The day of the wedding is beautiful, and all of the old ladies have gotten out their old, smelly furs. Archer stands with his best man on the step of Grace Church. The carriage with May and Mr. Welland is in sight, but they have to prepare in the lobby once they arrive. While this happens, the groom is expected to stand and wait as a sign of his eagerness, and Archer follows this tradition just as he has followed all the other wedding traditions, with resignation. He has done everything right, sending bouquets of lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley to the bridesmaids and cufflinks to the ushers. He’s packed to leave after the wedding, when they’ll take a train to a destination whose location has been carefully guarded, per tradition.
By skipping ahead from Archer’s declaration of love for Ellen to his wedding to May, Wharton emphasizes the sense that Archer is carried along to his fate on currents of propriety that he can’t fully control. In fact, he has given in to all the traditions of marriage, and since he’s obviously not eager to get married, the fact that these traditions are meant to display eagerness shows how society’s customs often cover up a deeper insincerity that lies beneath appearances.
Archer’s best man asks whether he has the ring, and Archer feels in his pocket to check in just the same way he’s seen countless grooms do. Then he stands looking at the door of the church. Handel’s March is playing, reminding him of all the weddings he’s attended here. He thinks it feels like a night at the opera, and he sees all the same people he would see there. The women look excited, the men sulking at having to dress up so early. Archer imagines Reggie Chivers and Sillerton Jackson speculating on the food to be served at the breakfast and the fashion of serving it.
Archer does nothing at this wedding out of sincerity; his actions are dictated by tradition alone. In other words, society simply requires him to live up to the necessary appearances, and it’s simple to do so without feeling what he’s expected to feel. Similarly, the guests see the event as little more than a show that’s presented for their entertainment and subject to their judgment.
Archer sees his mother sitting in a pew and weeping, and he pities Janey for her poor view of the guests. He also sees Beaufort looking at the women while sitting next to his wife, as well as Lawrence Lefferts seeming to represent the god of “form.” Archer wonders what Lefferts will find lacking, and then realizes that he used to think such things important, though they now seem very trivial. He couldn’t believe how worked up everyone got over whether the wedding presents should be displayed. He thinks that the whole time he was worried about manners and form, people were living real lives somewhere.
Archer has become almost entirely removed from society’s viewpoint, and now he watches those who are still in its thrall with a hint of contempt. In comparison to the tragedy of his love for Ellen, the customs and etiquette that the people around him worry about seem absolutely ridiculous. From this perspective, New York society prevents people from living genuinely by focusing on everything that doesn’t matter.
The best man gets excited, thinking May is entering, but it’s only the sexton checking the scene in the church. In a minute the door opens again, and the Wellands enter to the murmur of the crowd. As soon as Mrs. Welland sits, everyone cranes their necks to see who else is coming. The day before, there were rumors that Mrs. Mingott was going to attend the wedding. She sent a carpenter to see whether enough space might be made for her gigantic form, but it seemed impossible. Her family was worried she would insist on sitting in her wheelchair, and they were relieved when someone realized that the chair was too wide to get through the awning between the door and the curb. Mrs. Welland refused to let the awning be removed, since it would allow reporters to take photographs of May. However, Mrs. Mingott insisted that the wedding breakfast must be at her house, even though it’s in the middle of nowhere.
Mrs. Mingott shows her investment in May and Archer’s partnership by her valiant attempt to attend their wedding. The crowd, however, seems to have rather superficial concerns, as they’re more interested in whether they’ll see Mrs. Mingott out and about than in the actual marriage. This episode reinforces Archer’s sense that the people of New York society aren’t living real lives. Additionally, Mrs. Welland’s concern about May’s picture being taken acts as a reminder that these characters are important enough in New York that the newspapers publish articles about their weddings.
People are disappointed to see that Mrs. Mingott’s daughter-in-law has come in her place. However, everyone approves of her dress. On the other hand, Medora Manson, entering next, is dressed wildly in stripes and fringes. Archer’s heart practically stops. He thought Medora was still in Washington with Ellen. They supposedly left in order to get Medora away from Dr. Carver, who wanted her to join his Valley of Love. They weren’t expected to attend the wedding. Archer strains to see if Ellen will enter, too, but no one else comes in.
Medora is portrayed as rather ridiculous, particularly in her relationship with Dr. Carver, who, though he represents an alternative to this social tradition of marriage, seems no more rational. For Archer, the possibility that he might see Ellen is far more exciting than the actual sight of his bride, proving that this marriage is doomed to unhappiness. Even on his wedding day, Archer is emotionally unfaithful to May.
The best man points out that May is here, but Archer is hardly aware of the procession going up the aisle. All the sights and sounds of the wedding are mixed up in his mind. He checks again to make sure he has the ring, and May is beside him at the altar and he smiles at her. Then the ceremony is over and the organ is beginning the Mendelssohn March, a traditional necessity. The best man hisses at Archer to give May his arm, and Archer realizes his mind has been drifting because he saw a woman with dark hair, though when she turned she looked nothing like Ellen.
The way in which Wharton describes this wedding as a blur and completely omits the actual ceremony emphasizes the fact that a wedding is not a very important part of a marriage; everything that follows the wedding will be the true struggle or triumph. Archer, who’s supposed to be enthralled by his beautiful bride, can think only of the woman he would rather be marrying.
Archer and May leave the church and enter the waiting carriage. May turns to him eagerly, and Archer rambles about his nervousness at the wedding while he feels he’s falling into a black abyss. She flings her arms around his neck, exclaiming that everything will be wonderful now.
The contrast between May and Archer’s attitudes is painful; May sees a secure future full of possibility, while Archer feels that all possibility of happiness has closed to him forever. Worst of all, he’s supposed to be overjoyed.
After the wedding breakfast, Archer and May change their clothes and get into their carriage in a shower of rice and satin slippers. They drive to the station and settle in the train compartment that’s been reserved for them. They’ll be staying at the house of some of Archer’s aunts in Rhinebeck. May loves this idea, and the Englishness of staying in a country house adds to society’s feeling that the wedding is particularly brilliant. Only the parents of the bride and groom are allowed to know where they’re going.
The traditions surrounding the wedding help make it seem like Archer and May are a happy couple, but in reality, anyone could go through these motions. This is the way society works in general, keeping up appearances no matter what’s really happening.
Once the train makes it to the countryside, conversation is easier than Archer expected. May wants to talk over the wedding, and neither of them seems any different than the day before. For May, the whole thing feels like a game and a great adventure. Archer is amazed that she can be so emotional and yet lack any imagination. He perceives that she will always deal with life as it comes, but never anticipate anything unusual. She looks more like she represents a moral ideal than a real person, and she seems indestructibly young. Archer feels like she’s a stranger, and he begins talking about the wedding breakfast to cover his confusion.
Although May is now married, she retains her innocence—obviously, since a ceremony isn’t going to suddenly give her worldly experience. She hardly even knows how to feel the importance of the commitment that she and Archer have made. Archer feels as though he’s married an embodiment of society and its rules, who will never change no matter what they endure together. Unfortunately, Archer no longer believes in society’s rules.
May says she was surprised that Medora Manson showed up, and she wishes Ellen had come instead. Archer has been dreading her bringing up Ellen; it feels like his world will collapse every time he hears her name. He changes the subject to the tea they’ll have when they arrive.
Ironically, May wishes that Ellen had been at her wedding, not knowing that Ellen was very much present in Archer’s mind throughout the ceremony, and Ellen has already ruined her marriage.
When they arrive in Rhinebeck, Archer and May meet one of the van der Luydens’ men who has been sent with a carriage. He informs them that there’s a water leak at the house where they were supposed to stay, and Mr. van der Luyden has prepared the stone house at Skuytercliff for them instead. Archer can only stare, but May exclaims that it will be perfect. As they drive away, she gushes that the van der Luydens rarely show the house to anyone, though Ellen has told her she thought it the only place she could be perfectly happy. Archer says that’s just what they’ll be, and May says this is the beginning of their good luck.
This scene drips with irony that causes Archer much pain. The house where he and May will be spending their wedding night is the same house where he and Ellen went in the snow, and he imagined Ellen declaring her love for him. Archer would strongly prefer to be there with Ellen than with May, and the specter of what could have been will hang over him. It’s fitting that this is the beginning of their marriage, and it shows May’s extreme innocence that she interprets it as good luck.