Two weeks later, Archer is summoned by the head of his law firm. Mr. Letterblair sits at his desk, looking perplexed. He says he needs to speak of a matter that he doesn’t want to mention to the other senior partners of the firm. Mrs. Mingott sent for him because Ellen Olenska wants to get a divorce. Since Archer is about to marry into the family, Mr. Letterblair wanted to consult with him first.
The gravity of getting a divorce can be detected in the fact that Mr. Letterblair feels he shouldn’t even tell his senior partners about it; only Archer, as a future relation of the Mingotts, is trusted with this scandalous knowledge.
Archer has only seen Ellen once, at the opera, since his visit to her. She has receded in his mind, and May has replaced her again. He doesn’t like the idea of divorce, and he’s irritated that Mr. Letterblair is putting him in this position. When Mr. Letterblair takes out some papers for Archer to look over, Archer says he would rather not get involved, precisely because he’s about to marry into the family. Mr. Letterblair is slightly offended, saying that Mrs. Mingott and the men of the family all want Archer’s input. Archer begins to feel angry that the Mingotts are putting this pressure on him. Mr. Letterblair says that the Mingotts are opposed to the divorce, but Ellen wants a legal opinion. Supposedly she’s not looking to marry again. Mr. Letterblair insists that Archer look over the papers before they talk about the case.
Mr. Letterblair is forcing Archer into the awkward position of providing legal advice that might offend or anger various members of the family that he’s about to join. Notably, Ellen has to gain the approval and permission of not only her male family members, but also her male lawyers—as a woman, she has little power to decide her own fate in marriage. Although divorce is scandalous under any circumstances, it’s particularly bad if the woman wants a divorce in order to be able to marry someone else, especially someone with whom she’s presumably been having an affair.
Archer’s temporary intimacy with Ellen has not been renewed since he went to her house. He feels that someone who can charm Mr. van der Luyden so effectively doesn’t need his help. Recently May has seemed ever so wonderful and proper in contrast to Ellen. He has finally given in to her wish for a long engagement, because she said she needed to give her parents satisfaction in this last thing they’ll ever ask of her as a little girl. This was a purely New York thing to say.
Archer seems a little jealous of Ellen’s ability to make people, particularly men, like her. He’s beginning to see Ellen and May as opposites that make each other’s characteristics more vivid in comparison. May’s reason for agreeing to a long engagement reinforces the idea that she’s currently an innocent little girl, and the moment she marries she’ll become a worldly woman.
The papers are mostly letters between Ellen’s lawyers and her husband’s, and they also include a letter that he sent to her. After reading it, Archer consents to discussing the matter with Ellen. Mr. Letterblair tells him to come to dinner that night to go over the case. Archer goes straight home after work, not wanting to speak to anyone. He had to take the case to protect Ellen’s secrets from anyone else. He feels compassionate, wanting to save her from herself.
Wharton does not yet reveal any of Ellen’s secrets, but Archer’s eagerness to keep anyone else from learning them makes them seem particularly scandalous. Archer approaches the situation with condescension, feeling like the mature man who must protect the fragile woman from her own folly.
Archer wonders if New York seems so pure simply because its inhabitants ignore anything unpleasant. He realizes that his morals have always been basic. His affair with Mrs. Rushworth gave him an air of adventure, and when he realized that this was what attracted her to him, he was heartbroken. Most men of his age have similar affairs and realize the difference between women they love and women they enjoy. Their female relatives always support the idea that women are more to blame in these affairs than men. However, Archer thinks that in rich and idle European societies, there must be far more affairs, and a naturally good woman might be drawn into one.
Archer characterizes New York society as a whole as innocent, but he’s beginning to recognize that its innocence might only be a veneer that covers the less agreeable parts of society. Once again, Wharton suggests that women are complicit in their own oppression, as women are quick to blame other women (rather than men) for affairs, perhaps because these women must seek the approval of men. Archer finds himself trying to excuse Ellen’s affair as a matter of foreignness.
When he gets home, Archer writes Ellen to ask when he might come see her, and discovers that he should go that very evening, because she’s going to Skuytercliff, the van der Luydens’ estate, the next day. He goes to Mr. Letterblair’s house for dinner. The man takes his food very seriously. After dinner, Mr. Letterblair says that he thinks the Mingotts are right to oppose the divorce, and Archer immediately feels the need to argue.
The van der Luydens have obviously forgiven Ellen for going to the Struthers’s. Archer thought he was opposed to the idea of Ellen getting a divorce, but he seems more opposed to her family and Mr. Letterblair dictating her life—he wants to argue against whatever they’re telling her to do.
Mr. Letterblair points out that Ellen and her husband are already separated, and she’s not going to get any more of her money back. Though Archer originally thought the same, now that this old man is saying it, he seems like a representative of a society desiring to ignore everything unpleasant. Archer says the benefits of the case are for Ellen to decide. He passes off the threat that Ellen’s husband has put in his letter, but Mr. Letterblair says it could cause unpleasant gossip. This exasperates Archer.
Archer finds himself arguing not only for Ellen to get a divorce, but against society and its strictures as a whole. In a way, the question is whether Ellen should be happy and free, or whether she should do what will keep society calm and preserve her reputation. Archer thinks that only Ellen can know what’s best for her, repudiating the idea that men know what’s best for women.
Archer says he can’t promise to argue against the divorce until he’s talked to Ellen. Mr. Letterblair is shocked that Archer would consider marrying into a family overshadowed by a divorce scandal, but Archer thinks this irrelevant. Now that Archer has been forced into this position, he doesn’t want to have it taken from him, so he must reassure Mr. Letterblair. He says that he won’t decide either way until talking to him again, and he leaves.
Mr. Letterblair expects Archer to be working on this case with an eye to its personal effect on him, rather than impartially, as he probably should. Archer takes a more ethical standpoint, recognizing that this is about Ellen’s life, not his.