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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The Age of Innocence begins on the opening night of an opera called Faust. Newland Archer is a respectable man who plans to marry a respectable girl and live a respectable life. On this night, his fiancée's cousin has come to the opera, much to the dismay of the New York social elite. Ellen Olenska, the cousin, is in the midst of a scandal because she has left her husband and returned to America after supposedly carrying on an affair with her husband's secretary. May and her family have decided to make the best of the scandal, and since they are respected in society, they expect others to accept Ellen as well. Still, to quiet the rumblings of scandal, Newland and May announce their engagement that very night. Newland meets the Countess and finds her to be intriguing, but threatening to his sense of honor and propriety.
After that night, Newland is obliged to go with the Wellands on betrothal visits to all the important friends and relatives of their families. They first go to the matriarch of May's family, old Mrs. Manson Mingott. While there, they hear that Ellen is out shopping on Fifth Avenue, something considered to be scandalous in a woman who has been disgraced in her marriage. They are further shocked when Ellen arrives back at her grandmother's house on the arm of Julius Beaufort, a man of questionable reputation who married into New York society, but who is always regarded with suspicion.
Gossip about Ellen continues to circulate, and May's family tries to overcome the stigma by holding a banquet in her honor. But they are snubbed by all their friends--an insult unheard of among members of the social elite. Social rules mandate that if a family is willing to accept the scandalous member back into the fold, society must follow. To counter this insult, Newland and his mother go to see one of the most powerful New York families, the van der Luydens, and have them invite the Countess to their home. The result is that all who snubbed the Countess are forced to greet and accept her. Also, Newland spends more time in her company, and she asks him to come visit her.
Newland visits Ellen at her house, despite his own awareness that such a visit might seem improper. He finds her house quite different from anything he's ever seen. He finds that he likes her fresh spirit and new ideas. When he leaves, he goes to a florist where he orders yellow roses for Ellen. Every day he places the same order of lilies-of-the-valley for May and today he had forgotten. He also sends May her usual flowers.
Newland works in a law firm that has been hired to handle Ellen's divorce from her husband, the Count. Mr. Letterblair, the senior partner, has given Newland the case. In the papers is a letter from the Count that contains a threat to expose Ellen for conducting an affair with his secretary. Newland's instructions are to convince Ellen not to get a divorce. He goes to her and reluctantly tells her she must think of her family's reputation and not pursue the divorce. She agrees sadly.
Not long after, Newland goes to the theater and sees a play that always moves him. In one scene, a couple is parting. The woman turns her back to the room and the man is about to leave. First, though, he goes to her and lifts the ribbon of her dress and holds it to his lips. She doesn't realize he's so close to her. Then he leaves. As he watches the scene, he sees the Countess Olenska in Beaufort's box along with Lawrence Lefferts, a married man who conducts a series of extramarital affairs fooling his wife all the while. He goes to speak to Ellen. She asks him if he thinks the man will send a dozen yellow roses to the woman. He blushes. He says he had planned to leave the theater so he could keep the image of this scene in his mind. She blushes.
Newland's attraction to Ellen grows as his discontent with May and society does. Against his better judgement, he pursues her. The next day he tries to get in touch with her and receives no answer. Finally, he receives a note from her that she has gone to the country estate of the van der Luydens to get away from something she fears. He remembers he has been invited to a weekend party at the Chiverses, a family whose estate is not far from the van der Luydens'. He goes. After spending time with his friends, Newland goes to see Ellen. He finds her outside walking. They go to a house on the van der Luydens' estate, called the Patroon's house. He wants to know what she was afraid of that made her leave New York. As he says this, he has his back turned to her and imagines that she will come up behind him and put her arms around him. They are interrupted by the arrival of Beaufort, a man of whom Newland has become jealous. Ellen assures him that she didn't invite Beaufort, but Newland leaves in a huff. When he gets back to New York, he gets a note from Ellen promising an explanation. Instead of answering it, he decides to leave New York and visit May and her family where they are staying out the winter in St. Augustine, Florida, where he pushes May for an early wedding.
May asks him if he has some reason for doing so. She wonders if he is afraid of his feelings changing. He is taken aback by her insight and feels afraid that she has guessed his feelings for Ellen. Instead, she tells him she knew he had had an affair before they became involved and wonders if he made any pledges to this other woman. She says she can't stand the idea of her happiness being made out of the unhappiness of another person and tells him she will release him from his obligation to her. He tells her there was no such prior pledge.
Back in New York, he visits old Mrs. Manson Mingott and asks her to help him convince the Wellands to let May marry him earlier than the conventional two-year engagement would allow. He goes to visit Ellen and finds her Aunt Medora Manson there. Medora tells him the Count has asked her to come to Ellen and convince her to come home to him. After Medora leaves that evening, Newland and Ellen are alone together. They love each other, but Ellen refuses to let him break off the engagement to May in order to be with her. She tells him that when he convinced her not to get a divorce from her husband, he showed her a new way of thinking than what she was used to. In her life in Europe, people acted out of their own self-interest. In New York society, people act in the interests of the group. Ellen wants to live in the more noble way and refuses to make a life for herself based on the disgrace of her family and the sadness of May, her cousin. When he is leaving her house, Ellen gets a telegram from May telling Ellen that her parents have agreed to a quicker wedding and that it will take place in one month's time.