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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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BOOK SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

BOOK 1

CHAPTER 11

Summary

It is two weeks later. Newland Archer is at his office in the law firm when he is called to see the senior partner, Mr. Letterblair. Mr. Letterblair asks him to supervise the divorce case between the Countess Olenska and her husband. Newland reluctantly agrees.

He reads the packet of information, which includes a short letter from the count to Ellen Olenska and when he finishes, he is on her side. He feels a great deal of compassion for the Countess, who seems to be paying for a fault that was not her own. He is disgusted with the members of her family who are so much against her divorce.

Newland realizes that the only risk he has ever taken in his life was his affair with Mrs. Thorely Rushworth. It had taken him two years to realize that she was less interested in him than in the excitement of carrying on a clandestine affair. He realizes that all the "good women" conspire to keep a man believing in a strict division between good women and the women a man enjoys. These women considered affairs to be foolish in a man and criminal in a woman. He realizes that in European communities, things are probably not as simple or clear cut.

He dines with Mr. Letterblair and after dinner they discuss the case. Mr. Letterblair wants him to discourage a divorce. The family is against it and no one can see a purpose in it since the countess isn't looking to get her money back and is not interested in re-marrying. Newland Archer makes some disparaging comments that cause Mr. Letterblair some concern, but in the end, Newland reassures him that he will act with sober propriety and do as he is instructed.


Notes

Newland Archer seems to be undergoing a major change of heart. From the small amount of contact with Countess Olenska that he has had, he has changed his allegiance from New York conservatism so greatly that by chapter eleven he is even supporting divorce, an unheard of proposition for a young man of his social class. The change is not sudden or dramatic, and in this chapter he is seen enjoying May's company without thought of Ellen Olenska. But when his boss asks him to supervise the case, he finds himself inexplicably called to be the Countess' champion, a task he rises to admirably.

CHAPTER 12

Summary

Newland Archer walks to Ellen Olenska's house. On the way, he notices the bohemian houses owned by writers and artists and reflects that she must have been surrounded by such people while living in Europe. When he arrives at her house, he's upset to find that Mr. Beaufort is there, but them reminds himself that he didn't mention in his note that he wanted to see her privately when he came. When he goes in, he's fascinated by the countess's choice of clothing, a mixture of fur and bare arms. She sends Mr. Beaufort away and Newland tells her he's come to discuss the suit. She's pleased that she will be able to work with him instead of Mr. Letterblair. He tries to explain the difficult social stigmas associated with divorce, but she is firm in her resolve. He tells her she will never be accepted in New York society if she persists in her intention to divorce. Sadly, she decides to drop the suit.

Notes

The question of Ellen Olenska's morality is only seemingly the subject of this chapter. In truth Newland Archer wants to find out whether the Countess had an affair with her husband's secretary. Conventionally speaking, he is the moral superior of the pair. He follows all the rules of society and expects others to do so as well. But Ellen Olenska doesn't behave as he expects a woman in her position to behave. In relation to her, he suddenly finds himself unable to figure out how he should behave. The narrator remarks at one point in this chapter, "He was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values." Indeed, it is Newland Archer's morality, not Ellen Olenska's, that occupies the subject of this chapter.

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