Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters II-III
Newland is feeling embarrassed because the males in the audience are watching the Mingott box and he is trying to decide on a course of action to protect his beloved May from scandal. He realizes that the mystery lady must be May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who recently arrived from Europe. Disgracefully, she has left her husband and is staying with her grandmother, old Mrs. Mingott. While Newland approves of family loyalty in private, he would prefer the Wellands not exercise it in public with the "black sheep" of the family.
Newland listens to the other men make jokes about Ellen's past and his embarrassment grows. He waits for the curtain to signal the end of the act and does the loyal and manly thing: He dashes for the Mingott family box where May gratefully consents to his request that he announce their engagement. She then introduces him to her cousin, Ellen, who recounts tales of them playing together as children. Newland interprets her attitude toward New Yorkers as flippant and it irritates him.
After the third act, Mrs. Regina Beaufort leaves the opera house as a signal that her annual ball will begin in thirty minutes. Regina is from the South Carolina Dallas family, a "penniless beauty" who is not too bright, but her looks are stunning. Introduced to New York society by a cousin, Medora Manson, she married Julius Beaufort, who came with a doubtful past. He is known to enjoy the company of women other than his wife. Arriving at the Beaufort home, Newland describes their sumptuous rooms and possessions, but he is having second thoughts about family loyalty. May calms his unspoken fears by explaining that the Countess excused herself because her dress was not fashionable enough to attend such a party. Relieved by this information, Newland decides that May shares his viewpoint about dealing with this "unpleasantness;" what a perfect wife for any man to possess!
Wharton increasingly pulls the reader into a world of conflicts and hypocrisy. The old New Yorkers are both drawn and repulsed by the money and possessions of the New Rich, as symbolized by Julius Beaufort's rise in social status. Though old Mrs. Mingott's English son-in-law sent letters of introduction with Beaufort, rumors circulate about his "dissipated habits" and cynicism. Speculation holds that he left an English banking house under questionable circumstances. His affairs with women and shady past are disregarded because he carries things off with style. The Old Rich tolerate the Beauforts because they have a ballroom that is used just for one night and closed off the other 364 days a year.
"Few things seem more awful to Newland than an offence against Taste." He finds Ellen's words distasteful as she humorously mentions that New York will be judging her. But that is exactly what his friends did in snickering about her past. Who knows what scandalous things she has been doing in Europe as a woman alone, and now she is here at the opera pretending to be a person of taste! Here the reader sees clearly the double standard of society and Newland's complicity: toleration for Julius Beaufort and contempt for Ellen Olenska.
double entendre a term with two meanings, especially when one of them has a risqué or indecorous connotation.
bouton d'or (Fr.) golden or lustrous buttons; here, part of the interior décor that causes lustre and glitter.
aigrettes bunches of the long, white showy plumes of the egret, worn for ornament on a hat or in the hair.