On Archer’s way to Ellen’s house, he can tell who is visiting whom from the carriages on the streets. He sees Beaufort leaving his house, probably for some scandalous destination. Archer assumes he’s going to visit Miss Fanny Ring. Outside of high society, there’s the group of artists, writers, and musicians who prefer to keep to themselves. Sometimes one can meet some of them at the Blenkers’ house. The Archers’ group highly respects literature and art, and Mrs. Archer often says that society was far better when it included celebrated writers, but now society doesn’t quite know how to deal with the artistic types. Mrs. Archer thinks it used to be much easier to class everyone, and to know everyone worth knowing.
High society is so small and tight-knit that Archer can trace everyone’s movements just from seeing their carriages. Wharton emphasizes the constant existence of affairs such as Beaufort’s, even as Ellen is condemned for hers. The Archers’ respect for art and literature is like much else in society; it exists on a surface level, but they rarely get to know the actual artists who live immersed in it. As she often does, Mrs. Archer despairs at the negative changes she sees in society.
Only Mrs. Mingott or Beaufort might have been able to bridge the gap between high society and artists, but they couldn’t care less about art and literature. Archer has always accepted this social structure. He knows that elsewhere, artists are honored members of the upper classes, but he can’t imagine it happening in New York. He knows a lot of the artistic set from music and theater clubs, and he likes them, but he feels that their world is just as small as his.
If two of the main figures of society don’t care about art, then it’s obviously not an integral part of New York. Archer sees this as a difference between New York and Europe; New Yorkers remain isolated within their social circles even as they remain isolated from foreigners. This isolation inhibits progress.
Archer is thinking about these topics because he’s trying to imagine Ellen Olenska’s previous life. When he last saw her, she didn’t understand that her family didn’t like her living in the artistic neighborhood because it seems impoverished. She had books lying around her drawing room, where New Yorkers didn’t keep books. She always makes him see the world from a different perspective.
Archer’s observations of Ellen suggest that he’s attributing her differences to living in Europe, where artists are more revered and society people are more likely to be intellectual. Her European perspective is opening up his world, which has been largely confined to New York before this.
When Nastasia lets Archer into Ellen’s house, he sees Beaufort’s coat and hat in the hall, which makes him angry. He goes into the drawing room determined to make Beaufort feel out of place. Beaufort is leaning on the mantelpiece, and a table is filled with flowers that he’s brought. It’s customary for ladies to wear simple dinner dresses in the evenings, but Ellen is wearing a red velvet robe bordered in fur. Archer has seen a similar garment in a French painting.
Archer is both jealous of Ellen spending so much time with Beaufort and concerned that Beaufort will be a bad influence on her. Beaufort’s flowers seem rather suggestive of an illicit attachment. Ellen’s clothing emphasizes her difference from New Yorkers and her familiarity with foreign fashions.
Beaufort is scoffing at the idea of Ellen spending three days at Skuytercliff, saying that Mrs. van der Luyden is a cold hostess. He’s disappointed that Ellen will miss the dinner with some artists that he was planning for her. She says she’s hardly met any artists in New York, and Archer suggests that he could introduce her to a couple of painters. Ellen was really thinking of actors and musicians, who were always at her husband’s house. Archer is surprised how lightly she mentions her husband. Beaufort says that New York is terribly dull and tries to convince Ellen to stay for his dinner. She says it’s too late to decide tonight, but she’ll let him know in the morning. She has to talk business with Archer. Beaufort is irritated but takes his leave.
Beaufort is insistent on wanting Ellen’s company at his dinner, adding to the sense that he has improper intentions in his relationship with her. As a foreigner himself, it’s unsurprising that Beaufort is the one who’s trying to introduce Ellen to artists in the way she’s been used to in Europe. Even though she wants a divorce, she seems to miss certain social aspects of living with her husband. This scene highlights the sense of competition between Archer and Beaufort for Ellen’s attention.
Ellen inquires about Archer’s connection to painters, and he says that he always goes to exhibitions in Paris and London. She says she wants not to care about such things anymore, because she wants to be like everyone in New York. She hates to be different. Archer brings up the fact that he’s come at Mr. Letterblair’s request, and Ellen is glad that she can talk to him instead of Mr. Letterblair. Archer is gratified that she didn’t know his purpose in coming, and only spoke of business to get rid of Beaufort. She suddenly looks pale and pitiful.
Even though Ellen clearly misses associating with artistic people, she’s determined to abandon this pleasure if it’s the only way to become a New Yorker. It’s ironic that she claims not to like being different, as she’s essentially defined by her many differences from the people around her. Archer feels that Ellen lying to get Beaufort to leave shows that she wanted to be alone with him.
Archer has little practice talking about awkward situations. Ellen bursts out that she wants to be free. Archer understands, but he wants to know more about the situation. Learning that he knows about her life with her husband, Ellen is surprised that he needs anything more. She can’t imagine that such things are tolerated in America.
Archer doesn’t know how to approach this conversation because everyone in his world simply avoids talking about sensitive topics like divorce. Ellen thinks of America as inherently freer than Europe, but on the contrary, New York tolerates subjection in the name of suppressing unpleasantness.
Archer needs to know how much truth there is in the angry letter Count Olenski sent to Ellen. He says that if the Count fights the case as he threatens to, he might spread harmful rumors about her. Ellen is quiet, but finally she expresses doubt that such rumors would hurt her here. Archer thinks they would hurt her more here than anywhere, and he says that New York is old-fashioned. If a woman has acted at all unconventionally, society frowns on divorce even if the laws don’t. Ellen droops and eventually says that her family has told her the same.
It’s implied that Count Olenski has threatened to spread details about the affair that Ellen supposedly had while married to him. Though to this point Ellen has persisted in her delusion of New York as unfailingly welcoming and accepting, she is beginning to understand that her view of New York is false, and it will treat her more harshly than she thought.
Ellen asks whether Archer agrees with her family that she shouldn’t get a divorce. He wanders around the room, thinking that he does agree as long as what her husband says is true. Instead, he says she couldn’t gain anything that would make up for the gossip it would cause. She points out that she would gain her freedom. Archer guesses that the Count’s accusation is true, and Ellen wants to marry the man with whom she has had an affair. He says she’s already free, and there’s no reason to risk unpleasantness. He rambles about why society acts as it does. In the New York way, he doesn’t want to disturb her ugly secret.
In line with the society which has molded him, Archer worries more than anything about appearances, and the way that people will react. Furthermore, he doesn’t think to ask whether his assumption about Ellen’s motives is correct. He influences her future through this assumption, and he’ll only find out later that it was wrong. As an unmarried man, he doesn’t understand how trapped a woman can feel in marriage.
Archer says he has to help her see matters the way her friends see them, and Ellen understands. She tends to a lamp and remains standing, so he stands, too. She says she will do as he wishes. Taken off guard, he grabs her hands, saying he does want to help her. She bids him good night, and he kisses her hands before leaving.
Archer is acting as the voice of society. Though this is a valuable viewpoint, he’s certainly not saying what Ellen wants to hear, and he’s not thinking independently. His farewell gesture betrays his growing feelings for her.