Ellen enters her drawing room wearing a shimmering dress and looking like she’s ready for a ball. Medora Manson points out the flowers. Ellen grows suddenly angry, saying the bouquet is ridiculous. She calls Nastasia and tells her to bring them to Mr. Winsett’s house for his wife, but not to say they came from her. She gives Nastasia her own cloak for the task.
Wharton implies that the bouquet has come from Beaufort, and Ellen’s violent reaction to it shows that she does not welcome his attentions. Her romantic and unconventional spirit emerges when she gives her maid her own cloak to wear.
Ellen laughs, saying that Medora Manson and Archer have become friends while she fussed with her hair. She sees that it’s time for Medora to join Dr. Carver, and she and Archer show Medora out. The unconventionality of Ellen’s familiarity with Nastasia has excited Archer. Back in the drawing room, he lights a cigarette for her, and she asks what he thinks of her temper. He replies that it helps him understand what Medora has been saying about Ellen being used to all kinds of amusement not available in New York. Ellen says Medora is always romantic, and Archer asks whether she tells the truth. Ellen wants to know what else she’s been telling him.
Archer increasingly associates his attraction to Ellen with her willingness to act in ways that other New Yorkers never would. Ellen is acting flirtatiously, and this is the first time they’ve been alone since their interrupted encounter at Skuyterkill, making this scene ripe for drama. Once again Archer is preoccupied by his worry, which Medora has increased, that Ellen can never be happy near him because only Europe can provide the kind of entertainment she craves.
Archer says that Medora Manson has told him that Ellen’s husband wants her back. Ellen seems unsurprised. After a long silence, she admits that Medora has hinted at such a thing, but she isn’t sure whether Medora has come for that reason. Supposedly Medora had a “spiritual summons” from Dr. Carver, whom she might marry. Ellen doesn’t know why she’s really there, but she does believe Medora has a letter from Ellen’s husband. Archer is restless, knowing that Ellen will have to leave at any moment. He says Medora believes she will return to her husband, and Ellen blushes, saying this is a cruel thing to believe.
Even if Medora is acting conventionally in wanting Ellen to return to her husband, considering marriage to Dr. Carver for spiritual reasons is certainly not a normal New York thing to do. Ellen seems to think the worst of anyone who would believe she has so little self-respect that she would go back to the husband who has mistreated her. She obviously cares more about her freedom than about the allure of Europe.
Ellen says she thinks the Wellands are being ridiculous about Archer’s long engagement. He follows her lead in changing the subject. Ellen is surprised that May is so attached to convention, but Archer admits that she thinks he cares for someone else. Ellen thinks this would make May want to rush the marriage, but Archer explains that May is giving him time to give her up if necessary. He hears Ellen’s carriage approaching. Ellen finds May’s attitude noble, but Archer says it’s ridiculous because he’s not going to marry anyone else.
Even though she’s been somewhat flirtatious, Ellen is keeping up the appearance that she isn’t attracted to Archer by continuing to vocally support his marriage. She also remains steadily devoted to May, as she always will. Archer manages to broach the subject of his potential feelings for a woman other than May, but he seems to doom their affair before it begins by saying that May needn’t fear he’ll marry someone else.
Ellen asks whether this other woman loves Archer, and he clarifies that the person May was thinking of is unimportant. She wants to know why he’s really so hasty to get married. Just then her carriage arrives. She invites him to come with her to Mrs. Struthers’s. Archer feels he needs to keep her from leaving. He says that there is another woman, but not the one May thinks. He sits beside Ellen and takes her hand. She pulls away, telling him not to flirt with her.
Like May, Ellen doesn’t believe that Archer has pure motives in wanting to hasten his marriage. Archer finally pushes the moment to a climax, preparing to confess his feelings for Ellen. Perhaps it bodes ill that he gets to this point by talking about his impending marriage; their love has no straightforward future.
Archer is embarrassed, but he says he would have married Ellen if it were possible. She retorts that he has made it impossible. He’s astonished. She cries that he made her give up the idea of divorce, showing her that she needed to sacrifice herself to preserve the institution of marriage and avoid scandal. She’s given up on divorce for him, because he’s marrying into her family. Stricken, Archer implies that he assumed something about her, and she demands to know what. He admits that he thought her husband’s accusation against her was true, but she says she had nothing to fear from his letter.
Ellen points out one of the many ironies that mark her relationship with Archer; if he had only argued for her to get a divorce, he might be able to marry her now. Furthermore, her love for him is pure enough that she chose to help him in his marriage by not getting a divorce, rather than trying to win him for herself. The final blow is that Archer based his advice that she not get a divorce on a false assumption that she had had an affair.
Archer feels like their silence is crushing him like a gravestone. He says at least he loved her, and he hears Ellen crying. He goes to her, saying that she can still get a divorce. He kisses her and immediately feels like everything is much simpler. After a moment, she pulls away and says that nothing can change. Archer replies that they can’t lie about their love, and he can’t marry May. She’s adamant that it’s too late for them to go back on their decisions, explaining that he changed everything for her even before she knew what he’d done to help her.
Archer has finally taken a decisive step in his relationship with Ellen, only to find that her returning his feelings can bring him no joy in the hell he discovers he has built himself. Everything between them seems like it’s already finished before it has even started. They seem to have switched places; Archer is arguing for the unconventional path, whereas Ellen insists that they do what’s expected of them.
Ellen says that she didn’t realize at first that people didn’t like her, and she only found out later what Archer had done to support her socially. She thought that New York was a peaceful home and everyone was kind. Only Archer helped her understand how she needed to act, because he was the only one who had been tempted by the outside world but refused its dishonorable method of providing happiness. Her words feel like lead in his chest. Impulsively, he kisses her satin shoe. Ellen says she can’t go back to the way of thinking that he cured her of.
Just as Ellen’s flouting of tradition has attracted Archer to her, it is Archer’s knowledge of how to act conventionally that has drawn her to him. Ellen seems to view New York as a pure society that contrasts with the outside world’s debauchery. The central irony of their relationship is that Archer has changed her viewpoint in such a way that she can no longer have an affair with him, though she might have before.
Archer becomes angry, asking whether Beaufort will take his place. He wants Ellen to be angry too, but she wilts. He reminds her that Beaufort is waiting at Mrs. Struthers’s. Ellen rings for her maid and tells her she’s no longer going out that evening. Archer says that he can’t keep her from her friends if she’s lonely, but Ellen says she’s no longer lonely because she’s no longer empty inside herself. Archer exclaims that he doesn’t understand her, and she points out that he understands May. He says that he has the right to end their engagement, since May has refused to hasten it, but Ellen doesn’t agree.
Archer can’t seem to deal with the fact that he has ruined any future he might have had with Ellen; instead, he lets his jealousy of Beaufort take over, making it seem like he thinks Ellen susceptible to any man who wants her. Ellen feels like coming to understand the value of New York society has filled her with a purpose that she didn’t have before. Though society thought her immoral, she now acts more honorably than Archer, refusing to let him hurt May.
Archer feels terribly tired. He wants to hold Ellen again, but her attitude keeps him at bay. When he begins to plead with her again, she screams at him as though frightened. They hear the doorbell, and soon Nastasia comes in with a telegram. She says that Winsett’s wife cried with happiness at the flowers, thinking Winsett had sent them. Ellen opens the telegram. It’s from May, and she says her parents have just agreed to let the marriage happen after Easter.
Both Archer and Ellen are in terrible emotional pain, so close and yet so far from finding happiness together. The scene at the Winsetts’ presents a picture of a joyful marriage that contrasts with Archer’s future. May’s telegram is another ironic bite, closing off the possibility that Archer could break his engagement, since he has fought so hard to get the marriage moved up.
When Archer returns home, he finds a similar telegram from May. He crushes it and takes out his pocket diary, turning the pages frantically. Then he goes upstairs and knocks on Janey’s door. She was waiting up in case the telegram had bad news. He asks what day Easter is, and she says it’s the first week in April. He calculates the time until then and begins to laugh, saying he’s going to be married in a month. Janey is overjoyed but can’t understand why Archer keeps laughing.
Archer only ever seems to laugh when he experiences painful irony, such as the arrival of this telegram on this night, and his laughter suggests that he fully recognizes the role he himself has played in making these circumstances the nightmare that they are. If he only hadn’t tried to convince May to get married sooner, he might have more options with Ellen now.