Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapters XXXI-XXXIII
Newland's plan is to speak to Ellen, find out what train she will take to Washington, join her, and run away with her to Japan. He will leave a note for May. However, he drops this plan with relief when he learns from Mrs. Mingott that Ellen will be staying with her.
On his walk home, he sees Ellen leaving the Beaufort house and stops to speak with her. Unfortunately, Lawrence Lefferts and young Chivers are passing and see them. Newland winces at their discovery and wonders how he and Ellen can live such a covert existence. He pleads with Ellen to meet him alone at the Metropolitan Museum the next day, but she appears to dislike this idea. Despite his earlier theoretical championship of Ellen's freedom as a single woman, his next words indicate his real feelings because after she leaves he says, almost contemptuously, "she'll come!"
The following day, they meet at the museum amidst the wreckage of earlier civilizations. Discussing their future, she explains that her stay with her grandmother is to keep them from "doing irreparable harm" to those who love them. However, she reluctantly gives in to Newland's pressure; she agrees to a future brief sexual encounter, after which she is determined go back to Europe. He feels this intimacy will give him the power to pressure her into staying. Then Newland goes home to May who greets him with the news that she saw Ellen at Mrs. Mingott's and they had "a really good talk." She feels she has misjudged Ellen. The following evening, the van der Luydens attend a small dinner at Mrs. Archer's home before going to the opera. Sillerton Jackson, Newland, and May are also there. They discuss Ellen at some length and disapprove of her taking Mrs. Mingott's carriage to the Beaufort's house. After dinner they attend the opera and Newland recalls that it was the same opera they saw the night he met Ellen. May is wearing her made-over wedding dress and she looks the same after two years except for her paleness. He remembers her saying that she could not have her happiness made out of a wrong to someone else. Deciding to confess all and ask for his freedom, Newland pleads a headache and they go home.
At home they settle into the library, but before he can confess, May reveals that Mrs. Manson Mingott has given Ellen an allowance and she is going back to Europe. May had received a letter from Ellen that very afternoon saying that it would be useless for her friends to urge her to change her mind. Cryptically, May adds, "I think she understands everything," and goes to bed. Newland is dumbfounded.
Newland later meets with Mrs. Mingott and when he returns home that evening, May announces a going-away dinner for Ellen. She is very assertive when Newland questions her reasons, and she explains that her mother agrees it is the thing to do. The farewell dinner will be their first big dinner since their marriage. It has been 10 days since Newland saw Ellen and he muses that she will return to Europe and he will follow.
The night of the dinner arrives and when all are assembled Ellen appears, pale and "lusterless." Every glance at her reminds Newland of memories of his love. Now that Ellen is leaving, the Mingotts and Wellands express their affection for her; it is obvious to Newland that this is "a tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe." Suddenly, Newland realizes that the entire family believes he and Ellen are lovers and they are separating them in the most civilized manner possible. Throughout the evening, Newland and Ellen exchange pleasantries, aware that all eyes are on them.
The gentlemen retire to their cigars. Lefferts expounds on the decline of values in New York society, and eventually the men return to the drawing room and "May's triumphant eyes." Newland realizes she shares the belief that he and Ellen are lovers. May kisses Ellen's cheek, vanquishing the foe, and Newland accompanies Ellen to the hall, putting her cloak on her shoulders. When he thinks they might be alone for a moment, the van der Luydens appear and announce they are driving Ellen. He tells her that he will see her soon in Paris, and she correctly says it would be nice if he and May could come. Then she is gone.
The dinner is over and Newland and May are in the library. Newland starts to confess once again, but says instead that he needs to go on a long trip because he is very tired. May explains that the doctor might not let her go along, and she reveals that she has already told both her mother and mother-in-law that she is pregnant. It dawns on Newland that the conversation she had with Ellen two weeks earlier was about her pregnancy. She watches Newland intently as she asks if he minds. In questioning her, he finds that she told Ellen this news long before she was sure.
Wharton shows the reader that Newland cannot justify going against all the ethical foundations of his society. Wanting to believe he is different from men who conduct surreptitious affairs, Newland spends considerable time rationalizing his conduct. It was fine for Mrs. Thorley Rushworth to have an affair because women were not expected to be truthful in matters of love. In fact, women had to be devious because they were powerless. But no one laughed at a lawfully wedded wife who was misled. Men were to keep to a higher standard and were despised if they sowed wild oats after marriage. While he might mouth the words to Sillerton Jackson that women should be "free," he looks on Ellen with contempt when he thinks that he can persuade her to come to him. Wharton further shows his discomfort as he passes his home, and thinks that his wife is within, along with honor and decency and all the comforts of doing the expected thing.
Time takes on a symbolic value at the art museum. Newland and Ellen meet amidst objects from former civilizations that are now "time-blurred." Many are marked with the designation "use unknown," and Ellen ironically remarks that these objects once belonged to forgotten people who used and valued them. To Ellen it seems cruel that nothing lasts or matters eventually. These objects bring to mind the various exacting sets of trousseau items and the numerous duties of Newland before his wedding. He commented then on the trifling concern for "form" and felt that those little details of so-called civilized life now seemed like the exercises of medieval scholars who argued over mystical or abstract terminology. Time, with its relentless power, sweeps away the trinkets, items, and fussy social distinctions with a "use unknown" label, showing their meaninglessness. Wharton reaches amazing heights in describing the protective walls of the family surrounding marriage among one's own kind at the farewell dinner. The evening seems genuine, unselfish, and generous, but it is really a calculated and elaborate production by the family and May. They never leave Newland alone with Ellen for a moment. Amidst the gilt-edged menus and multitude of servants, this society sacrifices one of its own to protect the family. Earlier in the book, when Newland was tempted by his feelings for Ellen, the wedding was quickly planned. Now, when Newland is about to confess all, a pregnancy is announced. Like a player in a chess game, May has considered his possible moves and made defensive moves to thwart him, with the support of both mothers. They know Newland would never leave a pregnant wife and go to Europe with Ellen. Newland does not realize it, but he has been outside of the family information channels for some time.
The last chapters also bring to the forefront the powerful social order that approves of May's actions. The van der Luydens had fled to Skuytercliff when the Beaufort scandal erupted. Now they "reluctantly but heroically" return to put the social order right. Newland still does not realize the bargaining and plotting that have been going on behind the scenes in the family. When May announces the farewell dinner, she alludes to a conversation with Ellen when she indicated that she and Newland were one in their sentiments. Later it becomes obvious that May used her pregnancy as leverage with Ellen long before May was sure that she was pregnant.
This whole subterfuge supports Wharton's major theme that the emotions of the individual must be sacrificed for the preservation of those values that make life worth living and keep the social order intact — values that existed in the pre-World War I society of old New York.
These final chapters also highlight May and Newland's roles. Wharton paints a change in May that careful readers notice but Newland overlooks. May lays her hand on his shoulder "with one of her rare caresses." Despite May's pallor, Wharton mentions her animated conversation and "unnatural vividness" more than once. May lingers over his words, hugs and kisses him, and seems to be showing him fond attention. This comes on the heels of her comment that she and Ellen had a good talk at Granny Mingott's. Wharton is setting up May's final triumph. Newland's role at this dinner is that of an observer, almost floating over the scene in an after-death experience. He suddenly realizes as he looks at the dining family members that "by means yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved." It is the civilized way of taking a life without a drop of blood being shed.
fatuity complacent stupidity; smug foolishness.
Ilium the Latin name for Troy, an ancient Phrygian city in northwest Asia Minor.
sarcophagi among the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, limestone coffins or tombs, often inscribed and elaborately ornamented.
repast food and drink for a meal.
jardiniere an ornamental bowl, pot, or stand for flowers or plants.
affability cordial quality; friendliness or gentleness.
philippic a long, vehement speech, especially one of denunciation; harangue.
"dressed by Poole" Lefferts' clothes are from fashionable Saville Row in London where Henry Poole and Company are tailors to "gentlemen."