The Age of Innocence (Modern Library Classics)
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The Age of Innocence Summary and Analysis

by Edith Wharton

Chapters 16-20

Chapter Sixteen Summary: Newland travels to St. Augustine to see his fiancé May. With her, "here was truth, here was reality." Newland kisses her when they can find a moment of seclusion, but the kiss is so hard and adamant that May pulls away. May and Newland have breakfast with her family. They thank Newland for convincing Ellen not to divorce. The day before his departure, Newland takes May to the Spanish gardens in order to encourage her to be his wife sooner. May says that perhaps the pressure is due to the fact that he may not continue to care for her much longer and marriage would be a security. She is worried he is still in love with the mistress from two years ago. Newland convinces her that this is not the case and she believes him and they embrace.

Analysis: The true irony in this chapter is that May is right on the mark about Newland; he has fallen in love with another woman; he does want to rush the marriage because he fears that his love may not last for May. The only thing she has wrong is the woman. Newland is in love with Ellen and not Mrs. Thorley Rushmore. It is ironic and unfortunate that May¹s intuition could be so accurate and yet not enough to reveal the truth.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss May for being inaccurate. It is possible that she know the "other woman" is Ellen; she just does not disclose that she knows and alludes to Mrs. Thorley Rushmore just to show Newland that she knows what¹s going on and has the proper composure to conceal her knowledge.

Chapter Seventeen Summary: While Newland had been away, Ellen had stopped by to meet his mother and sister. Mrs. Archer does not think she is as plain as she first appears. Indeed, Newland remarks that she is quite different than May. Newland goes to visit Mrs. Catherine Manson Mingott when he returns because he has so many messages for her. Mingott jokes, "Why don¹t you marry Ellen?" Newland remarks that she had not been around. Newland reveals to Ellen and Manson Mingott that he wanted to convince May to marry him sooner. Ellen suggests that perhaps she and her grandmother can be of assistance. Ellen asks Newland to visit her and he does the next day.

When he arrives at her home, Newland is greeted by a cast of strange people. There is his friend Ned, who leaves at first opportunity. There is a hokey Dr. Carver, who leaves to attend a lecture. And, there is the Marchioness Mingott, Ellen¹s aunt. She tells Newland that she has come on Count Olenski¹s behalf to convince Ellen to return to Europe.

Analysis: We must notice the constant questioning, "Why isn¹t Newland marrying Ellen?" There seems to be an unconscious realization among people that they are right for each other. What do they seem to have in common to Catherine?

Many academics site Dr. Carver as a very important character. His religion of love is a hoax and exists in opposition to the other religion, that of the strict moral conduct of the society members. His religion is clearly a sham; but interestingly very few regard the religious conduct of the society as being a sham, although both have very little basis in reality.

Chapter Eighteen Summary: Ellen comes down the stairs. She sees that someone has brought her a bouquet and she is annoyed, "I¹m not engaged to be married," and asks Nastasia to take the bouquet to Ned¹s wife. Newland puts the Marchioness Mingott in her carriage. After she is gone, Ellen and Newland smoke. Newland reveals Mingott¹s belief that Ellen will return to Europe. Ellen blushes and says, "Many cruel things have been believed of me." Then after some conversation, Newland reveals that he is in love with Ellen. Ellen is angry because it is Newland that has made it impossible for them to marry; he convinced her not to divorce. Newland says that it is his right to renege on the marriage since May refused to marry him early. But just as he says this, a telegram arrives informing Ellen that her help has made it possible for the two to marry just after Easter ­ one month away!

Analysis: The first point of interest in this chapter is a bit of dialogue between Newland and Ellen. Newland asks, "Is your aunt¹s romanticism always consistent with accuracy?" And Ellen says, "You mean: does she speak the truth?" It is interesting that Newland believes the language of his society to be straightforward and honest, but it is clear that in reality the New Yorkers speak in twisted circumlocutions. Ellen, is the only one who speaks in plain honest language.

Also interesting is the line by Newland, "I¹m still free and you¹re going to be." He vows to call off the engagement but loses all heart when he receives the telegram from May. If his freedom is so easily retracted, is he ever free? In fact, Ellen notes that she only chose against divorce because it seemed to be what Newland wanted. Newland seems to be imposing his shackles on others, rather than liberating them.

Chapter Nineteen Summary: May and Newland are married and they spend their honeymoon, due to a twist of fate, at the Patroon home. Ellen, "due to illness", could not attend the wedding; she had been away for four weeks with her aunt.

Analysis: Here, in this chapter, May¹s "godliness" is again made apparent: "Her face had the look of representing a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chose to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess."

Clothing is an important symbol throughout the novel; interestingly, Ellen gives May a gift of old lace. The gift seems ironic since it is Ellen who supposedly defies conventionalities; yet, old lace is the mark of old society, old convention. Lace is also like netting‹perhaps Ellen is acknowledging that May has "netted" her beau. Lace is also simultaneously romantic and sexual while being old fashioned and sophisticated. The introductory credits to the Scorcese film, The Age of Innocence , shows lace superimposed over very erotic flowers. Clearly, the gift of lace has some interesting implications.

Chapter Twenty Summary: On the honeymoon, Newland realizes that there isn¹t much to emancipate in May because she is totally unaware that she may not be free. They visit some boring family friends, the Carfry¹s, and enjoy making fun of them on the way home.

Analysis: This chapter is quite dull and is probably intentionally written this way to show how commonplace their honeymoon is. The only important idea is "The first six months of marriage are always the hardest. ŒAfter that I suppose we shall have finished rubbing off each other¹s angles." But the worst of it was that May¹s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep."

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