The Age of Innocence

by: Edith Wharton

Chapters 33–34

Summary Chapters 33–34

Between Chapter 33 and 34, there is an enormous chronological gap of about twenty-six years. By abruptly switching to the turn of the century without showing any development of plot or characters, Wharton indicates the discontinuity of the past with the present. By the time Archer reaches middle- age, the world around him has changed dramatically. His children have less leisure time but more freedom and more opportunities than he ever had. The world of his youth is now considered old-fashioned, even a little obsolete. This perhaps explains why Archer's life with May after the announcement of her pregnancy is told as if it were a history. Even though his life with her is important in explaining his current circumstances, May remains only as a memory of the irretrievable past.

What about Ellen? Is she, too, relegated to the past, to remain a hazy image in Archer's memory? It has been many years since he last saw her at May's dinner party, and he cannot imagine how she must have changed from the young woman he remembers. He wonders, in turn, what Ellen remembers of him, whether or not he only remains in her memory "like a relic in a small dim chapel." In Paris, Archer is faced with the rather bewildering prospect of seeing her once again. Standing on the street below her apartment, he sees how different her life must have become in the last twenty-six years. He wonders how the present reality and his own idealized memories of Ellen can possibly connect. In the end Archer chooses to be left with the memory of Ellen and not Ellen herself. Not seeing the real—and now significantly older—person allows him, in certain respects, to maintain her as a symbolic presence, an emblem of the wistfulness and regrets of his youth.

This quiet wistful ending is not what the reader expects. It is neither tragic nor happy. Nor is it inevitable. There is now nothing stopping Archer from reuniting with Ellen; he is only in his fifties, he has been widowed, and he is living in a new and liberal age. If Wharton had chosen to have the two characters meet again, there could be two possible outcomes. Either they would passionately reunite, or they would realize that they had changed too much in their time apart. But Wharton does not allow us to see either possibility. By departing from a traditional happy or tragic ending, she frustrates her readers' expectations. As with Archer's and Ellen's unconsummated affair, Wharton leaves the plot incomplete rather than giving it a predictable ending.