Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapters XXVII-XXX
The following Wednesday, Newland's plans to go to Washington are postponed by a crisis in Beaufort's business affairs. Scandal has caused a run on the bank and Julius Beaufort is anathema. Much talk is heard about "poor Regina" and how "her duty is at his side." In the midst of all this, Newland receives a message from May to come to old Catherine Mingott's because Catherine has had a slight stroke.
Upon arriving he discovers that Regina Beaufort visited Mrs. Mingott the night before, appealing to her to stand by the Beauforts with family loyalty. Humorously, Newland's father-in-law is in bed and will probably stay there, allowing the ladies to handle this problem. Newland listens to the family discussion and agrees with them that "in the old days," husband and wife shared the same disgrace. Mrs. Mingott has requested Ellen's presence and Newland must arrange a telegram. May and her mother hastily agree that it is too bad Newland's and Ellen's trains will probably pass each other. As Newland leaves, he hears May pointedly exclaim that Granny probably wants to convince Ellen to rejoin her husband, the Count.
The next day Catherine is slightly better and decides she will announce her stroke as indigestion. The Countess' reply announces that she will be arriving the next day by train in Jersey City. Newland suggests he meet her train and Mrs. Welland agrees. May finds it odd that Newland can do this when he has led her to believe he must be in Washington for a patent case. He says it has been postponed and she finds that odd also because Newland's boss is going to Washington on a huge patent case. May's insistence on catching Newland in his lie is very uncharacteristic of May. They both know he is lying. But, forgetting this, he thinks of the luxurious two hours he will have with Ellen on the carriage ride back.
As Newland he waits for Ellen's train, he thinks about the predictions of experts about a future where there will be no need for a ferry because a tunnel will take trains under the Hudson. There will be ships that will cross the Atlantic in five days, flying machines, electrical lights, and communication without telegraph wires.
In his mind Newland concocts a romantic dream of what he wants to say while he and Ellen ride together. When she arrives, he unbuttons her glove and kisses the palm of her hand. She pulls away. Forgetting all he meant to say, he tells her of M. Riviere's visit and asks if he helped her leave her husband. When she says "yes" a remarkable conversation follows with Newland dreaming dreams that cannot come true and the Countess speaking with frank realism. He says that their "being together and not together" cannot last. Suddenly, Ellen says he should not have come, and kisses him on the lips, showing her love for him. In considering their options, he suggests that she could be his mistress and run away with him. Ellen invalidates the option, asking what country they will run to where they can live in honor. She implies that she has had an affair and says, "I know what it looks like there." Seeing no way to have the woman he loves, Newland painfully leaves the carriage in the falling snow and walks home. The carriage rolls away and he realizes his tears have frozen to his eyelashes.
That evening the air is stifling in the Archer household. Newland notices that May looks tired and pale. They are dining in and he lies once again about why he left the carriage ride early. May does not refer to Ellen once during dinner, an "ominous sign." Afterward they go to the library. As he considers the rest of his life with this unimaginative wife who is fast becoming her mother, he feels closed in and opens the library window to the icy night. When May protests, saying that he will catch his death of cold, he thinks that he has already been dead for months. Guiltily, he conjectures how his life would be different if May would die young and set him free. She has no clue that he is unhappy and when he declares that he should never be happy unless he can open windows, the thought goes right over her unimaginative head. This is the moment when he realizes he can never have Ellen and he will be May's husband forever.
Six or seven days pass and May suggests that Archer go alone to Granny Mingott's home. He is hoping he will see Ellen and be able to ask her the date of her departure for Washington. He goes to Mrs. Mingott's and during their conversation Catherine makes a strange statement when she says it is a pity that Ellen did not marry him. He discovers from Catherine what the family has not told him. The Count's proposals were very lucrative and the family wanted Catherine to cut Ellen's allowance so that she would be forced to return to her husband. But Catherine says she will not allow Ellen to be shut in a cage again. Instead, Ellen will stay and nurse her. Newland interprets this to mean that Ellen wants to be close to him. Mrs. Mingott asks Newland to announce her decision to the family and defend it. Meanwhile, Ellen has gone to see Regina Beaufort and Catherine believes them both to be courageous women. She tells Newland to give her love to May but not tell her about their conversation.
Husbands and wives, scandals and lies. These chapters are quickly bringing the novel to its conclusion by highlighting the morality of the 1870s and the dilemmas it creates. First is the problem of the Beauforts: Family loyalty versus dishonor is the conflict that must be resolved. "The whole of New York was darkened by the tale of Beaufort's dishonour." After Regina's visit to old Mrs. Mingott and her subsequent stroke, little sympathy exists for Regina's role. The polite and correct thing would be to retire to North Carolina where they have a racing stable and Julius can be a "horse dealer" in truth. Newland and May's opinion is the same: in sickness, health, and scandal, the husband and wife share equally. Ellen, however, sympathizes with Regina saying, "She's the wife of a scoundrel . . . and so am I, and yet all my family wants me to go back to him." When others will not visit the fallen Regina, Ellen will.
Second, Newland is caught in a web of lies. May's insistence that he explain himself over the change in litigation and trip to Washington, reveals that she knows he is lying. Her sadness at his actions reveals a major theme of Wharton's novel: They are products of the culture and code in which they live. Honor demands they stay husband and wife, and even if May cannot discuss his love for Ellen aloud, she certainly is aware of his unhappiness and her failure to keep his affection.
Ellen is the realist in this entire situation. She realizes that the societal principles and habits are what they would lose if they stooped to an affair. Newland made her see this when he defended her right to leave her husband and live a lonely life, but an honorable one. A clandestine affair would mean an end to the principles decent people hold to be true. He is the romantic, wanting to have Ellen near him, but not considering the price she would pay in her loneliness. He romantically says, "Each time you happen to me all over again."
When Ellen kisses Archer and he realizes how much she loves him, he envisions a life where he can be married to May but have Ellen too. A product of his time, male gratification is the driving force behind his decision. When she says the word "mistress," he thinks it crude, coming from a woman. He is not a man to break social conventions, while she looks at life more realistically. He exclaims, "I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that — categories like that — won't exist . . . ." The realist, Ellen, knows that even if they ran away together, their love would become a shabby parody of life where they would end up in a smaller, dingier world. She asks, "Oh, my dear — where is that country? Have you ever been there?" She has lived outside the world of genteel New Yorkers and she knows Newland is inherently bound to that life and would be unhappy and not himself without it.
When he is with May in the privacy of their library, all of Newland's longing is revealed when he looks at her head bent over her embroidery and realizes this is the life he will have to live. Ellen is right: They cannot hurt those to whom they are bound. He will live a death in life, bound to this unimaginative woman forever.
probity uprightness in one's dealings; integrity.
litigants parties to a lawsuit.
valetudinarian one who thinks constantly and anxiously about one's own health.
Gorgon in Greek mythology, any of three sisters with snakes for hair, so horrible that the beholder is turned to stone.
Spartan like or characteristic of the Spartans, who were famous for being warlike, brave, stoical, severe, frugal, and highly disciplined.