The scene at the theater between the actress and her lover, in which he kisses the ribbons on the back of her dress without her knowing, is part of a motif that occurs throughoutThe Age of Innocence. While watching the scene, Archer feels that it has a certain personal symbolic meaning for him, but he is unable to articulate exactly what it means. Because he does not consider Ellen as a lover, he concludes that the scene must have reminded him of Ellen's dramatic and vivacious personality. It is not until late in the book that we (and perhaps Archer) come to realize that this scene is part of a larger pattern. At Newport, Archer sees Ellen standing near the shore with her back turned, yet leaves without her noticing. At the very end of the novel, Archer stands on the street below her Paris apartment, but leaves without seeing her. This theme of missed communication, or a failure to connect, serves to emphasize the fact that an affair between Archer and Ellen is fraught with difficulties, if it is not outrightly impossible.
In addition to giving these scenes a poignant symbolism, Wharton also gives her characters symbolic meanings. In chapter 14, we meet Archer's friend Ned Winsett. While Ned is an interesting conversationalist and an insightful social critic, he is not a part of Archer's elite class. In fact, he is in many ways a failure; he was unable to make a career for himself as a man of letters (a creative freelance writer) and now he works as a journalist. Archer values Ned's opinions on Old New York, yet he also finds Ned's life to be equally narrow and confining. Thus Ned serves as a reminder to Archer that there is no perfect alternative to the rigid social structure of high society. Ned symbolizes both the freedom from social confines and the tremendous costs of living outside the system.
Setting also takes on increasing importance in these chapters. In rapidly changing the scene from New York to Skuytercliff to St. Augustine, Wharton indicates a change in her characters attitudes or temperaments. For Ellen, spending the weekend at Skuytercliff allows her to temporarily escape the dreary and confining realities of New York. She explains to Archer in her letter that she is "running away." Archer leaves New York for Hudson on a whim, with very little explanation, in order to see Ellen. Unsatisfied with their meeting, during which he both realizes his love for Ellen and the barriers to such a potential relationship, he abruptly departs for St. Augustine. There, he instead seeks to be reunited with May and affirm his own feelings for her.
It is also significant that Archer's feelings for Ellen become explicit at Skuytercliff and not New York. In fact, many of the key interactions between them occur outside of New York. In this way, Archer connects his love for Ellen with an escape from the confines of New York. In Book Two he will express a wish to run away to the Far East with Ellen, or to at least go to a place where labels like "mistress" or "adultery" don't exist. To Archer, a voyage away from New York represents the ultimate freedom.