Analysis

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.