules. When Newland says he would rather see her in hell than back with the Count, Mrs. Manson asks him if he is being selfish and would an affair with a rich man be a better choice than being a rich, but legally married lady?

Glossary

polonaise an eighteenth-century dress with the skirt divided in front and worn looped back over an elaborate underskirt.

French leave an unauthorized, unnoticed, or unceremonious departure; the act of leaving secretly or in haste.

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How are May and Countess Ellen Olenska related?




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