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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton

Book Two Chapters 19–21

Chapters 16–18

Book Two Chapters 19–21, page 2

page 1 of 2

Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day. The predictably ritualistic ceremony passes before Archer as a complete blur, and amidst the marriage vows he thinks hazily of Ellen. After the wedding, May and Archer set out by train for their bridal suite in the country. On the train, May is all cheerfulness and bright chatter. Newland is again impressed by her naïveté and complete lack of imagination. When she mentions Ellen's name, Archer finds himself flustered. Arriving at their destination, they find that their bridal suite is unavailable and that the van der Luydens have instead arranged for them to spend the night in their little ancestral cottage where Newland met with Ellen that previous winter.

After their stay in the cottage, the Archers travel to Europe for their honeymoon. May is concerned that she will be required to visit Archer's foreign acquaintances. Her anxiety, we learn, is typical of the Old New York crowd, whose fear of Europeans causes them to travel abroad in a state of isolation. Archer, meanwhile, abandons his attempts to educate May; for "there was no use in trying to educate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free." He reconciles himself to the fact that his married life will still allow him an active intellectual life outside of the home. As for his own feelings towards European culture, he decides that it is too different from his own way of life to capture his imagination for very long.

Archer does convince May to attend a dinner party hosted by some family friends in London. At the dinner, he meets a young Frenchman who serves as the family's tutor. Archer is intrigued by the man's vivid conversation and his conviction that being intellectually free is worth living in poverty. After dinner, he mentions to May that he would like to invite the Frenchman to dinner. May dismisses this idea with laughter, and Archer sees that this is how disagreements between them will be solved in the future.

After their three-month honeymoon, the Archers rejoin Old New York society in Newport for the annual archery competition. By now, married life has become predictable but placid for Archer. Ellen has been relegated to the back of his memory, remaining there only as a "plaintive ghost" of his past. At the archery competition, May wins first prize, and the Archers visit Mrs. Mingott at her near-by summer home to show her May's prize. At Mrs. Mingott's, they learn that Ellen, who has since moved from New York to Washington, is currently visiting Newport with Medora. Mrs. Mingott sends Archer to find her. He sees her near the shore but decides he will not approach her unless she turns around. She doesn't, and he returns alone.


In the transition from Book One to Book Two of The Age of Innocence, Wharton dramatically breaks the flow of the novel's narrative. At the end of Book One, we leave Archer just as he has heard from May that their wedding date will be pushed forward. Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day, as he waits for his bride's carriage to arrive at the church. There is little connection between these two scenes; nothing is mentioned about the preparation for the wedding or Archer's jitters as he prepares to marry a woman he feels is unsuited for him. Because of this jerky transition, the reader feels slightly bewildered by the rush of all the wedding events. We can empathize with Archer, who suddenly finds himself helpless in the midst of this life-changing experience. Because Archer feels so unable to stop or control his own wedding, he feels that it is inevitable.

In addition to portraying the wedding as an unstoppable force, Wharton also compares it to a primitive ritual. Each small act involved with the marriage follows a certain code or tradition. For example, Wharton describes the act of keeping secret the location of a new couple's first night together as a long- held custom, remarking that it is "one of the most sacred taboos of the prehistoric ritual." In this way, Wharton mocks the beloved traditions of New York society as silly and almost superstitious. She also wryly comments on the fact that an argument over the displaying of wedding gifts causes May's mother to burst into tears of indignation. Archer is amazed that "grown-up people should work themselves into a state of agitation over such trifles."

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