The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 2: Chapters XXI-XXIV

Summary

It is August, a year later, and life has set into a predictable pattern. The Archers spent the winter in the new house and rode in the new brougham the Wellands purchased for them. Newland has arranged his library, met Winsett and young friends for drinks, and he and May have attended the opera. They are back in Newport — Newland rather reluctantly — and it is late summer.

It is the Newport Archery Club's annual tournament and May confidently wins. As he watches, Newland is struck by the change in Julius Beaufort's appearance; he has aged considerably and Wall Street rumors say he is in trouble because of speculation. After the tournament May suddenly suggests that they see Old Mrs. Mingott. She shows her grandmother the expensive brooch the Beauforts gave her for winning first place. Then Newland is sent to get Ellen who is visiting for the day. He finds her on a pier by the seashore and silently watches her. When she does not turn around, he walks back up the hill.

On the drive home May suggests Ellen has changed and might be happier if she returned to her husband. Newland is shocked and says May is being cruel. But later that night he lies awake, contrasting his dull life with a romantic vision of Ellen riding home in the moonlight.

When the Wellands receive an invitation to a party for Mrs. Blenker and her daughters, Newland surmises that Ellen might be in the area since Medora Manson is a friend of the Blenkers. While Mr. Welland and May take a drive and Mrs. Welland goes to the party, Newland takes the opportunity to look for a horse at a stud farm near the Blenker cottage. He finds himself longing for Ellen like an addiction. He speaks with one of the Blenker daughters and finds out Ellen has been called away with a telegram from Boston. She will be there two days and is staying at the Parker House. Sensing a chance to give his life a change from its "endless emptiness," Newland decides to pursue her to Boston.

The next morning Newland takes the Fall River train, telling May he has business in Boston and will go on to New York. Fortunately, a letter from his law firm arrived the night before, giving credence to his lie, and no one seems suspicious.

When in Boston he sends a message to Ellen at Parker House, but the messenger returns saying she is "out." Newland, surprised, walks to Parker House and sees her sitting on a bench in the Commons. She is startled to see him. Traveling unconventionally without a maid, she has met an emissary from her husband. The Count has offered her a huge sum of money if she will return and "sit at the head of his table occasionally." She refused but is to meet again with the emissary at 11 a.m. Instead, Newland suggests they take a steamboat ride to Point Arley and dine.

Sensing his idea of an "adventure," Ellen writes a note and they take a cab to Palmer House where she takes the note inside. Newland sees a familiar man that seems out of place in the crowd while he is impatiently waiting, but he cannot recall his name. They journey to the steamboat and ride to Point Arley in silence. It is a comfortable silence and Newland does not want to break the feeling of the moment. They find an inn for lunch and, because it is noisy, he asks for a private room. She puts his conscience at rest by making it seem natural because they are old friends.

At lunch Newland hears about her past 18 months and, while she appreciates New York taking her in, she cannot understand why it wants to be a carbon copy of Europe. When he asks why she does not go back to Europe, she confesses it is because of him. He has made her understand a sensitive and exquisite love in comparison to her life in Europe. When he admits that his marriage is a sham, she cries quietly because her life is empty also. Ellen promises to stay as long as she can see him, but they must not betray May. Though he does not want to believe that this is all they can have, she assures him that it is. He holds her for a moment and she promises not to go back to Europe yet.

Analysis

A minor melody plays through these chapters as we see a glimpse of Julius Beaufort's fall from favor. His mysterious past was alluded to in various conversations and now Newland notices that he has aged considerably. Rumors about speculation, risky investments, and lack of caution surface. Still, he puts on a wonderful Archery Club Tournament each year; May received an expensive diamond-tipped arrow pin and "there was no denying that Beaufort did things handsomely." Interestingly enough, Beaufort is the only character that honestly comments on May's vague intellectual shortcomings and perhaps gives a glimpse of how others see her.

Right on the heels of May's snobbish comments about the French tutor in England, Wharton continues — during the Newport scenes — to show that May is firmly in charge of Newland's life. She is her mother's daughter. No longer the quiet mouse, she arranges every minute of Newland's days. The Wellands have purchased the home Newland will occupy and the brougham that transports him. When he expresses reluctance to go to Newport, it is his mother-in-law who says nonsense, and May must show off her Paris gowns. May's triumph at the picture-perfect Archery Club win and her calculated suggestion that they visit Ellen's grandmother are both symbols of how deeply Newland is entrenched in the leisure-class New York lifestyle. He is restless and the constraints of that life weigh on him, but his reluctance to fetch Ellen at the seashore shows that his dreams of life with Ellen are only fantasies. He would never give up his position.

Wharton creates doubts about all his restlessness when Newland describes May as "peace, stability, comradeship and the steadying sense of an inescapable duty." This is 1870s, nostalgic New York as Wharton sees it from the new century. Marriage is a steadying influence in a sea of chaos soon to be visited by World War I. The idea that Newland ever dreamed of marrying the Countess is described as a ghostly memory. Even Medora Manson reminds Newland that "marriage is one long sacrifice."

Even married, he is haunted by Ellen. He lies to May about his true intentions in going to the Blenker's, and then recklessly follows Ellen to Boston for a tryst aboard a tourist boat. "The longing was within him day and night, an incessant, undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tested and long since forgotten." Unlike Newland, Ellen realizes they cannot exist outside the roles they have been groomed to play by society. Their love must be pure, or innocent people will be hurt. Newland reluctantly agrees.

Newland is still a man torn. When he is with May on their honeymoon, he reverts to the old patterns of male gratification and social norms. He feels comfortable in this pattern but is strangely restless. He does not realize — as the reader does — that May's iron will designs his monotonous days. His longing for a fantasy life is fulfilled by his thoughts of Ellen. He declares that his marriage is a sham and he agrees with Ellen that New York is "damnably dull . . . [with] no character, no color, no variety." At the same time Ellen realizes, with far more insight than Newland, that they are prisoners of their world. "There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart."

Glossary

bedizened dressed in a cheap, showy way.

duologues a conversation between two people.

stylographic a fountain pen having a pierced, conical point (rather than a nib) through which the ink flows.

Ida Lewis Idawalley Zorada Lewis [1842–1911]. The best known lighthouse keeper of her day, she tended the Lime Rock beacon on a tiny island a mile from Newport. Credited with saving 18 lives, she became famous for her unconventional life. It is not surprising that Wharton twice mentions Ida Lewis as Newland views the nontraditional Ellen from afar.

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