The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Archer takes part in all of the required activities at the Chiverses’, going out in the ice-boat and going through the stables, talking to a girl who used to have a crush on him, and taking part in practical jokes. The next day, he drives to Skuytercliff. Mr. van der Luyden built the house in anticipation of his marriage, and it looks like an Italian villa. It sits high above a small lake, surrounded by lawns. In a hollow lies an old stone cottage. It’s a rather gloomy house, especially in the snow. When Archer rings the bell, the butler seems surprised to see any visitor.
The Chiverses’ party seems quite immature, particularly in comparison to Ellen’s life. Skuytercliff is removed from the center of New York society, and this, along with its imitation of Italy, makes it a prime location for events to occur that seem outside the possibilities of society’s conventions.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer learns that Ellen is at church with Mrs. van der Luyden. He declines the butler’s offer to seek out Mr. van der Luyden, choosing instead to walk towards the village in search of Ellen. He meets her on the road and takes her hand, saying that he came to see what she was running away from. She replies that he’ll see soon and rebuffs his attempts to find out more. She suggests they race, and takes off running through the snow. Archer follows joyfully. When they stop, she says she knew he would come, which he takes to mean she wanted him to.
This scene is charged with romantic possibility as Ellen is both running from him and urging him to chase her in metaphorical and physical senses. They seem magnetically drawn to each other, and Ellen’s refusal to reveal her secret might make the reader wonder whether she’s left New York specifically to suppress feelings for Archer.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Ellen knows that May asked Archer to take care of her, but he says he didn’t need to be asked. She says women in New York never seem to feel the need, and when Archer asks what kind of need she means, she says she can’t speak his language. He feels devastated by this retort. She finally agrees to tell him what’s happened, but only if they can find somewhere private. She feels that American houses never let anyone be alone. Walking past the small stone house, they realize that Mr. van der Luyden had it opened up because Ellen wanted to see it. No one will expect them back at the big house for an hour.
The “need” that Ellen speaks of is most likely sexual desire, but even she can’t put it into words. Women of this time weren’t really supposed to feel sexual desire. Ellen’s sense that she and Archer speak different languages gestures to her foreignness and her unfamiliarity with New York society’s way of talking around everything improper. Archer, however, wants nothing more than to make her feel understood.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer and Ellen go into the house. It’s cozy and seems to have been created just for them. They settle by the fire, Ellen saying that she can’t be unhappy with Archer there. He thrills at her words and goes to look out the window to control himself. But he still sees her even when he’s not looking at her. He wonders if she’s been running from him. He asks her to tell him what’s wrong. With the whole room between them, he imagines her coming up behind him to throw her arms around his neck. Instead, he sees Julius Beaufort coming up the path.
This is the first time that Archer fully acknowledges his attraction to Ellen. She’s filling his mind entirely, and he’s daring to hope that she might feel the same way about him—perhaps she needed to leave New York to control her emotions. However, as always happens in this book, their moment of possibility is cruelly thwarted, this time by the appearance of Archer’s rival.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
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Archer laughs. Ellen comes to his side and takes his hand, but when she sees Beaufort she shrinks away. Archer asks whether this is what she was running from. She says she didn’t know Beaufort was there, but Archer pulls away from her and throws the door open, telling Beaufort that Ellen expected him.
Archer will often laugh in these moments when circumstance foils his desires, as though he sees the irony. In his bitterness, he turns against Ellen, blaming her in part for Beaufort’s presence and wanting her to feel the same disappointment he does.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
As Archer returns to New York the next morning, he relives the previous day. Beaufort was irritated to find Archer there and ignored him thoroughly. It was clear that Ellen didn’t know Beaufort was coming and had not told him she was going to Skuytercliff. Supposedly, he had come because he had found the perfect house for her. He grumbled that if only telephoning were better perfected, he wouldn’t have had to come all this way. They discussed the almost fantastical nature of the telephone for the rest of the walk back to the house.
Beaufort and Archer both know that the other is attracted to Ellen, and they resent each other for it. However, it bodes well for Archer that Ellen was glad to see him, but not to see Beaufort. Since the telephone was a normal part of life for Wharton’s readers, the characters’ marked lack of it and incredulity at the very idea of it would act as a reminder that the novel is set decades before their own time.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Change and Progress Theme Icon
Archer left, while Beaufort went inside with Ellen. Archer knew the van der Luydens would probably ask him to dinner, but certainly wouldn’t invite him to stay the night. Beaufort knew this too, and the fact that he made such a long journey anyway showed his desire for Ellen. He’s always looking for affairs. The question is what Ellen’s aim was in fleeing from him, but Archer thinks that he detected real annoyance at Beaufort’s appearance.
Beaufort seems rather foolish or desperate, coming all the way to Skuytercliff when Ellen didn’t even want him there and he would have to return the same night. It’s possible that Ellen was being flirtatious in leaving New York and making Beaufort come after her, but she’s actually too genuine a person to do such a thing.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
However, Ellen’s annoyance is almost worse than if she had left New York just to meet Beaufort secretly. It’s worse if she despises him but is still drawn to him by his association with artistic people and the world beyond New York. Archer knows that in some ways, it’s true that he and Ellen don’t speak the same language. Beaufort, however, does speak her language; he reflects the life she had with her husband. What she liked about that life, she will still find attractive. Sometimes Archer only wants to make Ellen see her situation clearly.
Archer worries that he and New York as a whole fall terribly short when compared to Ellen’s former life in Europe. He knows that Beaufort, as an Englishman, can understand and reproduce her former life in a way that Archer can’t, and he fears that Ellen will ultimately gravitate towards Beaufort for this reason. He’s also worried that Ellen doesn’t see how harshly people will judge her association with Beaufort.
Themes
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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That evening, Archer unpacks the books he’s been sent from London, including Middlemarch, which has gotten interesting reviews. However, he has trouble focusing on them until he comes to a book of poetry called The House of Life. In this book he finds the beauty of passion and imagines it speaks of Ellen Olenska. But the next morning, his time with her at Skuytercliff seems entirely unreal. At breakfast, Janey and Mrs. Archer remark that he seems ill, but they blame it on his work, which they think far more strenuous than it is.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot, deals with the failure of marriage and the difference between appearances and reality in society, making it quite relevant to this novel. The House of Life, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a collection of passionate and sometimes explicit love poems, so Archer’s association of this work with Ellen shows how deeply he’s falling for her now.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The next few days drag by, Archer feeling like his future will be dark and monotonous. On the fourth evening, he receives a note from Ellen telling him to visit the next day so that she can explain. Late that night he re-reads the short note again and again, considering all night how to respond. In the morning, he packs a bag and boards a boat to St. Augustine.
Having tasted this passion for Ellen, Archer’s sure future with May now seems awfully dull in comparison. However, he’s still bound by his morals to fight his attraction to Ellen, and he decides that fleeing to May in Florida is the best way to do so.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Change and Progress Theme Icon