Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapters XXV-XXVI
Returning to New York City, Newland again sees the face he saw in Boston — this time recognizing him as M. Riviere, the tutor from London. They meet that afternoon and Riviere explains that he is Count Olenska's messenger. He tells Newland that the Count has sent new proposals to the Countess' family, and Newland realizes — in shock — that her family has purposely left him out of the discussions of these proposals. Remembering May's comments about Ellen at Newport, he realizes that his abrupt disagreement signaled to May that her family can no longer trust his opinions; therefore, they are now excluding him from the family council.
Although M. Riviere had discharged his duty to the Count honestly, he tells Newland that he earnestly feels the Countess should not go back to the Count and he hopes Newland will convince the family. Riviere has seen a change in Ellen and he attributes it to his belief that the moral standards in America are more pronounced than those of Europe. Ellen's family has been led to believe the Count misses her because that was the message he sent; however, Riviere says that is not the case and he hints that Ellen would be subjected to much unhappiness if she returned.
Soon it is November and four months have passed since Newland last saw Ellen, who is now living in Washington with her aunt. Newland's mother invites Sillerton Jackson for dinner with Janey, May, and Archer, and, as always, they gossip. Jackson feels Regina's family is going to be dishonored, as New York society does not tolerate shady business dealings. The gossip changes once again to Ellen: Mrs. Archer, May, and the family are not happy with her refusal to go back to her husband. Later, in the library, Jackson indicates to Newland that Lefferts and many others believe Ellen has taken money from Beaufort because her family reduced her allowance. Once again, Newland is unaware of the allowance reduction, and he is very angry at the implications of a financial relationship between Ellen and Beaufort. Driving home with May, Newland notices that she is unusually silent and he knows she is thinking about Ellen. Before retiring, he tells May that he will be going to Washington on business. May knows he is going to see Ellen, and she sends him a clear signal that she knows and that the family is displeased by his recent actions and opinions. When he complains about a smoky lamp, she says that the problem is solved if one blows the lamp out.
Wharton finally reveals a pattern that has been developing behind the scenes since Newland bought the yellow roses for Ellen and mentioned it to May. May's sense of self-confidence at Newport, her comments about Ellen being happier back in Europe with her husband, and the new Olenski proposals unknown to Newland set the stage for the family closing ranks. Ellen is expensive to support and, though she is informed about what is socially expected, she chooses not to follow custom. She simply is different, a Bohemian who keeps artistic companions. She will obviously be one of those "sacrifices" that must be made to keep the social patterns intact. Because Newland is attracted to her, he is to be kept outside the family decisions.
These chapters make Wharton's theories of change in society very clear. Alterations happen very slowly, often appearing as small cracks that later spread. Newland says, "New York managed its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagine that they had taken place in the preceding age." The family spokeswoman, Mrs. Archer, sees only small changes each year and denounces them soundly, but all the while we see new "acceptable" people (like Mrs. Struthers), new buildings, new machines, and new ideas (such as wearing Paris fashions immediately) introduced. It seems that the nouveau riche — like Beaufort — are now setting the fashion trends.
The parallel downfalls of Beaufort with New Yorkers and Ellen with her family are discussed. Men are chastised for illegal financial dealings, but forgiven immoral affairs; women are kept financially dependent and ostracized for immoral affairs. Concern that Regina's family will be dragged down in the dirt with Beaufort's shady financial dealings is one example. At the same time, Ellen's position with the family is tenuous at best. Mrs. Manson Mingott no longer defends Ellen's decisions; Mrs. Welland believes that Ellen has sunk to her own level (which seems to be among artists and Bohemians), and makes a snide remark that she is "a great favorite of the gentlemen."
Even Jackson implies that she has been accepting money from Beaufort. The comments irritate Newland because they highlight his intellectual conflict between conservative values and his desire to believe Ellen is above these standards.
These chapters develop a clear picture of the state of Newland and May's marriage after two years. No doubt remains in Newland's mind that May is her mother's image, with her "firm clear tone" of voice. Throughout this novel the social attitudes of their society have been passed down from mother to daughter and father to son. It is becoming clearer that May has quietly controlled their lives and Newland's access to information about family decisions. In her own deliberate and studied way, she has become Mrs. Welland, who soothes her husband, manages his every mood, and smoothes over the disagreements. Newland makes the following realization about his wife: "How young she is! For what endless years this life will have to go on!"
Throughout the novel Wharton has described the nonverbal messages that New York society — as well as husbands and wives — uses in the 1870s. Those who know the code understand the messages. Clearly, in this chapter, Wharton breaks her silence and decodes May's message for Newland. She knows that he is going to see Ellen. Furthermore, she does not understand why he defies the entire family — as well as common sense — in encouraging Ellen not to return to her husband. She hopes he will consider the consequences of that advice. That she tells him this with her "bright housekeeping air" and looks him straight in the eye only exasperates him. May is firm in her own legal and ethical position in his life. She knows he will come back to her because the social patterns and legal ties are too deeply ingrained in him. Allowing him to see Ellen is the equivalent of blowing an irksome candle out. Like her mother, she realizes this too shall pass.