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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton

Chapters 7–9

Summary Chapters 7–9


Wharton commences Chapter 7 with a detailed account of the nature of the power structure and chain of command within the tight-knit high society of New York. As the sole descendants of one of the most wealthy and aristocratic families in the city, Henry and Louisa van der Luyden serve as legislatures, executives, and judges in regards to certain social problems. It is they who determine the laws of family solidarity. Because Ellen's family supports her, everyone outside the family must honor their decision and treat her as one of them. It is also they who judge the severity of the offense against Ellen Olenska; Wharton describes them as the "Court of last appeals." And finally, it is they who decide that action must be taken to amend for the insult. By inviting the Countess to their formal reception for the Duke, the van der Luydens send an unmistakable message to those who have previously slighted Ellen.

Wharton makes her depiction of the van der Luydens ironic by several different means. First of all, she shows the inconsistencies between the van der Luydens as individuals and as leaders. For all the stuffy splendor of their house and the formal quality of their interview with the Archers, Henry and Louisa are shy and retiring people who don't much like to entertain. They seldom leave their home, due both to health problems and a genuine fear of venturing out in public.

Secondly, Wharton describes them in anthropological terms. The van der Luydens are "mouth pieces of some remote ancestral authority which fate compelled them to wield." Wharton subtly hints that there is something primitive about the van der Luydens' influence over society and that their power is due more to wealth and bloodline than to their capability and temperament. For a society that prides itself on its high culture, such a hierarchy of power seems rather crude and primeval.

And finally, Wharton's physical description of this harmless old couple involves a large amount of death imagery. Louisa looks like she was "rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence." This is not unlike the way Wharton sees Mrs. Mingott as a "doomed city" trapped under her own weight in Chapter 4. In both these cases, Wharton's juxtaposition of authority figures with death imagery indicates the ineffectual nature of their power. Ruled by such archaic individuals, Old New York potentially faces a waning of power itself, or even extinction.

In Chapters 8 and 9, we begin to get a better grasp of Ellen's personality. Up until this point, we have seen Ellen primarily through the eyes of others: through the gossip at the opera and through Archer's opinions based on their brief encounters. Now the picture of Ellen becomes more complete through the recounting of her personal history, the descriptions of her exotically furnished apartment, and through her own conversations with Archer. The very nature of their discussion proves to Archer Ellen's foreignness and her lack of traditional manners. Unlike May and the rest of New York who communicate indirectly through glances and euphemistic speech, Ellen is quite candid in her opinions. She directly criticizes the faults she sees in society; namely, that her family would rather have her hide her personal unhappiness than voice it and make them uncomfortable.

It is important also to notice that Ellen is not overly grateful to the van der Luydens for inviting her to their reception. Archer is shocked that she mentions the evening as though it were merely a tea party, for to his mind, such an event is coded with great meaning. But Ellen, as a foreigner, is not used to the specific signals of Old New York. Nor is she particularly desirous of being forgiven for any of her supposed indiscretions. While Ellen is certainly eager to fit into society, she does not see herself as needing to apologize or to act humble. To Old New York, however, her refusal to play the part of compromised woman is only a further indication of her unscrupulous nature.