Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters VII-VIII
The van der Luydens are one of three New York families with aristocratic bloodlines. They listen to Mrs. Archer's account of the slight conferred upon the Countess by New York society, and decide that a show of family loyalty would rectify the situation. Because Louisa's relative, the Duke of St. Austrey, is arriving from Russia, the van der Luydens will include the Countess in their dinner and reception for him.
At the party, the van der Luydens spare no pains in providing the best china, silver, and glassware. Newland notices that the Countess is pale but very confident with almost a regal bearing. She does not seem decadent, as her past would suggest. However, when Newland and the Countess speak after dinner he is shocked by her sadness and candor. She wants to be all things American and when she touches his knee with her fan he feels unexpected electricity. Breaking an unspoken social rule, the Countess says she will see Newland at five o'clock the next day. Surprised, he agrees. Later he watches couples — including the Lefferts, who initially turned down the Archers' invitation — standing in line to be introduced to the Countess now that the van der Luydens have included her in their social circle.
Wharton uses word painting to describe the intolerant, rigid older generation. The van der Luydens symbolize the frosty chill of old New York. Newland believes Louisa has been "gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere" like "bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death." Louisa defers to her husband almost sacredly and Newland has a disturbing vision of his own marriage in future years. The van der Luydens hold family loyalty as sacrosanct. Mrs. Mingott remarks, however, that New York society needs new blood. The van der Luydens are the proof.
Wharton personifies New York society as having eyes and ears because the van der Luyden's carriage in front of the Mingott household is instant news. As "arbiters of taste," the van der Luydens contrast considerably with Lawrence Lefferts. Newland says that Lefferts conspired to keep everyone away from the Countess' dinner because he had neglected his wife and he needed to point a hypocritical finger elsewhere to keep her from discovering his latest indiscretion. Mrs. Archer remarks, "It shows what Society has come to." While Lefferts is tolerated despite his known indiscretions, the Countess is ostracized until the family gives an outward appearance of accepting her.
Dinner is a wonderful venue for contrasting old, cosmopolitan Europe with upstart, provincial New York and Wharton wastes no time in ironically portraying their attitudes. One would expect the Countess and the Duke, as representatives of European royalty, to be concerned with the stuffy rules of society, but instead, they ignore the rules. The New Yorkers, products of the "new world," might be expected to be free and liberated, but instead, they are the ones commenting on breaches of etiquette.
ormolu imitation gold leaf.
Patience the British name for the card game Solitaire.
"Esther . . . Ahasuerus" a biblical allusion that compares Mrs. van der Luyden's intercession with her husband to that of Esther, who interceded with Ahasuerus to save her people [Esther 7–9].
Debrett biographical reference books chronicaling the British Peerage and Baronetage; a respected "Who's Who" of British meritocracy.
Diana (Roman myth) the virgin goddess of the moon and hunting. Here, a symbol of May Welland's innocence and virgin purity.