The next day, Archer persuades May to go for a walk with him instead of going to church with her parents. Mrs. Welland lets her go because she’s just convinced May of the necessity of a long engagement. The snow and blue sky make May particularly beautiful, and Archer is proud of her. She says she loves the fact that Archer remembers to send flowers each day rather than putting in a standing order. He admits that he sent Ellen roses, and May is glad, but she says that Ellen didn’t mention it when she had lunch with them that day. Archer wants to tell her he went to see Ellen, but he doesn’t in case Ellen didn’t mention it to May. Instead, he turns to their own plans for the future.
Though nothing has actually happened between Archer and Ellen, Archer already finds himself omitting things about Ellen in his conversations with May, despite that May is completely supportive of his kindnesses towards Ellen. The fact that he feels at all odd about May knowing or not knowing that he went to see Ellen suggests that he feels his visit was somehow illicit, which means he must feel that he has been unfaithful to May in his emotions about Ellen.
May insists that their engagement isn’t as long as some couples’, and Archer wishes she would speak for herself instead of repeating what others say. He realizes that it’s men’s fault that women don’t speak for themselves. Before long, he’ll have to guide May to see the world for what it is, but he worries that she’s been blinded for too long to ever face reality. He suggests they might travel together if they got married sooner. She says she would love to, but her mother wouldn’t understand their acting unconventionally.
Archer is beginning to think of May more critically, though he recognizes that the faults he sees in her are due to the way society has molded her. May is an untainted example of what society makes women, and Archer is beginning to worry that she isn’t fully equipped for real life. Even when Archer pushes her to act for herself, she insists that she must stick to convention.
May thinks Archer is original, but he realizes that they’re both acting just the way everyone else does in their situation. He wants them to break away from the pattern that’s been set, and she jokes that they could elope, taking his eagerness as proof that he loves her. She says they can’t behave like characters in novels do, but she can’t give a reason why. Finally she says it would be vulgar, and she is astonished when Archer questions how bad it would be to be vulgar. She changes the subject to Ellen’s admiration of her ring.
To his credit, Archer realizes that he’s really no more unconventional than May is. He has a sudden urge to be different, perhaps because of the perspective shift that he experienced at Ellen’s house. May’s comment that they can’t behave like characters in novels is ironic and metafictional, since they are characters in a novel. This further calls attention to the constraints of society.
The next afternoon, Janey comes to Archer in his study. He’s in a bad mood, fearful that he’ll have the same routine every day for the rest of his life. He avoided going to his club on the way home from his job at a law office because he knew exactly how the discussion at the club would go. The men would talk about the Duke and about a high-class prostitute, Miss Fanny Ring, being seen in Beaufort’s carriage. Archer can imagine Lawrence Lefferts exclaiming over society’s ruin.
Now that Ellen has given Archer a taste of difference, he’s no longer happy with the predictable future or the social group that he thought satisfied him before. Lawrence Lefferts is again characterized by his hypocrisy, as Archer knows Lefferts would readily condemn Beaufort’s affair even though he has them himself.
Archer irritably pretends not to see Janey when she enters. His table is piled with books. Janey says that their mother is angry. Sophy Jackson has brought word that her brother is coming after dinner to give details. Exasperated, Archer demands she clarify what she’s talking about, and Janey says that Ellen Olenska was at Mrs. Struthers’s party the night before with the Duke and Mr. Beaufort. Archer is angry, but hides it. He says he knew she meant to go. Janey can’t believe he didn’t try to stop her, but he insists it’s not his responsibility, dismissing the importance of family connections. He wants to say that nobody around them can deal with reality, but Janey is almost crying.
Archer is now becoming invested enough in Ellen’s life to be angered by her actions, particularly by her association with Beaufort. Though Archer doesn’t recognize it yet, he’s jealous of Beaufort. Everyone is upset because Mrs. Struthers’s gatherings are not seen as a proper place for Ellen to spend her time, since Mrs. Struthers isn’t really a member of society. Archer, however, is under the influence of Ellen’s perspective, and he sees the ridiculousness of his relatives’ horror at Ellen’s choices.
Janey says that the family has already been supporting Ellen—the van der Luydens even invited her to their dinner. Archer doesn’t see any harm in that, but Janey says that the van der Luydens are so upset that they’re going back to their estate on the Hudson. Archer finds his mother in the drawing room and announces that he thinks it’s ridiculous for the van der Luydens to be so offended by Ellen’s actions. Mrs. Archer thinks Mrs. Struthers’s gatherings are scandalous because there’s smoking, champagne, and French music. Archer implies that New York society isn’t as interesting as London or Paris, but Mrs. Archer says that Ellen needs to respect New York’s way of life.
Archer’s family and the van der Luydens see Ellen’s attendance at Mrs. Struthers’s party as a betrayal of the van der Luydens’ attempts to help Ellen make her way in society. Mrs. Archer’s attitude makes it clear that Mrs. Struthers isn’t only an outcast because of her background, but also because her parties are too radical and seem almost like European parties, which again associates anything foreign with scandal. Archer, however, suggests that New York might be lacking in some of the culture that Europe nurtures.
Mrs. Archer wants Archer to come with her to explain to Mrs. van der Luyden that Ellen is simply used to a different culture. However, Archer thinks it’s all the Duke’s fault, since he brought Ellen to Mrs. Struthers’s. Mrs. Archer argues that the Duke is a stranger, whereas Ellen is really a New Yorker, and should know better. Archer doesn’t think they need to defend her to the van der Luydens.
For the Archers, the situation comes down to the differences between foreigners and New Yorkers. Foreigners might not perceive the problems with Mrs. Struthers’s gatherings, but New Yorkers should understand the finer societal distinctions that govern their world.
Suddenly the butler announces Mr. van der Luyden. Mrs. Archer quickly arranges herself before he enters, and Archer greets him, saying that they were just talking about him and Ellen Olenska. Mr. van der Luyden says that he’s just been to see her, and she had arranged the flowers he’d sent her in an incredibly charming way. He would like to bring his wife to see her, if only the neighborhood were better. The Archers are shocked by his speech.
Since the Archers are expecting Mr. van der Luyden to be upset and angry about Ellen’s faux pas, the contrast between their expectations and the truth creates powerful irony that highlights the ridiculousness of the Archers’ panic. Mr. van der Luyden’s actual reaction to the situation demonstrates the strength of Ellen’s charm and creativity.
Mr. van der Luyden goes on to say that he visited to warn Ellen about letting the Duke take her to parties. Mrs. Archer pretends she hasn’t heard what happened. Mr. van der Luyden explains that they can’t expect Europeans to understand American rules, but the Duke took Ellen to Mrs. Struthers’s. Since Mrs. van der Luyden was troubled, her husband decided to give Ellen the social guidance she had asked him for earlier.
In classic New York form, Mrs. Archer simply lies to put herself in the most proper position for this social situation. Like the Archers, Mr. van der Luyden blames Ellen’s attendance at Mrs. Struthers’s on the differences between Americans and foreigners. Taking a straightforward approach to the situation has paid off for him.
Mrs. Archer says that Archer will be particularly thankful to Mr. van der Luyden because of his attachment to May’s family. Archer agrees, saying that he knew Mr. van der Luyden would like Ellen. Mr. van der Luyden confirms this and takes his leave. Janey exclaims that the situation is romantic—her family often has no idea what she’s talking about. Mrs. Archer still isn’t convinced everything will be all right.
Because of his family attachments, Archer is expected to be grateful to Mr. van der Luyden for his intervention with Ellen—her mistake could have social repercussions even for him. Mrs. Archer insists on taking the darkest view of the situation, even though she should feel reassured.