The Age of Innocence
Despite his failure to extract any more than a tenuous promise from Ellen, Archer is nonetheless comforted by their agreement and returns the next day to New York. As he arrives at the train station, he is surprised to meet the French tutor he had met abroad in London, and he invites the young man to call on him that afternoon. In Archer's office, the tutor relates that he had seen Archer the day before in Boston. He informs Archer that he was there to speak with Ellen on behalf of Count Olenski. Despite his connection with the Count, however, the tutor firmly believes that Ellen should not return to him and asks Archer to persuade the Mingott family to change their mind regarding the issue.
At this moment, Archer realizes that he has been excluded from the family's negotiations over Ellen's fate because they saw that he was not on their side. He asks the tutor why he feels Ellen should not accept the offer. The tutor explains that Ellen has changed, that she has become more American, and that going back to her old European life would be unbearable for her now that she has adapted to New York customs. We learn from the tutor's speech that he has known the Count and Ellen for many years. This leads Archer to wonder if he is perhaps the secretary rumored to have had an affair with Ellen.
Autumn soon arrives, and with it Archer's mother's usual complaints that society has changed in recent years for the worse. Evidence of this societal decay is the extravagant new fall fashions, Beaufort's rumored recent financial problems following unlawful speculations, and the success of Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's vulgar Sunday evening parties. At Thanksgiving dinner, the conversation turns to Ellen Olenska, who was one of the first to attend the Struthers parties. Ellen has again disappointed the family by refusing to return to her husband. Remaining in Washington with Medora, she is now considered to be a hopeless case. Archer himself has not heard from her for several months.
When Sillerton Jackson makes the waggish suggestion that Ellen may lose some financial assistance should Beaufort lose his fortune, Archer angrily responds to this implication of adultery. After his outburst, he realizes that he has exposed his ignorance of the family's decisions regarding Ellen. Unbeknownst to him, they have greatly reduced her allowance upon her refusal to return to her husband, leaving her next to penniless. Upon returning home, Archer invents an excuse to tell May to justify his going to Washington the next day. While May wishes him a good journey, her eyes indicate that she is quite aware that Archer means to see Ellen there.
Archer's plans to leave for Washington are thwarted by the collapse of Beaufort's business dealings, which promise to be the worst disaster Wall Street has ever seen. News soon reaches Archer that Mrs. Mingott has had a stroke. When he reaches her home, he is informed of the cause of her stroke. Mrs. Beaufort had been to see Mrs. Mingott the night before and had asked her the impossible: that the family support Beaufort through his financial collapse. Mrs. Mingott had refused, but the shock of Mrs. Beaufort's effrontery was great enough to induce a stroke.
Mrs. Mingott requests to see Ellen. May exclaims that it is a pity that her train to New York will cross Archer's train bound for Washington on the way.
Upon talking with the French tutor, Archer comes to the painful realization that the Mingott family has decided to exclude him from their discussions of Ellen. This act of exclusion is upsetting to Archer because it forces him to realize the power of the group and his own relative weakness. Earlier in the novel, Archer felt that he could challenge the family's decisions by voicing his own different opinions on Ellen's marital difficulties. But by cutting him completely out of the discussion, the family denies him not only the power to object, but they also deny him the knowledge of Ellen's problems. To avoid any unpleasant debate, the Mingotts choose to keep Archer in the dark. On this subject, he is left in a state of innocence. For a man already frustrated with the suffocating confines of his environment, the awareness that his family can control what he knows is very disheartening.
As for the Mingott family, they themselves choose only to acknowledge certain aspects of Ellen's situation. They wish for her to return to her husband because they feel that Ellen will be less a subject of gossip if she returns to a stable married life. But by insisting that she return to her husband, the Mingotts are overlooking some very important facts. Namely, that Ellen does not want to return to her philandering husband and that she will be unhappy in such an unhealthy relationship. In speaking to Archer, the French tutor explains that if Ellen's family knew how unpleasant things would be for her with her husband, they would not ask her to return to him. But are the Mingotts truly unaware of the negative aspects of Ellen's marriage? Or are they purposefully overlooking the unpleasant realities? Perhaps, as Archer figures, the Mingotts would rather see Ellen as "an unhappy wife than a separated one," because married life gives a more proper appearance.
With the reappearance of the French tutor, Wharton returns to an issue that was mentioned earlier in the novel but not resolved: Ellen Olenska's supposed affair. Her husband the Count had claimed in his letter that her lover was his secretary. Realizing that the French tutor was sent by Count Olenski, Archer wonders if he is that supposed lover. But even here, Wharton's narration is not omniscient; she does not tell the reader whether or not the tutor is her lover or whether Ellen had a lover at all. We are left knowing as little about the truth as Archer. As a result, it is difficult for us to judge Ellen's actions.
We are also left wondering how much May really knows about Archer's feelings for Ellen. When he gives her an excuse for going to Washington, she simply smiles and encourages him to greet Ellen. But Wharton includes a long paragraph in which she interprets what May is really saying with her few words and smile. In this imagined monologue, May indicates that she knows there has been some talk about Archer and Ellen and that the only proper thing for her to do is to pretend that she is unaware of it. By explicitly telling him to greet Ellen, she reinforces her appearance of ignorance.
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