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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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PLOT SYNOPSIS AND ANALYSIS

BOOK 1

CHAPTER 15

Summary

Newland Archer arrives at the Chiverses' country house on a Friday evening and spends the next day and night playing the part of the perfect guest to his hosts. Then he goes over to Skuytercliff, hoping to see Ellen Olenska. When he arrives, he is disappointed to find that she is out, but he finds her on the road walking a dog. She sees him and tells him she knew he would come. He asks her what she is running from, but she does not want to speak about it. It's very cold and she playfully proposes a race to the Patroon house, a small vacant cabin on the estate. He is delighted by the figure she makes in her red cloak against the snow and chases after her, his heart beating fast. When they get to the house, they need a private place to talk. She sees the empty house is open and the fire still lit from her morning visit there.

Once inside, the tension between the two is palpable. Newland faces the window and asks her again what she is running from. He imagines that she will come up to him from behind and put her arms around his neck. Suddenly, he sees Julius Beaufort approaching and thinks that Ellen and Julius are having an affair. Ellen tries to explain that she did not know Julius was coming. She even takes his hand. But Newland rushes to the door and invites Beaufort in, telling him Madame Olenska was expecting him. He leaves immediately and returns to New York, convinced he was very nearly ready to make a terrible mistake.

Back in New York, he is disgusted with himself, and at a loss to understand his attraction to Ellen. He thinks about her all the time. Janey tells him he looks pale and must be working too hard. After several days, he gets a note from Ellen Olenska telling him she wants to explain and asking him to come see her the next evening. Instead, he decides to go to St. Augustine, Florida, to see May.


Notes

Here, Newland Archer is on the brink of beginning an affair with the Countess Olenska. Only the chance occurrence that Julius Beaufort has come out to see her keeps Newland from staying with her. He seems to realize how close he came to acting on his desires. The realization of his own weakness and the fear of drifting too far out of his life with May compels him to rush to see her, rather than face the object of his true desires.

CHAPTER 16

Summary

Newland Archer arrives at the Welland's winter home in St. Augustine, Florida, and sees May out in the yard. He is relieved to see her and realizes how much he has missed her. She is surprised to see him and worries something has happened. He tells her he has only missed her too much. They go for a walk and he kisses her more vehemently than he had intended. When he pulls away, he sees she's blushing and has started away from him. They both feel embarrassed for a moment and then she regains her composure. They talk about her time in Florida, and then her parents come along and ask why he is there. Newland tells them he has come because he felt a cold coming on. Mr. Welland heartily approves of such a step.

Newland stays for a week. One day, when they are alone, May's mother thanks Newland for persuading the Countess Olenska not to go through with her divorce. Newland wants to tell her it will be the fault of people like her if Ellen Olenska is driven into having an affair with Mr. Beaufort instead of marrying some good young man, since she is not free to legally remarry. He worries that May will become like her mother, a woman who has developed "the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience."

Later, he spends time with May and brings up again the subject of bringing the date of the wedding up. May finally looks at him very seriously and asks him if he is trying to push the date up because he's not sure of continuing to care for her. He is shocked at her perceptiveness. She tells him there's been a difference in him ever since their engagement. She tells him she's not as unaware of the world as her parents like to think. She remembers that he had an affair before he became engaged to her and wonders if he needs her to release him from the engagement so he can fulfill a prior pledge. Newland, who has been worrying that she somehow guessed his recent feelings for Ellen Olenska, is relieved. He tells her that was not the kind of relationship that involved pledges. He tries again to get her to agree to move the date up and she goes back to her usual happy denials. He feels disappointed that the perceptive May he has just glimpsed has disappeared into the young woman before him.

Notes

This scene in St. Augustine brings Newland and May's relationship into sharper focus. They have hitherto had such a conventional engagement that there seemed to be no depth to it. Here, May shows her nobility of spirit and her insightfulness when she asks Newland if he needs to break the engagement in order to fulfill an earlier pledge. May has clearly recognized something wrong with Newland in the weeks since their engagement. Before that point, he was as willing to go through the trials of a long engagement as she was. Since then, he has pressed her repeatedly to move the date up. Moreover, Newland kisses her in this chapter in a new way. It clearly upsets May and probably adds to her sense that there is something more to his prompting than he is saying. This exchange reveals important depth to May; Newland's impression that she is innocent and naïve is clearly as mistaken as his own impressions about himself.

For his part, Newland is clearly acting on his strong feelings of guilt. When he finds out she suspects an affair, but has imagined the relationship to be the old one he had with Mrs. Thorely Rushworth, he feels relieved. Still, he does not reward her straightforwardness with his own. Instead he smiles at her naiveté in thinking a relationship of that sort would involve a pledge. Despite his shock over May's perceptiveness, Newland is clearly not ready to trust in her strength of character enough to tell her of his recent feelings for Ellen Olenska. At the end of the chapter, he notices May has fallen back into her young girl self, and is disappointed in her.

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