The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 2: Chapter XXXIV

Summary

Twenty-six years later in a new century, Newland Archer, age 57, is sitting in his library on East 39th Street, having just returned from a ceremony for new galleries in the Metropolitan Museum. He is in a reflective mood, brought about by his memories of meeting the Countess there years ago. In his library he remembers May announcing her pregnancy; their delicate son, Dallas, being christened and later taking his first steps; their daughter, Mary, becoming engaged to one of Reggie Chivers' dull sons and her radiant face as Newland kissed her here on her wedding day; and his conversations with Theodore Roosevelt, a family friend, who stayed overnight. Roosevelt talked Newland into running for public office, as Ned Winsett had often urged him to do. Spending only one term in the State Assembly, Newland has settled into the role of elder statesman, consulted on projects for the city and become involved in philanthropic work.

His marriage to May was dull but dignified, and he mourns her sincerely; she had died two years before of the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their third child, Bill, back to health. Newland looks at May's first picture, still in its place near the inkstand, and muses that she remained unchanged — like her photo — until her death. Even the children hesitated to take away her ingenuous thoughts with their cold, new-century realities. The telephone rings and Newland speaks with Dallas, his architect son who is calling long distance from Chicago. Dallas' voice sounds so close it is amazing, and Newland listens as Dallas asks him to go to Europe with him on a job. Newland's son is to be married on June 5 to Fanny Beaufort, daughter of Julius and Fanny Ring, who married years ago following the death of Regina Beaufort. Times have changed and no one criticizes this union.

Newland accompanies his son to Paris. All those years ago, he told Ellen he would see her in Paris, but he never kept that promise. Although he thought of himself as a dashing and romantic figure then, he now realizes he is a middle-aged relic. Ellen never went back to her husband and never married either. The Count died, leaving her a widow, living in Paris.

Dallas' fiancée, Fanny, asked him to do several things, one of which was to see the Countess Olenska who had befriended her when she was in school in Europe. So Dallas tells his father he has accepted an invitation for them to call on the countess. He reveals to Newland that he knows the countess was once "your Fanny." Shocked, Newland asks him why he thinks that. Dallas simply states that his dying mother told him that Newland had "given up the thing [he] most wanted" and revealed her knowledge of his love for the countess. Newland is stunned to realize that his dutiful and unimaginative wife had known all along, and he is touched that she pitied him for his sacrifice.

Dallas leaves to visit Versailles and Newland roams Paris, thinking of the amazing life Ellen must have had there with museums, art galleries, glittering acquaintances, and a freer world than New York City. He visits the Louvre because she probably haunted that art gallery and he thinks of himself at age 57; the sweet love of springtime is no longer possible, but perhaps they could have the mature companionship of autumn. Later that day, Newland and Dallas walk to the Invalides and pause outside Ellen's apartment. The day is fading and the view is peaceful and pleasant. Newland sits down on a bench and convinces Dallas to go up to Ellen's apartment without him, as he wants to sit a few minutes and collect his thoughts. Dallas is more like the young Newland that Ellen will remember from thirty years ago. After his son leaves, Newland imagines what that meeting will be like and realizes, "It's more real to me here than if I went up." The sun slowly goes down and he stands up and walks back to his hotel.

Analysis

Chapter 34 is especially important because it brings Wharton's story full circle and reveals the results of decisions made and promises kept. The new century is a world where both lifestyles and social values have changed considerably and Wharton knows that soon World War I will alter everything forever. She looks back on the values of her childhood New York with mixed feelings. She sees the van der Luydens' world as a place where sacrifice was necessary to promulgate the social order, but she also sees the new century where individuals have more freedom as represented by Newland and May's children.

Everything about the new century is scientific and technological. The old Metropolitan Museum is now cataloguing items in a "scientific" way. Newland clings to his Eastlake desk despite Dallas' addition of electric lamps and more "modern" furniture. Traditional, colonial architecture is no longer a sign of status and wealth; it has made way for English mezzotints and Chippendale cabinets. Telephones connect people across continents and electricity lights even the night. A voyage across the Atlantic now takes only five days, and there are new-fangled hotels, motor cars, and aeroplanes. Everywhere modern products are changing the lifestyles of Americans, but these products are part of the mass-produced modern world with no deeper meaning. In many ways Wharton reveals that twentieth-century lifestyles are filled with superficial products at the expense of lives with deeper sensitivities and reserves.

Even the social attitudes are changing. May would not recognize this world, nor would she feel comfortable in it. Some things are the same, like Mary's wedding at Grace Church. However, men are now able, like Dallas, to turn interests into occupations. While he inherited his father's love of art, he changed it into architecture where he could use it in a socially acceptable way. Law is no longer the only male job choice. Even Mary is not like her mother in some ways. While she has some of May's traditional values, she is a new woman in that she is more athletic and more tolerant in many areas of her life. Where May could shoot arrows, Mary can climb mountains.

Dallas also represents the new generation. His class and age group is more sure, confident, and free. Newland mentions his "assured step and delightful smile," useful to seal contracts with rich, new millionaires. Dallas sees Newland and May's sacrifice as prehistoric. While Newland has tried to teach his son to be more reserved, Dallas revels in a world where husbands and wives can tell each other what they think. His marriage to Fanny Beaufort, sanctioned by Janey's gift of their mother's jewelry, is a symbol of the new society's ability to find a place for those ostracized in the old order. No one remembers the Beaufort scandal anymore, and what was not acceptable in Newland's close and structured world is now permissible.

Wharton brings home, with May's deathbed confession, the idea that the lives of the old wealthy in 1870s New York were totally shaped and conditioned by a context no longer as strong in the new century. Where Newland felt that leaving May for Ellen would mean the loss of "habit, and honour, and all the old decencies," Dallas finds that sacrifice prehistoric. May understood that Newland could have lived no other way. The announcement of her pregnancy sealed forever his choice to leave because he was powerfully locked into a world where that would have been unthinkable. In Newland's young world, May would never have asked him to make such a sacrifice because it was understood that he would. The passions of individuals were surrendered to perpetuate the social order. Now, after World War I, Wharton looks back on that idea with mixed emotions. The New York of the 1870s did not have the social upheaval brought about by the war in Europe, and its traditional outlook from father to son, and mother to daughter, provided a stability that could be treasured, despite its cost to the individual.

In many ways, this last chapter is about the passing of the torch from one generation to another amidst a realization that the old world is over. The day Newland and Ellen met at the museum among the crumbling relics and uncertain antiquities, he realized that time took away identities, cares, and concerns. Then it was just an abstract idea; now, in twentieth-century Paris, it is a reality. Children are born, christened, grow up, and leave, and parents settle into new roles and eventually die. The photo of Newland's young wife, May, is frozen in time, just as his image of Ellen will remain forever in the 1870s. Seeing himself as a "grey relic of a man," Newland realizes that he holds fast to habit and prefers the world of his youth. The new world belongs to his son and those like him, less sensitive than their parents, but infinitely more free to follow their passions. Deciding to remember the exotic Ellen as a memory from his past and a symbol of his freedom from social restraints, Newland walks into the dusk in the lingering last words of the novel. Wharton suggests that only his memories of their love in that earlier time have any meaning. That love belonged to a different, more ordered time and if left alone, its memory can be cherished.

Glossary

confabulations informal conversations; chats.

mezzotints engravings or prints produced on copper or steel plates by scraping or polishing parts of roughened surfaces to produce impressions of light and shade.

Mauretania a fashionable British Cunard Line ship which made its maiden voyage in 1907. A sister to the Lusitania which was torpedoed during World War I, the Mauretania was known for its fast ocean crossings. Here, Dallas suggests he and Newland take the Mauretania.

proclivities natural or habitual tendencies or inclinations, especially toward something discreditable.

trenchant keen; penetrating; incisive.

ethereally in a way that is not of the earth; heavenly.

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