Archer's esteem of May continues to lessen after the wedding ceremony. In the past, he had consoled himself by noting that May's beauty and innocence compensated for her lack of interest in intellectual ideas. Nor Archer cannot even see her beauty as a redeeming quality. He notes that with her serene expression, May looks like "a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess." It is significant that Archer sees her as a representation and not an individual person. Like a statue of "Civic Virtue," May is the creation of her society, a representation of many of Old New York's values. Unfortunately, she appears to be little more than that. Archer worries that May's innocence is "a curtain dropped before an emptiness." He fears that behind May's sweet demeanor and correct manners, she is an essentially hollow person.

In London, Archer is introduced to a person who is the very opposite of May. The French tutor he meets at a dinner party is neither fashionable nor aristocratic. But despite his common-looking exterior, he proves to be a vivid and insightful conversationalist. At dinner, he speaks to Archer about the vital importance of maintaining one's own ideas and opinions. For the tutor, preserving one's right to think freely is worth the price of living in poverty. Archer, filled with envy and admiration, wishes to invite the tutor to dinner for further conversation. But May convinces Archer not to invite him. In this way, she not only refuses to consider ideas outside her normal experiences, she seems bent on depriving Archer of such intellectual discussions as well.

At the end of Chapter 21, Wharton presents a variation on a symbol we have seen earlier in the novel. After Archer sets off to fetch Ellen on her grandmother's orders, he finds her at the shore with her back turned. The image instantly reminds Archer of the scene at the theater in which the two lovers part. This scene now takes on a more personal meaning for him. As Archer turns to leave without saying a word, we are left with a sense of finality. Archer has failed to take advantage of this rare opportunity to speak alone with Ellen. Although no goodbye has been said, it is as if, with Archer's actions, he has decided not to pursue the relationship further.