The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Over breakfast at a lodging-house in London, Archer tells May that they certainly must dine with Mrs. Carfry. They only know two people in all of London, and in keeping with New York tradition, they have stayed carefully away from these acquaintances. It’s not considered dignified to force foreign acquaintances to entertain travelers. Mrs. Archer and Janey have stuck to this principle with such dedication that in all of their travels, they’ve hardly ever talked to foreigners, and they’ll only talk to Americans whom they already know.
Though the characters have already expressed many opinions about Europeans, the reader now sees how New Yorkers act in Europe. It becomes apparent that New Yorkers are determined to isolate themselves to an almost absurd degree. Part of the point of travel is to immerse oneself in a different culture to expand one’s mind, but New Yorkers seem wary of anything that might force them to question their values.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
However, one night at a hotel an English lady asked Mrs. Archer and Janey for a bottle of liniment for her sister, Mrs. Carfry, who had bronchitis. The English women were terribly grateful for the Archers’ help. Though the Archers would never have dreamed of remaining in contact with the women, Mrs. Carfry and her sister took every chance of meeting the Archers whenever they were in Europe. The four women ended up all having the same interests, and a tie was formed between their families. When Archer and May left for England, Mrs. Archer told them they must go visit Mrs. Carfry.
The Archers’ interaction with Mrs. Carfry and her sister proves that Europeans don’t necessarily want Americans to keep to themselves—they’re perfectly willing to be friends with and entertain Americans. Furthermore, the relationship that Mrs. Archer and Janey gained with their British friends shows that foreigners aren’t necessarily so different and morally corrupt as New Yorkers stereotype them to be.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer and May had no intention of actually doing so, but Mrs. Carfry has sent them an invitation to dine. May protests that she’ll feel shy and won’t know what to wear. Archer thinks she looks particularly like Diana in the English climate. He says that she has plenty of dresses, not understanding that English fashion is different than American. May doesn’t know what it’s proper to wear. He suggests that she wear her wedding dress, but she doesn’t have it with her.
Although Archer and May have been constantly socializing throughout their lives in New York, the simple fact of being in England suddenly makes them feel like they have no idea how to socialize. This shows how different they think England is. They don’t feel like they can let their cultures mix; instead, they have to try to act like British people do.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer suggests they go to the National Gallery. They’re on their way home from their wedding tour. They spent a month in Paris for the dressmakers, then went to the Swiss mountains in July and the beach in August. May isn’t very interested in traveling, and thinks of it only as providing opportunities for her athletic pursuits. Back in London, she’s eager to go home. She finds London less interesting than Paris, where Archer would translate as much as he thought was appropriate of the songs they heard in the cafes.
May acts in typical New York style; Mrs. Archer and Janey only look at the scenery when they travel, and May only wants to hike and swim. None of them—except perhaps Archer—want to immerse themselves in the art and culture of foreign countries. Even now that May is married, Archer is still protecting her innocence rather than letting her fully experience Paris.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
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Archer has reverted to obeying the traditions around marriage, because it’s much easier than trying to give May freedom that she doesn’t realize she’s missing. He’s realized that May prefers to give up freedom to show her adoration of him. Knowing that she’ll always be perfectly loyal to him makes him feel obligated to do the same. He has begun to worship her simplicity again. He sees that his intellectual life will continue outside the home, and returning to May will never be wearisome. Besides, having children will fill their lives.
Many of the changes that Ellen made in Archer’s approach to his life have disappeared since he’s been under May’s influence, which is much more traditional. Though Archer was attracted to the idea of having a free and equal partner in marriage, May prefers to gain society’s approval by remaining bound to conventional ideas of marriage. Archer has essentially grown complacent in his mild unhappiness.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer thinks of all this as he and May drive to Mrs. Carfry’s house. Archer, too, usually avoids meeting people on his travels. Only once did he spend a few weeks at Florence dancing and gambling, but the time seemed unreal. The people there seemed exotic and very different from anyone he knew. He has run into the Duke of St. Austrey in London, who said to come visit him, but no American would consider doing so. Archer and May even put off their visit to London so that May’s English aunt wouldn’t feel she had to see them.
May and Archer, and Americans in general, go to almost absurd lengths to avoid interacting with foreigners. In fact, they seem to feel themselves a terrible burden on Europeans, which might suggest that Americans feel culturally or socially inferior. Though Archer enjoyed himself when he did mingle with foreigners, his world seems entirely separate from theirs, and it’s impossible to join the two worlds together.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
May looks beautiful sitting next to Archer in the carriage, and he says that there probably won’t even be anyone at Mrs. Carfry’s. She says she doesn’t want them to think Americans dress like savages, and he realizes that clothing acts like armor for women. In fact, when they arrive they find that the only other guests are a vicar and his wife along with Mrs. Carfry’s nephew and his French tutor. May is stunning among them, but Archer perceives her shyness. Nonetheless, the men quickly engage her in conversation.
May’s concern about her clothing reinforces the idea that Americans are worried about seeming inferior to Europeans. Archer perceives that, unlike men, women are judged almost entirely on their appearances, and so mastering their physical presence gives women power in a way that men don’t have to worry about. Even at this dinner, May’s appearance saves her when her social skills are lacking.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
The dinner is no great success, and May’s awkwardness makes her a poor conversation partner for the men. Everyone is relieved when the ladies go to the drawing room. The vicar and the nephew soon leave, but Archer finds the tutor, M. Rivière, as interesting as Ned Winsett. He learns that the man will tutor Mrs. Carfry’s nephew until the boy goes to Oxford the next year. Archer thinks he’ll surely find a job soon, since he has so many talents. He was drawn to literature from a young age, and tried being a journalist, then an author. He was part of the literary set in Paris for a while, but his ambitions have failed. He has to support his mother and sister, but he lives in a world that loves ideas, which Ned Winsett would envy.
May is perfectly good at socializing in New York, so her failure here in London must come from her sense of discomfort among foreigners. In New York, Archer probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk with someone like M. Rivière at a dinner, as someone of Rivière’s class status wouldn’t be invited. His presence here demonstrates that Europeans are more comfortable with intellectuals and society people mingling together, as they have a higher respect for art and literature. Though M. Rivière’s story parallels Winsett’s, Winsett doesn’t have the fortune to live in a country that loves ideas.
Themes
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
M. Rivière says that he left journalism and began tutoring to preserve his intellectual freedom and be able to engage in good conversation. However, he feels he needs to make a change to avoid growing old in this position, and he asks whether he might find something to do in New York. Archer is startled, thinking that there’s no life of ideas there like M. Rivière is used to. The tutor becomes flustered, saying he was under the impression that New York had an active intellectual life.
It has long been common for Europeans who are dissatisfied with or unwelcome in their home countries to seek success in America. M. Rivière essentially wants to follow this trend and pursue the American dream, but Archer, with his American perspective, knows the reality—Europe has much more to offer a man like M. Rivière. For him, America fails to be a land of possibility.
Themes
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
On the drive home, Archer thinks about his conversation with M. Rivière. He feels refreshed by it and wants to invite him to dinner, but when he tells May how interesting he was, she says he was very common. Archer guesses she’s disappointed at the company the Carfrys had to offer. New Yorkers feel they deserve to meet more prominent people when they take the risk of being social in a foreign country. Archer challenges her judgment of M. Rivière, and she admits she wouldn’t have known if he was clever. Archer doesn’t like this judgment, either. He’s beginning to fear how much he thinks about what he doesn’t like about her, particularly since her attitude is exactly that of everyone he knows in New York.
This conversation displays one of the fundamental incompatibilities between Archer and May. Archer craves a connection to the life of the mind, whereas May can’t—and doesn’t want to—see past social conventions for long enough to engage with art and literature on any deep level. Archer can judge people on their own merits, but May can judge them only on what the hive-mind of New York society would think of them. It seems possible that Archer and May are fundamentally incompatible in marriage.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Archer says he won’t ask M. Rivière to dine, and May is appalled that he would consider such a thing. He says M. Rivière is looking for a job in New York in order to enjoy good conversation, which May finds hilarious. Overall, Archer is rather glad not to meet M. Rivière again, since he can’t see how he would be happy in New York. He realizes that May will often interfere in his life this way, but he figures that things will be easier after the first six months of marriage. However, May is already changing him in all the ways he doesn’t want to be changed.
May thinks that M. Rivière is not nearly socially prominent enough for Archer to have him to dinner, displaying her essential snobbishness. Though May reveres New York society more than Archer does, even she knows that it’s not a place where intellectuals will find any satisfaction. May is making Archer’s life more confined, forcing him to live strictly according to the conventions that have always ruled her life.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Change and Progress Theme Icon