Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters XII-XIII
On the way to Countess Olenska's house, Newland sees Beaufort's carriage leaving for some dark assignation. He considers, as he walks, the many differences between his mother's world of the leisure class and the world occupied by artists and creative people. But when he reaches Countess Olenska's house, he finds Beaufort there. Angry, Newland feels once again like her protector. The Countess dismisses Beaufort, leaving Newland triumphant.
Newland tells Madame Olenska that he is there to discuss business with her. He stresses that New Yorkers have "old fashioned ideas," and while it might be legal to divorce, it is not accepted socially. Further, the Count might bring up scandalous accusations and, true or not, she will be ruined. Here he pauses, but the Countess is silent, leading Newland to believe there might be some truth in the Count's allegations. He explains that she is financially provided for and free, so why divorce simply to have what she already has? She asks if he agrees with the family and when he does, she decides to drop the divorce request.
Ten days later, Newland is in Wallack's theatre and he feels an unexplainable sadness after watching a sad scene of lovers parting in "The Shaughraun." May, in Florida with her family, has asked him to "be kind to Ellen." Ellen, too, is at the theatre. Newland joins her and the Countess asks him if the character in the play will send his lover yellow roses. Newland blushes; he is becoming entranced with Ellen Olenska as a person "to whom things were bound to happen."
Through Newland's thoughts, Wharton points out the huge differences between the social conduct of Europe and America. The writers, musicians, and artists who live in New York City's Bohemian quarter, while often odd or eccentric, are mainly respectable. Mrs. Archer, however, views them as disreputable and living in poverty. Newland sees Madame Olenska's society in Europe as a place where creative people and scientific thinkers are welcome. While he is drawn to writers like Ned Winsett who seem to live in a world of exciting ideas, he is also reminded of the restrictions on his own life. Beaufort's friendship with the Countess Olenska also reflects the disparity between American and European values. When Newland goes to her home and finds Beaufort there, she is dressed in a red robe with black fur, which Newland considers a sensual and improper attire for a virtuous American lady. It is, however, the latest thing in Europe. While Beaufort and the Countess might be at home in Europe, Newland most assuredly would not be.
Divorce is discussed at length in the context of social values. Newland explains to the Countess that the collective interest of society outweighs the needs of the individual. In New York, people believe the institution of the family must be protected. Ellen Olenska will be sacrificed if she divorces. The irony of Newland's mission is revealed as his feelings for Ellen increase in spite of his belief that he must be loyal to the family. He, too, is an individual being sacrificed to society's collective interest: its desire to replicate itself by proper marriages between correct people.
parvenu (French) nouveau riche; a person who has suddenly acquired wealth or power.
dissimulation pretense; hypocrisy.
milieu environment; esp., social or cultural setting.
blackguard a person who uses abusive language; a scoundrel or villain.
hackneyed made trite by overuse.
histrionic overacted or overacting; theatrical; artificial; affected.