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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK II

CHAPTER 31

Summary

Newland finds himself shocked by old Catherine Mingott's news that Ellen will be living with her. He is sure Ellen has agreed to it in order to be closer to him, but now that she is here, he is worried about what will happen between them. He does not want to live with the sordid lies of an affair, as Lefferts does. He thinks he and Ellen are different, that their situation is unique.

As he is walking in the evening, he comes upon the Beaufort house. Ellen comes out and he calls to her. As they stand on the street together, Lawrence Lefferts and young Chivers cross the street discreetly and continue walking. Newland tells Ellen he needs to see her the next day and they agree to meet at the museum. Afterwards, Newland is upset over having begun what he believes is the first step toward an extra-marital affair.

The next day in the museum, Newland tells her he thinks she has come back to New York out of fear that he would come to Washington. He says he had actually thought about leaving May a note that would make his return impossible and then convincing Ellen to run away with him to some place like Japan. Ellen tells him she doesn't want to be like all the others who are unfaithful to their spouses. When he persists in pressing her, she says she will only come to him to consummate their passion if he agrees to her stipulation. He asks what that is and she tells him that once they meet as lovers, he must allow her to return to her husband. Newland refuses. Ellen begins to cry softly and says she must leave then. Newland agrees. They plan to meet in two days to be together.


Alone in his home, Newland feels like he is dead, looking at his belongings and his home and feeling very separate from his life. May bursts in, apologizing for her lateness. She tells him she went to see her grandmother and met Ellen. They had a good talk and she feels much happier with Ellen now. Then May justifies her family's actions in ostracizing Ellen for her unconventional behavior. Newland feels a door slam shut between them, one that had barely opened. He gets up to go dress for dinner and May stands up and throws her arms around his neck. She looks like she is about to cry and begs him to kiss her.

Notes

Just when Newland is on the brink of having a full-blown affair with Ellen, May comes home and throws herself into his arms asking to be kissed. The scene and a couple of allusions to their married life earlier hint at a lack of physical ardor in their relationship. For example, Newland notices that when May gets home, she puts her hand on his arm and caresses him. He notes that it's rare for May to do that. In the previous chapter, Newland chafed at having to act like he was still a newlywed when there was no passion in his marriage. Much earlier, when he visited May in St. Augustine before their marriage, he kissed her passionately and she pulled back blushing. The contrast here seems painfully obvious and reveals how fully Newland Archer has put his sexual longings in his imaginary life with Ellen, leaving May with nothing

CHAPTER 32

Summary

It is an evening dinner party at the van der Luydens, who have come back into the city from their country house to re-establish social order. The conversation turns to gossip that Ellen Olenska was visiting the Beauforts. May tries to defend Ellen without success. Mr. Sillerton Jackson reminds them that having been raised in Europe, Ellen has never learned the right way to do things.

After dinner, they all go to the opera. It is Faust, the same opera from that night so many years ago when Newland first saw Ellen Olenska and announced his engagement to May. He looks at May and realizes she is wearing her wedding gown made over, as is the custom of New York women. He remembers May telling him that she could not have her happiness made out of a wrong to someone else. She said this on the day he went to see her in St. Augustine before their marriage. He decides he must tell her the truth. Newland has always been a quiet and self-controlled person. He has always conformed to the discipline of his small society. He finds doing something against their norms to be totally distasteful. When the singer is singing "M'ama!" (He loves me), he goes into the box to ask May to come home with him, giving the excuse of a terrible headache.

When they get home, May slips getting out of the carriage and muddies her dress. They go upstairs and Newland lights a cigarette. May tells him he should go to bed to take care of his headache. He tells her he doesn't really have such a bad headache, that he really wants to talk to her. May sits down and looks at him directly. He tells her there's something important he has to tell her right away. Then he says Ellen's name and May interrupts him, asking him why they must talk about Ellen on this night. She tells him that especially now, since Ellen is leaving, there is no use in talking about her. When he asks what she means, she tells him Ellen has written her that very day to say she will be moving to Europe with her aunt Medora. She has been able to convince her grandmother to let her go and also to support her financially so that she can be independent of her husband.

Newland is shocked. He does not understand why Ellen wrote to May instead of him. May tells him she spoke to Ellen the day previously and told her she was sorry she had not been kind. She said she wanted Ellen to know that she and her husband felt exactly the same way in supporting her. She brings the note in for Newland to read. He reads it several times, exclaiming that it is not possible. Then he bursts out laughing and cannot stop himself. Finally, he stops himself and continues questioning May. Finally, May tells him she has a headache and will go on to bed. As she leaves the room, he notices her torn and muddy wedding dress dragging across the floor after her.

Notes

This scene is crucial to the pending climax of the plot, since in it Newland's desire for Ellen is once again dashed by circumstance. This time, as in the past, he has been left out of the crucial decision-making processes, and has even been in the dark about Ellen's participation. May, for her part, seems more involved than ever. Her mysterious knowledge, explained by the letter, only deepens in complexity when it is revealed she has had a talk with Ellen. Later, the full impact of that talk will seem clearer. For now, it almost seems incidental to Newland and not of great consequence.

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