The Age of Innocence Summary and Analysis

Chapters 6-10

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Chapter Six Summary: For the first time, Newland has doubts about his marriage. He feels that May¹s "innocence" is a contrivance of society, too fabricated to be real. He feels uncomfortable taking such an innocent woman as his wife, trading her blank page for his "page with a past." He worries that all the men around him of "perfect form" like Lawrence Lefferts lead horrible marriages of deceit and is worried that such a fate could become his own. After all, he hasn¹t confided any of his "real self" to May; perhaps they will always live their lives in secret from each other.

Then, the Lovell Mingotts decide to throw a reception for Ellen Olenska. But, all the people of good society reject the invitation. So, Mrs. Welland tells this to Newland and Newland tells his mother. Mrs. Archer then goes to tell her friend Louisa van der Luyden, who is one of the most reputable women in New York society.

Analysis: Ellen¹s arrival has clearly initiated for Newland some sort of deep critical thinking about society and his bride-to-be. Newland criticizes the innocence of his bride to be a sham, a façade. Perhaps this is the ironic commentary that we should understand as being behind the title.

It is also deeply ironic that the "high-priest of form" is the one who has all sorts of affairs. Why does this society (which is so concerned with propriety) seem so corrupt at its base?

Names are a point of interest in this book. Janey notes that she thinks Ellen should have changed her name to Elaine.

Chapter Seven Summary: Mrs. Archer and Newland discuss the problem of Ellen¹s reception with Mrs. Van der Luyden, who insists that she must discuss the problem with her husband. Mrs. Archer insists that Larry Lefferts discouraged everyone from coming in order to distract attention from his own affairs with women; Mr. Van der Luyden says that as long as the Mingotts have accepted Ellen into their family then everyone else should accept her into society as well. Since he and his wife cannot attend the dinner in the Leffertses place, due to Louisa¹s health, they instead invite Ellen to a reception dinner with the Duke of St. Austrey. This reception is of such high prestige that it exonerates Ellen of any marks on her reputation.

Analysis: This chapter is interesting because it reveals the many levels of stratification in New York society. When Ellen is "judged" by the Leffertses, Mrs. Archer can appeal to a higher authority: the van der Luydens, who are indisputably of better reputation. This chapter gives a deep sense of the politics of the times.

Also interesting is the description of the "immortal" nature of the van der Luydens. Mrs. van der Luyden is described as "looking exactly like her portrait;" like Catherine, earlier, van der Luyden never ages. She seems "rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death." There are many reasons why Wharton chooses to describe her this way. Perhaps Wharton is trying to draw a dichotomy between the "mortals" and the immortals". The mortals are people like Ellen Olenska, Ned Winsett (whom we meet later) and regular common folks. These people are alive; they age and they are relatively left out of the scheme of the great New York Society. People who are "immortal" are the van der Luydens, the Mingotts, the Archers, the Wellands, the Leffertses. These families are like the gods of the New York pantheon. In making clear this distinction, Wharton can play with the problem of categorizing Newland. Is he a mortal or an immortal? Where does he fit in?

Another reason why these great families may be described as "alive but dead" is that they are quietly losing power as time moves on. Wharton is clear in telling us that the great American aristocracies are dying dinosaurs in the early twentieth century. By describing them as, already in a sense, dead, she can drive home the point that much of this codified society is already beginning to die out.

Chapter Eight Summary: This chapter gives some background on Ellen¹s past. Ellen¹s parents had been avid travelers and they died early in Ellen¹s life. She lived with her aunt Medora Manson who was sort of eccentric. She would dress Ellen in crimson merino and amber beads and did not allow her to mourn for her parents as long as was "proper".

She was the only young woman present at the reception for the Duke. After dinner, to many people¹s surprise, the Duke headed straight to Ellen where they talked for a while. Then, she left his side, (which was an inappropriate thing for a woman to do) and sat next to Newland. Ellen asks if Newland¹s engagement to May was arranged or just sheerly romantic. Newland balks ­ no marriages are arranged in America, he says. Upon getting up, she tells Newland that she expects him to visit her tomorrow after five PM (although no plans had been set). Then, there is a line of people ready to speak to Ellen; these are the same people that had rejected the invitation to meet her earlier.

Analysis: This chapter is full of ironies. First, Newland becomes enraptured with Ellen because she defies propriety ­ yet, this is the one thing that is supposed to make her unacceptable. For example, she explains that the Duke is very dull and Newland thinks it is "undeniably exciting" that she would know him well enough to make the claim and be uninhibited enough to express it. Also ironic is that Newland would claim that his relationship with May is just romantic when it is clear that they are together simply because they are the "perfect match" in terms of the family backgrounds and not because they had fallen in love on their own. It is also ironic that although May is incredibly beautiful, it is the touch of Ellen¹s fan that excites him like a caress. Also, it is the Duke who finds May the "most handsome woman in the room"; yet, he is incredibly dull. It makes us wonder if May is handsome only to "dull" people. Is Newland beginning to break from convention and take less interest in her?

This chapter is also brilliant in that Wharton clearly articulates some of the stranger codes of this society. Women should not, for example, leave a man¹s side and walk across a room unescorted to join the company of another man. Why are these codes important to this society? Are they stifling or liberating?

Also, the contrast between May and Ellen is striking and important in this chapter. Ellen is described as aging; with "paled red cheeks." May, on the other hand, looks like an immortal goddess, dressed in white like "Diana alighting from the chase." When Ellen is described, she is always described by her humanness ­ she ages, looks plain and experienced. May is described as superhuman and impossibly innocent in her brilliant white. This contrast runs through the novel.

Chapter Nine Summary: Newland arrives at Ellen¹s home in the artist district at five after five. He had had a bad day; he felt like a "wild animal cunningly trapped" because he had been forced to go from home to home announcing his engagement to May. He does not tell May of his meeting with Ellen. When he gets to Ellen¹s home she is not there and he relaxes in her living room admiring her exotically decorated home. When she arrives, she explains that she had spent the day with Julius Beaufort looking for a new home because others do not find her home fashionable enough. Ellen is flippant about how she finds New York so safe like a little girl¹s paradise. Newland thinks that she should not be so naïve about how "powerful an engine" New York is and how she almost was crushed by it. She remarks how she had enjoyed the party at the van der Luydens; Archer says its unfortunate that they do not "receive very often." Ellen, cleverly says, "Perhaps that¹s the reason for their great influence." They continue in this manner until the Duke of St. Austrey arrives with Mrs. Struthers. Struthers had not been invited to the Luydens¹ party and she had wanted to meet Ellen and invite her to a party at her home. Soon after their arrival, Newland leaves. On his way home, he stops at the florist to send May her daily lilies. He decides to send her the flowers; but he also sends an anonymous bouquet of flaming yellow roses to Ellen.

Analysis: In this chapter, Newland falls in love with Ellen, as signified by his calling her "Ellen" instead of "Madame Olenska." In a society as proper as New York in the 1890s, calling a woman by her first name indicated that there was a significant emotional tie. He loves her because she defies the rules of society by seemingly not understanding them. She makes light of the powerful figures ­ Manson Mingott and the van der Luydens. She is close friends with one of the most respectable figures -- the Duke ­ while simultaneously friends with Beaufort, a man of no reputation.

Also, intriguing is the fact that Ellen believes New York society to be plain and straightforward: "I thought it so up and down ­ like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered." Whereas Newland says, "Everything may be labeled ­ but everyone is not." This is ironic, too, because everyone is labeled ­ people judge each other by family name.

Another theme in the novel is suggested by Ellen when she says, "The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend." The book is about pretenders; everyone pretends to be something they are not; everyone but Ellen. Newland was frustrated in a prior chapter by the realization that he, too, is being forced to pretend in his relationship with May.

Chapter 10 Summary: May and Newland go for a walk in the park. May thanks him for sending her flowers every day and remarks that it is nice that she gets them at different times of the day; it means he thinks each day to send her flowers, unlike Larry Lefferts who had a standing order for Gertrude¹s flowers to be sent each day. Newland tells May that he sent Ellen beautiful roses but May remarks that Ellen had not discussed them, although she had discussed flowers from other friends. Newland changes the subject and remarks that their engagement seems very long; May says that everyone else has had similarly long engagements. Newland feels like all of May¹s comments have been fed to her by others and wonders how long it will be until she can speak for herself. He worries that when he takes her bandage of innocence off her eyes, she won¹t be able to see anything. He suggests that they travel and May remarks that he is terribly original. Then Newland shouts, "Original? We¹re all like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper." On the suggestion of elopement, May balks, "We can¹t behave like people in novels, though, can we?"

Later, Archer skips his regular trip to the club for fear that his life is becoming to repetitive and predictable. While he is reading novels in his study, Janey tells him that the Countess has gone to a party at Mrs. Struthers. This is horrible, of course, because Struthers is too "common." Newland remarks that he is "not married to Countess Olenska" and has nothing to do with her affairs. Luckily, Henry van der Luyden comes for a visit and does not blame Ellen for her attending the party. She probably just doesn¹t understand convention. Henry¹s nonchalance about the affair puts Mrs. Archer¹s heart at ease: decorum is still intact.

Analysis: Here we see a deepening of Newland¹s infatuation with Ellen. He vocalizes "I¹m not engaged to be married to the Countess Olenska" as if he is truly voicing his own desire. He also says, "Ellen was the best looking woman [at the van der Luyden¹s party]" without even considering May.

Also important is the theme of reading in this novel; perhaps Newland is getting his fantastic ideas about what romance and love should be like from his novels. Are the novels to blame for his love of the "exotic" and his infatuation with Ellen? Does May recognize Newland¹s new literature-induced impulses? Is this why she says, "We can¹t live like people in novels"?

Also, the fungibility of decorum is displayed in this chapter. Mrs. Archer is totally afraid that Ellen¹s behavior is out of place, but when Henry van der Luyden is ready to place the blame for her actions on the Duke, Ellen¹s actions are vindicated. We see that morality in this society is quite flexible and dependent upon what those in "power" dictate.