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BOOK SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Newland Archer returns to New York only to hear from Janey that the Countess Olenska called on them while he was gone. Mrs. Archer, his mother, is not very impressed with her. She thinks Ellen "certainly lays herself out to please." She says she supposes that not everyone can be like May. Newland agrees that they are not at all alike.
He calls on old Mrs. Mingott and tells her he went to Florida to convince May to move up the wedding date. Mrs. Mingott says all the family is there except for her and her granddaughter Ellen. She playfully asks him why he didn't marry Ellen. He replies that Ellen wasn't around to marry. As they talk, Ellen comes in. She behaves coolly toward Newland and when her grandmother tells her he was in St. Augustine to try to push the wedding date forward, she replies that she will help convince the Wellands to do so. Before he leaves, however, they make plans to meet the following evening.
He arrives at her house the next evening to find three people in her drawing room all looking at a bunch of red roses and purple pansies, speculating on the price of such an arrangement. The three are Medora Manson, Ned Winsett, and Dr. Agathon Carver, founder of the Valley of Love Community. Ned Winsett leaves shortly. Then the Dr. Carver leaves after inviting Newland to come and hear his speech that evening. When he is gone, Medora Mansion begins to speak to Newland about Ellen Olenska. She says she has come with a letter from Ellen's husband, who now wants her back. Newland is horrified at the news and exclaims that he would rather see Ellen dead than back with such a monster. Medora Manson tells him about all that Ellen had in Europe. She lived in extraordinary wealth, adored as one of the most beautiful women in Europe, and was constantly surrounded by admirers. They hear Ellen coming down the stairs. Medora Manson gestures to the bouquet of roses lying on the sofa and asks, "Am I to understand that you prefer that, Mr. Archer? After all, marriage is marriage . . ." (Presumably, the roses were from Beaufort.)
A slight twist in the plot occurs in this chapter. Hitherto, Ellen's husband has not expressed a wish for her return. Now, her Aunt Medora Manson, the woman who raised her after her parents' death, has returned to New York with the message that he wants her back. This change upsets Newland immensely. On the level of plot, it puts Ellen Olenska into more of a crisis situation, calling on the gallant Newland to come to the rescue.
Ellen Olenska comes downstairs dressed for a ball. When she sees the bouquet of roses she gets extremely angry and asks who is who is ridiculous enough to send her a bouquet of roses as if she were a girl engaged to be married. After considering throwing them away, she calls her maid and tells her to take the roses down the street to Mrs. Winsett and not tell her who sent them. Then she helps her aunt Medora to the door so her carriage can take her aunt to her engagement. Newland waits in the parlor, thinking how different Ellen is from all the women he knows. None of them would send their maids out in the night wrapped in their own opera cloaks, calling them "my dear one," to do nothing more than get rid of unwanted flowers.
When Ellen returns, Newland inquires about her husband's request. She changes the topic to his campaign to get May's family to agree to change the wedding date. He tells her of May's fear that he wanted to change the wedding date because of his lack of certainty of his love for her. He says May wants to give him time to decide if he wants someone besides her. Ellen admires May's nobility of spirit. He tells her there is no other woman, that the woman May suspected was never a candidate for marriage. Then he pauses and says there is actually another woman, but not the one May suspects. He goes over to Ellen and takes her hand. She pulls away and gets up, telling him not to make love to her since so many men have done so. He is deeply hurt. He says he hasn't ever made love to her but that he would have married her if it had been possible. She is upset by these words. She asks how he can say this when it was he who made it impossible.
She explains that he is the one who convinced her that she should not get a divorce. Moreover, she had changed her plans as a way to save Newland and May the indignity of breaking apart over her. Newland reminds her of the accusations her husband made in the divorce papers. She tells him she has nothing to fear from divorce, she only stopped things to avoid bringing scandal on him and May. He is shocked at this news. He says, "At least I loved you" and then he hears her crying. He rushes to her and holds her in his arms, telling her they can change everything now, that he's not married yet and that she can be free. She returns his kisses then pulls away. She says the fact that they love each other doesn't in the least change things. When he presses her, she tells him he doesn't realize how much he has changed things for her. She hadn't been aware of the meanness of New York society when she first arrived. Only later she learned that he had announced his engagement to May when she first arrived as a way to put two families instead of just one behind her. Then he had gotten his mother to accompany him to the van der Luydens' dinner. Had he not supported her, she would have been lost.
He is sitting opposite her staring at the satin shoe that peeks out under her evening gown. He goes down on his knees and kisses her shoe. Then he tries to reach for her and she pulls away from him. She tells him she can't love him unless she gives him up. He becomes angry and asks her if she plans to replace him with Beaufort. She calls her maid to cancel the carriage, saying she doesn't plan to go to the Struthers' this evening after all. She tells him she was lonely and afraid, but now the emptiness is gone. He tells her he doesn't understand her. She says he does understand May. He tells her it would be acceptable for him to give up May now that she has refused to marry him earlier than planned. Ellen will not accept this. Newland is exhausted, telling Ellen that there is no other choice for them, that their love for one another will only make things worse for everyone if he marries May. Ellen cries out that they cannot. Suddenly a telegram from May arrives for Ellen. In it, May announces that her parents have agreed to move the wedding up to the Tuesday after Easter.
The climax of the novel occurs in this chapter, the end of Book I. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska admit their feelings for one another and realize the impossibility of their ever being together. Ellen traces out the reasons in such clear logic that Newland cannot argue with her. When he convinced her not to get a divorce, he inspired her with a sense of the individual's responsibility to family and community. Now, in order to be together, they will have to betray both family and community. Neither can do that. Wharton has thus set up the crux of the novel's conflict and theme.