The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Archer returns home, Janey tells him at dinner that Ellen came to visit Mrs. Archer when he was gone. He shows his surprise. Janey describes Ellen’s stylish outfit and says she wanted to meet them because he had been good to her. Mrs. Archer says Ellen’s very adept at pleasing people, but she likes May better for her simplicity.
Although Archer was trying to escape from his attraction to Ellen, she has obviously been seeking him out and trying to learn more about him. Notably, even Mrs. Archer compares Ellen and May to each other, though she prefers May’s innocence to Ellen’s charm.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
A couple days later, Archer calls on Mrs. Mingott to bring her messages from St. Augustine. She’s grateful to him for his influence with Ellen, and charmed by his story of dropping everything to go see May. He explains that she wouldn’t agree to get married sooner. Mrs. Mingott says that none of the Mingotts know how to flout convention; everyone was aghast when she built her house in such a remote part of New York. Ellen is the only relation who takes after her, and she jokes that Archer should have married Ellen. Now, she says, Ellen’s life is finished.
Mrs. Mingott thinks that Archer is similar to herself; unconventional to a point, but not so unconventional as to completely betray society. He’s capable of passionately begging May to get married sooner, but never of advising divorce. Like Archer, Mrs. Mingott is attracted to Ellen’s unconventionality. Strikingly, she knows that a woman’s life revolves around marriage, and Ellen is done with marriage—thus, she unimaginatively believes Ellen’s life to be finished.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer asks whether Mrs. Mingott might convince the Wellands to move the wedding up. She likes his spirit. Ellen enters, looking happy. Mrs. Mingott tells her Archer has been to see May, and Ellen says she went to see Mrs. Archer to find out where he’d gone. He says he meant to write her from Florida. She seems indifferent to him, and he’s hurt. Mrs. Mingott says he’s a real lover, impatient to be married. Ellen suggests that they can persuade the Wellands to go along with his wishes.
Mrs. Mingott thinks that Archer is very passionate and just can’t wait to have May all to himself, particularly in bed. Even as Archer tries to chain himself to May to control his feelings for Ellen, he’s hurt by his sense that she doesn’t care about him. As she often does, Ellen ironically acts the essential factor in moving Archer’s relationship with May forward, to her own detriment.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
When Ellen walks Archer out, he asks when he can see her, and she replies that he should come soon, as she’s moving the next week. He treasures his memories of her house. He suggests the next day, and she agrees but says to come early, for she’s going out. He realizes she must be going to Mrs. Struthers’s. He’s annoyed that she’ll probably see Beaufort there, and is probably going expressly to see him. He plots to go late in order to prevent her from going out or to miss her altogether.
Besides trying to move his marriage up, Archer is making no effort to distance himself from Ellen. He sees Ellen’s house as the cradle of his love for her, and reveres it for this reason. She’s returning to Mrs. Struthers’s in spite of the uproar that her visit there caused before. Still jealous of Beaufort, Archer wants to either have Ellen all to himself or not have her at all.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
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The next night, Archer doesn’t arrive as late as he meant to because he was too restless to wait. When he enters Ellen’s house, he’s surprised to see very strangely fashioned hats and overcoats in the hall. He’s sure neither one belongs to Beaufort. Nastasia shows him into the drawing room. Ellen isn’t there, but another lady is, wearing an eccentrically designed dress. He also sees Ned Winsett and a large older man. They’re all looking at a huge bouquet of flowers lying on the sofa.
The oddness of the clothing in the hall foreshadows the unconventionality of the people whom Archer finds in the drawing room. Though Beaufort himself isn’t there, the presence of the bouquet acts as a reminder of Ellen’s multiple admirers, seeming almost to compete with the yellow roses that Archer has sent Ellen in the past.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
The guests turn to Archer, and the woman introduces herself as the Marchioness Medora Manson. She’s visiting Ellen from Cuba. She introduces Dr. Agathon Carver, founder of the Valley of Love Community, and expresses despair over New York’s spirit. She says that Ellen has gone up to dress and will soon return. Winsett says he must leave, but he will miss Ellen when she moves. When he’s gone, Medora Manson says he’s very witty. Dr. Carver says he never notices wit.
Everything that other characters have said about Medora Manson, along with her strange clothes, prepares Archer for her to be a very unconventional woman. The Valley of Love community is a reference to the many experimental communities that sprang up in the Northeast around this time, often promoting free love.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Medora Manson explains that Dr. Carver lives the life of the spirit and is preparing for a lecture he’s about to give at Mrs. Blenker’s. She points out that it’s time for him to leave, and he reluctantly prepares to go. She says she’ll join him soon, and he suggests that she might bring Archer. Medora Manson says Ellen needs Archer tonight, so Dr. Carver gives him his card.
Wharton portrays Dr. Carver as somewhat ridiculous, suggesting that his idealistic community offers no real solutions to the problems of marriage that her characters experience. Archer misses this opportunity to learn about an alternative to marriage, whose chains he will soon curse.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Medora Manson expresses her pleasure at everything Archer has done for Ellen. Archer is embarrassed that everyone knows about his interference. Medora reveals that his role was providential, since Ellen’s husband himself appealed to her to convince Ellen to take him back. Archer is horrified. Medora says he has humbled himself, and she has a letter from him that she has not yet given Ellen. Archer says Ellen must not return to her husband, but Medora points out that she is giving up incredible luxury, art, and conversation. In Europe she’s thought gorgeous, unlike in New York.
Medora now proves herself to be just what Archer hasn’t expected of her—this supposedly unconventional woman is speaking in the name of convention. Medora discounts the horror of living with a man whom Ellen can’t stand, instead arguing that life with Ellen’s husband in Europe would offer Ellen uncounted privileges that New York can never give her.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer can’t believe that his first meeting with Medora Manson has her playing messenger to the devil. She says that Ellen doesn’t know anything about her mission yet, because Medora has been waiting to speak to Archer, hoping that he would help her. Archer exclaims that he would rather see Ellen dead than back with her husband. Medora doesn’t seem to mind this. She sits quietly until she hears Ellen approaching, then points to the bouquet, asking whether Archer prefers that for Ellen.
Archer hates the idea of Ellen returning to her husband not only because he believes she’d be miserable with the man, but also because Archer doesn’t want Ellen to leave New York, and him. However, Medora knows the bouquet signifies that Ellen is heading towards an affair, and she would prefer Ellen be miserable with her husband. Ironically, Archer himself embodies the danger that Medora fears for Ellen.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon