Chapter One Summary: The play opens at the opera. Newland Archer enters his opera box and looks out across the theater to see his girlfriend, May Welland, touch the lilies he had given her. While dreaming of their future together, his thoughts are interrupted by gasps from the gentlemen sitting with him. They are whispering about a fashionably dressed woman who has just sat down in the box with May. Sillerton Jackson gasps, "I did not think they would have tried it on," which means, he can¹t believe the Mingotts would allow the woman to come and sit in their box at the Opera.
Analysis: This is a book about the conventions of "Old New York", New York City in the 1870¹s. Wharton loves contrasting the old against the new. She begins these contrasts in the very first paragraph. Here she describes the new Opera theater that is going to be erected in the "remote" forties. We can assume that the forties have been built up since then and people reading her book in the 1920¹s (when it was published) would enjoy hearing about how New York has changed. Along these lines, there is also a description of the old people versus the "new people, whom NY was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to."
Also important in this first chapter is Wharton¹s discussion of fashionability and propriety. We can tell from the way that Newland Archer, Lawrence Lefferts and Mr. Silverton Jackson are introduced (all are so concerned with what is "moral" and "the thing") that Wharton will spend a lot of time in the novel discussing and perhaps critiquing these concepts in the book.
Of note, as well, is the great attention to detail that Wharton has. The way she describes clothing and interior decoration with much detail has led many to dub this book a "costume novel". We will have to see for ourselves if the book develops beyond being a "bodice ripper" sort of book.
May Welland will be one of the most important characters in the book. She is holding Lillies of the Valley. In the 1870¹s the lily of the valley was the flower of chastity and of the names Cynthia and Diana. Later in the book, May is often compared to Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Chapter Two Summary: Newland becomes annoyed as he realizes that everyone is paying attention to the box where his fiancé is sitting. He doesn¹t want the woman to whom he is engaged to be associated with a woman of questionable reputation. The strange woman is Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May. She has a bad reputation because she left her husband and ran off with his secretary. In New York Society, such behavior was not accepted. Newland suddenly wishes to sit next to his girlfriend, as if to protect her from the gossip. He also has a sudden urge to announce their engagement because he wants to distract attention from the foreign woman and place attention on the happy occasion of their engagement. He walks over to their box and is introduced to Ellen. Ellen explains that she remembers being kissed by him when they were little children and that returning to New York reminds her of her childhood. She can "see" everyone in their childhood underpants. Newland does not like her referring to New York society as being "a dear old place." He considers his society to be a grand institution and Ellen seems to be slighting this society.
Analysis: Here we see how Newland is fixated with Taste. He is annoyed that his fiancé may be associated with a woman of ill-repute; he thinks that Ellen¹s dress is too revealing and that the Mingotts should have not brought her to the Opera.
Also interesting in this chapter is the motif of the military: "Form was the mere visible representative and vicegerent of Taste . . ." Thorley "entered the lists" as the ladies champion. Against whom are these members of New York Society mobilizing against?
It is also interesting to examine which words are capitalized. Society, Family, Taste are capitalized words because they seem to Newland to be inflexible institutions that are very important.
The remark that "the persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies" is important as well. Will Newland be satisfied with this world?
There is also a bit of foreshadowing in that Newland had kissed Ellen when she was little and that Ellen remembered the event. Is there some possibility of romance here?
Food is an important motif in this book. Mrs. Manson Mingott and Mrs. Archer are looked down upon because they do not serve good food.
Contrast is another important literary tool here. The old brownstone architecture is contrasted against the new cream-colored stones of the new inductees of the society. Ellen Olenska¹s dark hair and red clothing are often contrasted against May¹s blonde hair and white dress.
Chapter Three Summary: After the Opera, everyone goes to the Beauforts¹ home for the annual ball. He keeps a huge room in his house dedicated solely to the annual ball. It sits vacant 364 days in the year. There, May announces to friends that she is engaged. Newland and May dance and, as is appropriate, sit alone in the conservatory where they sneak a kiss while no one is looking. Newland asks if Ellen has come to the ball; he hopes that she has not come because of her ill reputation. May replies that Ellen did not feel her dress was pretty enough to attend the ball, so she went home. Newland is glad that May understands propriety so well that she know when not to discuss the "real" reason why Ellen decided not to come: her bad reputation.
Analysis: In this chapter, it is important to see how reputation is discussed in such depth. The Beaufort¹s reputation is discussed; the grandness of their ballroom is discussed.
Also, of note, Newland fibs for the first time to May in this chapter; and, his fib concerns Ellen.
Clothing is an important motif in this books. Beaufort¹s servants have silk stockings; Ellen¹s clothes are the excuse for why she does not attend the ball. Clothes serve a deep purpose in this novel; it is important to watch each detail of clothing so that we can understand at the end why such emphasis is placed on wardrobe.
Another interesting motif is the idea of immortality in the members of New York Society. Mrs. Beaufort, here, is presented as sort of immortal. She "grows younger and blonder and more beautiful each year." As we continue reading we will find more examples of how people in this society seem to never age, defying death.
Chapter Four Summary: As is customary for newly engaged people, Newland calls on Mrs. Welland and May and together they go to Mrs. Manson Mingott¹s home to ask her blessing for the marriage. Her home "lacks propriety" because her drawing room is on the same floor as the bedroom. To Newland¹s and May¹s relief, Ellen is not home; she has gone out shopping during the main "shopping hour" which lacks propriety as well. Mingott of course gives her blessing and encourages Newland and May to marry soon, "before the bubble¹s off the wine." As May, Newland and Mrs. Welland are leaving, Ellen returns with Beaufort. Newland apologizes to Ellen for not having told her of the engagement at the Opera. Ellen understands that it isn¹t proper to reveal such things in crowds. Ellen asks Archer to come and visit some time, but Newland thinks to himself how inappropriate such a visit would be.
Analysis: This chapter is a long discourse on propriety. There is a little bit of foreshadowing in that Mingott encourages the two to marry soon perhaps there is trouble beneath the surface that Mingott recognizes?
Also, we see the motif of immortality shine through in the character of Mrs. Catherine Manson Mingott. Catherine is the grand matriarch of New York Society. She is also similar to Mrs. Beaufort in that she never ages. Her face and body are so fat that she seems to have never wrinkled, despite her old age. Her never wrinkling makes it seem that she retains her youth.
Chapter Five Summary: Sillerton Jackson comes to dine with the Archers. Janey and Mrs. Archer want to hear the recent gossip on Ellen Olesnka. They began conversation discussing Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, who apparently was just a model for Mr. Struthers before they married. Then Ellen was discussed. Jackson said that she had not attended the ball and Mrs. Archer was glad of it. Janey ridicules Ellen¹s dress; Mrs. Archer says that Ellen was bound to grow up strangely since she was permitted to wear black satin at her coming out ball. Newland defends Ellen and says that she should be able to act however she pleases since it isn¹t her fault that she happened to have married a brute. Later, while the ladies retreat to work on a tapestry for May, the men smoke in the Gothic library. Newland remarks that "Women ought to be free."
Analysis: This chapter is significant because Newland¹s opinion of Ellen has changed; he now defends her and her actions; although he still believes in decorum he has taken a stance in his family that Ellen should not be blamed. What has caused this change of mind?Also, there is some indication of Newland¹s "past". What happened between him and the Rushworth woman? Does he feel, in some ways, similar to Ellen?
Later in the book, Janey is referred to as Cassandra-like. Cassandra is, in Greek mythology, an unfortunate gossip who tells the future although no one believes her. We see Janey¹s role as the gossip first manifests here.
Freedom is an important theme in this novel. Newland says that women should be free. But one of the central issues in the book is whether or not Newland, himself, is free. If he is not free, then how can he grant freedom? Is Ellen free? What about May? It is she whom Newland wishes to free the most, and yet, she may turn out to have more freedom than any other character in the novel. In which case, it is deeply ironic that Newland could wish for her freedom in the first place.