The Age of Innocence

Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25

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Chapter Twenty-One Summary: It has been a year and a half since Newland last saw Ellen. He spends August in Newport with all the other wealthy members of his society. Everyone stands around and watches May shoot an arrow like a goddess at a little contest at the summer party. Later, May decides she wants to visit her Granny and takes the reins of the carriage. Catherine tells them that Ellen is at home but when they call for her the maid says she has already walked toward the sea. Newland is asked to retrieve her but as he approaches her he realizes that he can¹t find the power to approach her. He decides that he will watch a boat and see if it passes a rock before Ellen looks at him. The boat passes the rock and Ellen has not turned her gaze away from the sea. So, Newland retreats to the house and pretends he could not find her. That night, as May and Newland travel back to the Welland¹s home, May comments that perhaps Ellen would have been happier with her husband. Newland says her comment was cruel, "Watching the contortions of the damned is supposed to be a favorite sport of the angels; but I believe even they don¹t think people happier in hell." All night Newland lays awake thinking of Ellen.

Analysis: It seems in this chapter that Newland is dead. His life is a dream and the characters lack depth and reality. He is a coward now. He cannot even approach Ellen. His soul seems dead.

Interestingly, May has retained her godly innocence and beauty while married. Wharton remarks that she is still exactly the same; she like van der Luyden does not age and retains her stature as Diana, the goddess of the hunt and chastity. Catherine is again referred to as a god by the pantheon she has painted on her walls; clearly she recognizes her place as a New York society "god" if she has such a painting on her ceiling,

The scene where Newland walks to the ocean front and then decides to let "fate" determine whether he will approach Ellen is one of the most memorable scenes in the book. It shows how Newland no longer wishes to will actions; he sets arbitrary signposts in fate and then allows random chance to affect his decisions. As further evidence of this change in his character, May takes the reigns while in their carriage ­ she directs the course of their lives.

Chapter Twenty-Two Summary: The Blenkers, the family where Ellen is staying, decide to throw a garden party which means that none would be home. Strangely, Newland decides to go to the Blenkers¹ home with the hope of seeing the place where Ellen has been living. He goes to the home, expecting it to be deserted, and finds one of the Blenker daughters who reveals to him that she has gone to Boston.

Analysis: Interestingly, the whole world seems quite gray except for a pink parasol that Newland finds at the Blenker¹s home ­ a symbol of exoticism. He picks it up, believing it to be Ellen¹s. In his mind, anything exotic and brightly colored must be associated with Ellen. It is very ironic that Newland would feel this way: in the next chapter we see that Ellen¹s umbrella is actually gray. Her exoticness has been subdued in the year and a half that Newland has not seen her; the woman of his imagination is now different than the real Ellen.

Also, on the way to the Blenker¹s, Newland walks past a statue of a cupid. It¹s an ineffectual cupid: the cupid has no arrows and no quiver. Newland is very similar to the cupid, metaphorically. Both Newland and Cupid are "archers", and ineffectual ones. Newland, like the broken cupid, is unable to will action.

Chapter Twenty-Three Summary: Newland goes to Boston and sends a message to Parker House, where Ellen is staying, but she is not there. He sees her sitting on a bench outside of the building. He says hello and for the first time, he sees a startled look on her face. Previously, the narrator has told us that Ellen never seems to become surprised. She is on a bench thinking if she should return to her husband. He has sent a messenger to bring her back and he is offering a big sum of money. Newland stares at her and says, "Haven¹t we done all we could?" They take a boat ride together and then have dinner in a private dining hall; they do not touch and barely speak to each other. The silence and isolation is simply enough.

Analysis: This is the first chapter where Newland finally seems alive again. This scene is desperate, beautiful and simple.

Many scenes in the novel are described as tableau ­ they are described like still-life oil paintings. One of the most important tableau is the scene where Newland approaches Ellen. He sees her sitting across the Common and the narrator describes his vision as if she were a beautiful painting. The Scorcese film actually depicts this scene with a real oil painting.

Also, it is very ironic that Newland feels as if their little boat trip is "like they were starting on some long voyave from which they might never return." In reality, their trip is nothing like a long voyage. It is just a circular trip through Boston Harbor.

Chapter Twenty-Four Summary: Finally, the "silent spell is broken" and the two break out in conversation. Newland asks why she has not returned to Europe and Ellen says, "Because of you." Then she says one of the most interesting passages in the book: "At least it was you who made me understand that under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison. It seems as it I¹d never before understood with how much that is hard and shabby and base the most exquisite pleasures may be paid for." Ellen thanks Newland for making her the woman she is. And Newland says that he¹s not much of a man at all, "I¹m the man who married one woman because another one told him to." Ellen continues that it is their sacrifice that has made May¹s life so lovely. And, Newland insists that she dare not base her happiness on the success of his marriage since, "[Ellen] gave [him] his firs glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment asked him to go on with a sham one. It¹s beyond human enduring. She exclaims, "But I¹m enduring it!" And the two realize that they will never be alone since they will both silently endure the same pain. Ellen says she will stay in America, as long as they continue to endure; as long as they do not disobey propriety for their love.

Analysis: This scene is so powerful because, despite the depth of feeling and language, the two never touch. Also interesting is the plays on reality and pretend. What is real? What is the sham life? Newland changes his mind depending on whose company his is in.

Also, it is interesting that their misery is all for the sake of preserving May¹s happiness. Is May, in a sense, the free individual since all cater to her happiness? Certainly, this may be true since it is her reality that all seem to cater to entertain.

Chapter Twenty-Five Summary: Newland wanders back to New York in a "golden haze." On leaving the train station he runs into a gentleman he had seen near Ellen¹s Boston residence, the Parker House. They agree to meet later in Newland¹s office. His name is M. Riviere and his first comment to Newland is, "I believe I saw you yesterday in Boston." Riviere reveals that he had been the messenger sent by Olenski to Ellen. Newland is, at first very angry. But, then Riviere reveals that he, personally, believes that the worst thing for Ellen would be for her to return. He reasons that she is an American and believes certain things that are commonplace in Europe to be unthinkable in her mind as an American. Riviere reveals to Newland that he is quitting his job with Olenski.

Analysis: This chapter reveals, objectively, that Newland is right in pleading with Ellen to stay. It is the right thing for her and it has been confirmed, now, by an objective source. Since the narration is so close to Newland, in that it reflects his thoughts, prior to this moment, it is impossible for the reader to know whether or not Europe is a more appropriate home for Ellen. But, since Riviere has no motives to leave Ellen in America (in fact he has motives to the contrary) we can believe, for once, that Ellen belongs in America. It is also interesting that the ties of society are so tight for May; she will not reveal to her own husband the negotiations concerning Ellen because others have deemed it better that she not reveal this to him.