The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Archer arrives at the Wellands’ house and sees May, he wonders why he didn’t come sooner. This is the reality of his life. May first worries that something has happened, but he says that he had to see her, and her happiness shows him that it won’t matter that he left his work behind. Archer wants to be alone with May, and they go for a walk in an orange garden outside town. She looks very athletic, and the sight of her soothes Archer. They sit on a bench and he kisses her, which seems to startle her. This is only the second time he’s kissed her on the lips.
As she has done in the past, May acts as a solid anchor to the strictly dictated life that Archer lived up until he met Ellen. Ellen begins to seem almost fantastical in comparison. May again presents a stark contrast to Ellen, particularly in her shock at Archer’s kiss—May is deeply innocencent, whereas Ellen was just discussing her own sexual need.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer asks May to tell him what she does all day. This way he can think his own thoughts while she talks. She speaks of her athletic hobbies and the people who are staying nearby. She hasn’t had time to read a book Archer sent her, but she’s memorizing one of the first poems he read to her. Soon they hurry back to breakfast at the Wellands’ house, which is rather shabby. Every year, Mrs. Welland struggles to find servants to run it so that Mr. Welland can feel that he is at home.
Despite Archer’s relief at seeing May, he obviously isn’t very interested in what she has to say about her life. She speaks of everyday topics, seeming particularly plain in comparison to the drama of Ellen’s life. May only cares about literature as a way of connecting to Archer, not as something to think deeply about. Wharton holds up the Wellands’ marriage as almost ridiculous.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
At breakfast, Mr. Welland tells Archer that they rough it here, though they’re eating delicacies. May’s parents were very surprised to see him, but he said that he came to ward off a cold, which Mr. Welland thinks is very wise. May says she would like St. Augustine better than New York if Archer could stay, and Mrs. Welland says he must stay until he’s entirely healthy. Mr. Letterblair eventually lets him stay a week, in part because he handled the matter of Ellen’s divorce so well.
Mr. Welland always seems rather absurd and pitiful in his lack of perspective on the world and his obsessive worry about even the smallest health issues. Because May is so similar to her mother, there’s an implication that marriage could eventually turn Archer into Mr. Welland. It’s ironic that Archer’s conversations with Ellen are what allow him to spend more time with May.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
One day, when May is out with Mr. Welland, Mrs. Welland brings up Ellen, saying that she has very different ideas than most New Yorkers. She recalls the scandal of Medora Manson dressing her in black at her coming-out ball. Having been in Europe for at least twelve years, Ellen now thinks like a European. Archer points out that Ellen thought she was being American in asking for a divorce. Mrs. Welland says that foreigners always say ridiculous things about Americans and expresses the family’s appreciation at Archer’s role in persuading her. Archer feels like the family is pushing her towards being Beaufort’s mistress by forbidding her divorce, and he wonders what Mrs. Welland would do if he said so. He doesn’t want May to maintain the same innocence that her mother has.
Mrs. Welland, as a diehard adherent to society’s rules, can see in Ellen only her constant transgressions of those rules. Ellen has in fact been brought up to break the rules, as the story involving Medora Manson shows, and living in Europe has only made this tendency worse. Archer worries that Ellen is more likely to become Beaufort’s mistress to find satisfaction if she can’t divorce and remarry, and being someone’s mistress would be at least as bad socially as getting the divorce. Though Archer earlier venerated May’s innocence, he’s now beginning to see how harmful it is.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Get the entire The Age of Innocence LitChart as a printable PDF.
The age of innocence.pdf.medium
Mrs. Welland says that her husband probably would have died if Ellen’s scandal had been in the newspapers. She told Ellen she didn’t want to know about it. Even the possibility of divorce, and of May learning about such things, gave Mr. Welland a temperature. Archer had meant to speak to Mrs. Welland about letting him marry May sooner, but he can’t think of anything that would convince her.
Though innocence is most often associated with women, Mr. Welland is just as fragile in his innocence as any woman, making innocence a general Welland trait that May inherits. Archer sees that Mrs. Welland is so entrenched in convention that he’ll never manage to pull her out of it.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
The day before he leaves, Archer goes for a walk with May and says they could travel to Spain in the spring if they got married soon. However, May is content with only dreaming of such things, while he wants to make them real. He says he wants her for his wife now. She looks at him deeply and asks whether it’s because he’s not sure he’ll continue to love her. Archer angrily says it might be. She asks whether there’s someone else. He’s seemed different since their engagement. She thinks they should talk about it, acknowledging that Archer may have made a mistake in proposing to her. He argues that he wouldn’t be asking to hasten their marriage if this were the case, but she points out that he might want to settle the matter.
Archer will remember this discussion with May for the rest of his life, as it’s one of the only times they speak genuinely to each other and May isn’t so trapped in convention. May shows deep perception into Archer’s character here, seeing his darker motives for what seems like a request that comes out of love for her. This interaction proves that May isn’t as innocent as she seems; she knows that Archer could be unfaithful to her. Her awareness here foreshadows her later awareness of Archer’s affair with Ellen.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer is surprised by May’s perception, but he can tell that she’s nervous. She says that girls are more aware and less innocent than they seem. She’s long known that he used to have feelings for someone else; she once saw the woman looking sad and felt sorry for her. Archer feels relieved that this is all she’s worried about. May doesn’t want her marriage to be based on a wrong to another woman. She believes that two people who love each other should be together even if it goes against public opinion, and she wants Archer to be with this other woman if he’s promised himself to her.
May knows that Archer sees her as innocent, and she’s purposely disrupting this image of herself. However, she hasn’t struck to the real root of the problem—she thinks that Archer is still in love with Mrs. Rushworth. She shows great integrity here, going against what society has taught her in order to follow a personal moral code. She feels sympathy, rather than jealousy, for the woman she believes loves Archer.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer is amazed both that May is worried about his affair with Mrs. Rushworth and that her views are so unconventional. He assures her that he hasn’t pledged himself to Mrs. Rushworth in any way. He agrees that each case of love must be judged without regard for social rules, and he urges her to see that it’s only convention that’s keeping them from marrying soon. She’s overjoyed, but he realizes that even though she can understand others breaking convention, she cannot do it herself. To Archer’s disappointment, the unexpected side of her that she has just revealed vanishes, and they walk home.
May is exhibiting a side of herself that Archer hasn’t realized existed—a side that’s more like Ellen. However, at this crucial moment, May fails to follow through with her new way of thinking; she can sympathize with the unconventional, but unlike Ellen, she can’t act unconventionally herself. This side of May flares up only in this one glimpse, and Archer loses it forever to the innocent, traditional, unimaginative May.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon