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Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
Chapter One Summary: The play opens at the opera. Newland Archer enters his opera box and looks out across the theater to see his girlfriend, May Welland, touch the lilies he had given her. While dreaming of their future together, his thoughts are interrupted by gasps from the gentlemen sitting with him. They are whispering about a fashionably dressed woman who has just sat down in the box with May. Sillerton Jackson gasps, “I did not think they would have tried it on,” which means, he can+t believe the Mingotts would allow the woman to come and sit in their box at the Opera.
Analysis: This is a book about the conventions of “Old New York”, New York City in the 1870+s. Wharton loves contrasting the old against the new. She begins these contrasts in the very first paragraph. Here she describes the new Opera theater that is going to be erected in the “remote” forties. We can assume that the forties have been built up since then and people reading her book in the 1920+s (when it was published) would enjoy hearing about how New York has changed. Along these lines, there is also a description of the old people versus the “new people, whom NY was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.”
Also important in this first chapter is Wharton+s discussion of fashionability and propriety. We can tell from the way that Newland Archer, Lawrence Lefferts and Mr. Silverton Jackson are introduced (all are so concerned with what is “moral” and “the thing”) that Wharton will spend a lot of time in the novel discussing and perhaps critiquing these concepts in the book.
Of note, as well, is the great attention to detail that Wharton has. The way she describes clothing and interior decoration with much detail has led many to dub this book a “costume novel”. We will have to see for ourselves if the book develops beyond being a “bodice ripper” sort of book.
May Welland will be one of the most important characters in the book. She is holding Lillies of the Valley. In the 1870+s the lily of the valley was the flower of chastity and of the names Cynthia and Diana. Later in the book, May is often compared to Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Chapter Two Summary: Newland becomes annoyed as he realizes that everyone is paying attention to the box where his fianc is sitting. He doesn+t want the woman to whom he is engaged to be associated with a woman of questionable reputation. The strange woman is Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May. She has a bad reputation because she left her husband and ran off with his secretary. In New York Society, such behavior was not accepted. Newland suddenly wishes to sit next to his girlfriend, as if to protect her from the gossip. He also has a sudden urge to announce their engagement because he wants to distract attention from the foreign woman and place attention on the happy occasion of their engagement. He walks over to their box and is introduced to Ellen. Ellen explains that she remembers being kissed by him when they were little children and that returning to New York reminds her of her childhood. She can “see” everyone in their childhood underpants. Newland does not like her referring to New York society as being “a dear old place.” He considers his society to be a grand institution and Ellen seems to be slighting this society.
Analysis: Here we see how Newland is fixated with Taste. He is annoyed that his fianc may be associated with a woman of ill-repute; he thinks that Ellen+s dress is too revealing and that the Mingotts should have not brought her to the Opera.
Also interesting in this chapter is the motif of the military: “Form was the mere visible representative and vicegerent of Taste . . .” Thorley “entered the lists” as the ladies champion. Against whom are these members of New York Society mobilizing against?
It is also interesting to examine which words are capitalized. Society, Family, Taste are capitalized words because they seem to Newland to be inflexible institutions that are very important.
The remark that “the persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies” is important as well. Will Newland be satisfied with this world?
There is also a bit of foreshadowing in that Newland had kissed Ellen when she was little and that Ellen remembered the event. Is there some possibility of romance here?
Food is an important motif in this book. Mrs. Manson Mingott and Mrs. Archer are looked down upon because they do not serve good food.
Contrast is another important literary tool here. The old brownstone architecture is contrasted against the new cream-colored stones of the new inductees of the society. Ellen Olenska+s dark hair and red clothing are often contrasted against May+s blonde hair and white dress.
Chapter Three Summary: After the Opera, everyone goes to the Beauforts+ home for the annual ball. He keeps a huge room in his house dedicated solely to the annual ball. It sits vacant 364 days in the year. There, May announces to friends that she is engaged. Newland and May dance and, as is appropriate, sit alone in the conservatory where they sneak a kiss while no one is looking. Newland asks if Ellen has come to the ball; he hopes that she has not come because of her ill reputation. May replies that Ellen did not feel her dress was pretty enough to attend the ball, so she went home. Newland is glad that May understands propriety so well that she know when not to discuss the “real” reason why Ellen decided not to come: her bad reputation.
Analysis: In this chapter, it is important to see how reputation is discussed in such depth. The Beaufort+s reputation is discussed; the grandness of their ballroom is discussed.
Also, of note, Newland fibs for the first time to May in this chapter; and, his fib concerns Ellen.
Clothing is an important motif in this books. Beaufort+s servants have silk stockings; Ellen+s clothes are the excuse for why she does not attend the ball. Clothes serve a deep purpose in this novel; it is important to watch each detail of clothing so that we can understand at the end why such emphasis is placed on wardrobe.
Another interesting motif is the idea of immortality in the members of New York Society. Mrs. Beaufort, here, is presented as sort of immortal. She “grows younger and blonder and more beautiful each year.” As we continue reading we will find more examples of how people in this society seem to never age, defying death.
Chapter Four Summary: As is customary for newly engaged people, Newland calls on Mrs. Welland and May and together they go to Mrs. Manson Mingott+s home to ask her blessing for the marriage. Her home “lacks propriety” because her drawing room is on the same floor as the bedroom. To Newland+s and May+s relief, Ellen is not home; she has gone out shopping during the main “shopping hour” which lacks propriety as well. Mingott of course gives her blessing and encourages Newland and May to marry soon, “before the bubble+s off the wine.” As May, Newland and Mrs. Welland are leaving, Ellen returns with Beaufort. Newland apologizes to Ellen for not having told her of the engagement at the Opera. Ellen understands that it isn+t proper to reveal such things in crowds. Ellen asks Archer to come and visit some time, but Newland thinks to himself how inappropriate such a visit would be.
Analysis: This chapter is a long discourse on propriety. There is a little bit of foreshadowing in that Mingott encourages the two to marry soon perhaps there is trouble beneath the surface that Mingott recognizes?
Also, we see the motif of immortality shine through in the character of Mrs. Catherine Manson Mingott. Catherine is the grand matriarch of New York Society. She is also similar to Mrs. Beaufort in that she never ages. Her face and body are so fat that she seems to have never wrinkled, despite her old age. Her never wrinkling makes it seem that she retains her youth.
Chapter Five Summary: Sillerton Jackson comes to dine with the Archers. Janey and Mrs. Archer want to hear the recent gossip on Ellen Olesnka. They began conversation discussing Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, who apparently was just a model for Mr. Struthers before they married. Then Ellen was discussed. Jackson said that she had not attended the ball and Mrs. Archer was glad of it. Janey ridicules Ellen+s dress; Mrs. Archer says that Ellen was bound to grow up strangely since she was permitted to wear black satin at her coming out ball. Newland defends Ellen and says that she should be able to act however she pleases since it isn+t her fault that she happened to have married a brute. Later, while the ladies retreat to work on a tapestry for May, the men smoke in the Gothic library. Newland remarks that “Women ought to be free.”
Analysis: This chapter is significant because Newland+s opinion of Ellen has changed; he now defends her and her actions; although he still believes in decorum he has taken a stance in his family that Ellen should not be blamed. What has caused this change of mind?Also, there is some indication of Newland+s “past”. What happened between him and the Rushworth woman? Does he feel, in some ways, similar to Ellen?
Later in the book, Janey is referred to as Cassandra-like. Cassandra is, in Greek mythology, an unfortunate gossip who tells the future although no one believes her. We see Janey+s role as the gossip first manifests here.
Freedom is an important theme in this novel. Newland says that women should be free. But one of the central issues in the book is whether or not Newland, himself, is free. If he is not free, then how can he grant freedom? Is Ellen free? What about May? It is she whom Newland wishes to free the most, and yet, she may turn out to have more freedom than any other character in the novel. In which case, it is deeply ironic that Newland could wish for her freedom in the first place.
Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
Chapter Six Summary: For the first time, Newland has doubts about his marriage. He feels that May+s “innocence” is a contrivance of society, too fabricated to be real. He feels uncomfortable taking such an innocent woman as his wife, trading her blank page for his “page with a past.” He worries that all the men around him of “perfect form” like Lawrence Lefferts lead horrible marriages of deceit and is worried that such a fate could become his own. After all, he hasn+t confided any of his “real self” to May; perhaps they will always live their lives in secret from each other.
Then, the Lovell Mingotts decide to throw a reception for Ellen Olenska. But, all the people of good society reject the invitation. So, Mrs. Welland tells this to Newland and Newland tells his mother. Mrs. Archer then goes to tell her friend Louisa van der Luyden, who is one of the most reputable women in New York society.
Analysis: Ellen+s arrival has clearly initiated for Newland some sort of deep critical thinking about society and his bride-to-be. Newland criticizes the innocence of his bride to be a sham, a fa ade. Perhaps this is the ironic commentary that we should understand as being behind the title.
It is also deeply ironic that the “high-priest of form” is the one who has all sorts of affairs. Why does this society (which is so concerned with propriety) seem so corrupt at its base?
Names are a point of interest in this book. Janey notes that she thinks Ellen should have changed her name to Elaine.
Chapter Seven Summary: Mrs. Archer and Newland discuss the problem of Ellen+s reception with Mrs. Van der Luyden, who insists that she must discuss the problem with her husband. Mrs. Archer insists that Larry Lefferts discouraged everyone from coming in order to distract attention from his own affairs with women; Mr. Van der Luyden says that as long as the Mingotts have accepted Ellen into their family then everyone else should accept her into society as well. Since he and his wife cannot attend the dinner in the Leffertses place, due to Louisa+s health, they instead invite Ellen to a reception dinner with the Duke of St. Austrey. This reception is of such high prestige that it exonerates Ellen of any marks on her reputation.
Analysis: This chapter is interesting because it reveals the many levels of stratification in New York society. When Ellen is “judged” by the Leffertses, Mrs. Archer can appeal to a higher authority: the van der Luydens, who are indisputably of better reputation. This chapter gives a deep sense of the politics of the times.
Also interesting is the description of the “immortal” nature of the van der Luydens. Mrs. van der Luyden is described as “looking exactly like her portrait;” like Catherine, earlier, van der Luyden never ages. She seems “rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.” There are many reasons why Wharton chooses to describe her this way. Perhaps Wharton is trying to draw a dichotomy between the “mortals” and the immortals”. The mortals are people like Ellen Olenska, Ned Winsett (whom we meet later) and regular common folks. These people are alive; they age and they are relatively left out of the scheme of the great New York Society. People who are “immortal” are the van der Luydens, the Mingotts, the Archers, the Wellands, the Leffertses. These families are like the gods of the New York pantheon. In making clear this distinction, Wharton can play with the problem of categorizing Newland. Is he a mortal or an immortal? Where does he fit in?
Another reason why these great families may be described as “alive but dead” is that they are quietly losing power as time moves on. Wharton is clear in telling us that the great American aristocracies are dying dinosaurs in the early twentieth century. By describing them as, already in a sense, dead, she can drive home the point that much of this codified society is already beginning to die out.
Chapter Eight Summary: This chapter gives some background on Ellen+s past. Ellen+s parents had been avid travelers and they died early in Ellen+s life. She lived with her aunt Medora Manson who was sort of eccentric. She would dress Ellen in crimson merino and amber beads and did not allow her to mourn for her parents as long as was “proper”.
She was the only young woman present at the reception for the Duke. After dinner, to many people+s surprise, the Duke headed straight to Ellen where they talked for a while. Then, she left his side, (which was an inappropriate thing for a woman to do) and sat next to Newland. Ellen asks if Newland+s engagement to May was arranged or just sheerly romantic. Newland balks no marriages are arranged in America, he says. Upon getting up, she tells Newland that she expects him to visit her tomorrow after five PM (although no plans had been set). Then, there is a line of people ready to speak to Ellen; these are the same people that had rejected the invitation to meet her earlier.
Analysis: This chapter is full of ironies. First, Newland becomes enraptured with Ellen because she defies propriety yet, this is the one thing that is supposed to make her unacceptable. For example, she explains that the Duke is very dull and Newland thinks it is “undeniably exciting” that she would know him well enough to make the claim and be uninhibited enough to express it. Also ironic is that Newland would claim that his relationship with May is just romantic when it is clear that they are together simply because they are the “perfect match” in terms of the family backgrounds and not because they had fallen in love on their own. It is also ironic that although May is incredibly beautiful, it is the touch of Ellen+s fan that excites him like a caress. Also, it is the Duke who finds May the “most handsome woman in the room”; yet, he is incredibly dull. It makes us wonder if May is handsome only to “dull” people. Is Newland beginning to break from convention and take less interest in her?
This chapter is also brilliant in that Wharton clearly articulates some of the stranger codes of this society. Women should not, for example, leave a man+s side and walk across a room unescorted to join the company of another man. Why are these codes important to this society? Are they stifling or liberating?
Also, the contrast between May and Ellen is striking and important in this chapter. Ellen is described as aging; with “paled red cheeks.” May, on the other hand, looks like an immortal goddess, dressed in white like “Diana alighting from the chase.” When Ellen is described, she is always described by her humanness she ages, looks plain and experienced. May is described as superhuman and impossibly innocent in her brilliant white. This contrast runs through the novel.
Chapter Nine Summary: Newland arrives at Ellen+s home in the artist district at five after five. He had had a bad day; he felt like a “wild animal cunningly trapped” because he had been forced to go from home to home announcing his engagement to May. He does not tell May of his meeting with Ellen. When he gets to Ellen+s home she is not there and he relaxes in her living room admiring her exotically decorated home. When she arrives, she explains that she had spent the day with Julius Beaufort looking for a new home because others do not find her home fashionable enough. Ellen is flippant about how she finds New York so safe like a little girl+s paradise. Newland thinks that she should not be so na ve about how “powerful an engine” New York is and how she almost was crushed by it. She remarks how she had enjoyed the party at the van der Luydens; Archer says its unfortunate that they do not “receive very often.” Ellen, cleverly says, “Perhaps that+s the reason for their great influence.” They continue in this manner until the Duke of St. Austrey arrives with Mrs. Struthers. Struthers had not been invited to the Luydens+ party and she had wanted to meet Ellen and invite her to a party at her home. Soon after their arrival, Newland leaves. On his way home, he stops at the florist to send May her daily lilies. He decides to send her the flowers; but he also sends an anonymous bouquet of flaming yellow roses to Ellen.
Analysis: In this chapter, Newland falls in love with Ellen, as signified by his calling her “Ellen” instead of “Madame Olenska.” In a society as proper as New York in the 1890s, calling a woman by her first name indicated that there was a significant emotional tie. He loves her because she defies the rules of society by seemingly not understanding them. She makes light of the powerful figures Manson Mingott and the van der Luydens. She is close friends with one of the most respectable figures — the Duke while simultaneously friends with Beaufort, a man of no reputation.
Also, intriguing is the fact that Ellen believes New York society to be plain and straightforward: “I thought it so up and down like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered.” Whereas Newland says, “Everything may be labeled but everyone is not.” This is ironic, too, because everyone is labeled people judge each other by family name.
Another theme in the novel is suggested by Ellen when she says, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend.” The book is about pretenders; everyone pretends to be something they are not; everyone but Ellen. Newland was frustrated in a prior chapter by the realization that he, too, is being forced to pretend in his relationship with May.
Chapter 10 Summary: May and Newland go for a walk in the park. May thanks him for sending her flowers every day and remarks that it is nice that she gets them at different times of the day; it means he thinks each day to send her flowers, unlike Larry Lefferts who had a standing order for Gertrude+s flowers to be sent each day. Newland tells May that he sent Ellen beautiful roses but May remarks that Ellen had not discussed them, although she had discussed flowers from other friends. Newland changes the subject and remarks that their engagement seems very long; May says that everyone else has had similarly long engagements. Newland feels like all of May+s comments have been fed to her by others and wonders how long it will be until she can speak for herself. He worries that when he takes her bandage of innocence off her eyes, she won+t be able to see anything. He suggests that they travel and May remarks that he is terribly original. Then Newland shouts, “Original? We+re all like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper.” On the suggestion of elopement, May balks, “We can+t behave like people in novels, though, can we?”
Later, Archer skips his regular trip to the club for fear that his life is becoming to repetitive and predictable. While he is reading novels in his study, Janey tells him that the Countess has gone to a party at Mrs. Struthers. This is horrible, of course, because Struthers is too “common.” Newland remarks that he is “not married to Countess Olenska” and has nothing to do with her affairs. Luckily, Henry van der Luyden comes for a visit and does not blame Ellen for her attending the party. She probably just doesn+t understand convention. Henry+s nonchalance about the affair puts Mrs. Archer+s heart at ease: decorum is still intact.
Analysis: Here we see a deepening of Newland+s infatuation with Ellen. He vocalizes “I+m not engaged to be married to the Countess Olenska” as if he is truly voicing his own desire. He also says, “Ellen was the best looking woman [at the van der Luyden+s party]” without even considering May.
Also important is the theme of reading in this novel; perhaps Newland is getting his fantastic ideas about what romance and love should be like from his novels. Are the novels to blame for his love of the “exotic” and his infatuation with Ellen? Does May recognize Newland+s new literature-induced impulses? Is this why she says, “We can+t live like people in novels”?
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