The lawn stretches to the sea, decorated with flowers and vases along a path. There are two archery targets between the cliff and the house, and a number of ladies and gentlemen are gathered under a tent. Every so often a girl steps out to shoot an arrow at a target. Archer watches from the verandah of the house. Behind him, French windows hung with lace curtains give glimpses of the elegant interior. This is the Beauforts’ house, and the event is a meeting of the Newport Archery Club. Though lawn tennis is becoming more fashionable, archery is still preferred for social occasions.
Wharton’s technique of skipping over months of her protagonist’s life and meeting him again in a new setting creates the impression that his life goes on according to the path prescribed for him by society; as he’s simply swept along, it’s not even necessary to describe what happens to him. Many of the New York families come to Newport, Rhode Island for the summer, essentially continuing their normal socializing in a different location.
Archer is surprised that life continues as it always has despite the change in his perception of it. The previous winter, he and May moved into their new house, and he returned to his old routine of work. He was occupied with finding a horse for May’s carriage and decorating his library as he wanted. He had socialized with the same people at the same places as before, and his life seemed normal. But going to Newport means escaping from duty. Archer wanted to go to Maine for a more rustic holiday, but the Wellands have always gone to Newport and insisted they continue to do so. May couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to go since he always liked it before, but standing on the verandah, he can tell that he’s not going to enjoy being there.
Archer’s interactions with Ellen have permanently changed his view of the world, even if he still acts more or less the same as he did before. As long as Archer is glued to his normal routines of work and home life, he can maintain an appearance of normality, but now that he’s been removed from these routines, all bets are off. Like her parents, May is attached to tradition even in her personal choices; she sees no need for the change and variety that Archer craves. Maine would have temporarily removed the couple from New York society, but Newport does not.
May does not disappoint him. Archer married, as most people do, because he met her at the right moment and she represented a stable life. He’s happy to be married to such a beautiful, popular, and sweet woman, and he has come to think of his passion for Ellen Olenska as a ridiculous experiment that he could never have gone through with. However, his mind feels rather empty, and so the joyful people on the lawn shock him.
It’s important to note that though it is not a roaring success, Archer and May’s marriage is not an utter failure. In fact, it’s almost worse for Archer to be stuck in this relationship that does not hurt him in any real way, but nonetheless does not bring him any satisfaction.
Medora Manson joins Archer, wearing her usual eccentric clothing. She says she didn’t realize he had arrived. She knows that work often keeps husbands from joining their wives here, but she always told Ellen that marriage is a sacrifice. Archer’s heart stops at the sound of her name. Medora says she’s staying with the Blenkers in Portsmouth. Dr. Agathon Carver is holding meetings there, which are a very different scene than the one before them. She says she has always told Ellen to beware of monotony, but Ellen has declined to come to Newport. Medora even had trouble getting her to come to the Blenkers’.
Medora unwittingly strikes on a truth about Archer’s marriage—he has indeed sacrificed much, including his passion for Ellen and the possibility of real happiness, in order to remain loyal to May and uphold society’s ideal of marriage. Her warning about monotony also applies to Archer, as he has committed himself to a life of monotony that he dreads. Meanwhile, Ellen avoids Newport because she doesn’t want to run into Archer.
Archer and Medora head towards the tent, and Beaufort comes towards them over the lawn, looking fat and overdressed. In the spring he went on a cruise, and there are rumors that Miss Fanny Ring went with him. He’s been spending lavishly, and in response to the rumors that he’s in financial straits, he only spends more. He greets Medora and Archer and says that May is sure to win the archery competition.
Though Beaufort has never been particularly respected for his morals, this is really the beginning of the end for him. He continues his affair with a prostitute, and the rumors about his finances foreshadow his coming financial ruin. For him, the appearance of wealth is more important than actually having money.
As they reach the tent, May emerges, looking as much like Diana as she did on the night of her engagement. Archer marvels at the way experience never leaves its mark on her. She takes aim at the target so gracefully that everyone murmurs, and Archer feels proud. Her rivals stand in a pretty group behind her, but none of them can make athletic pursuits look so easy. Lawrence Lefferts remarks on her beauty, but Beaufort says this is the only kind of target she’ll ever hit. Archer feels oddly angry. He should be glad that someone like Beaufort doesn’t find May attractive, but he worries that her extreme “niceness” only conceals emptiness. May hits the bull’s-eye and receives everyone’s congratulations with grace. She looks most radiant when she sees Archer’s pleasure.
Wharton’s comparisons of May to Diana is a gesture to her innocence, so the fact that she still looks just the same as she did before her marriage signals that she has grown no more worldly than she was before; she’s preserved as an innocent maiden. Beaufort and Archer have shared their attraction to Ellen, May’s opposite, so Beaufort’s dislike of May suggests that she’s lacking just what made Archer and Beaufort fall in love with Ellen. Meanwhile, May’s success in archery symbolizes her success at playing the role of “Archer,” Newland’s wife.
Before long, May and Archer drive off, with May taking the reins. The streets are crowded with well-dressed people in carriages. They decide to go visit Mrs. Mingott before dinner. The old woman built a house on an unfashionable, cheap piece of land overlooking the bay. A winding drive leads up to a walnut front door, and the ceilings inside have been painted with Greek gods. Mrs. Mingott spends her days sitting in an armchair waving a fan.
Mrs. Mingott acts in Newport much as she does in New York, flouting convention to live where she wants instead of where people expect her to live. The paintings of Greek gods give her house a sense of eccentricity and mild impropriety, as Greek myths do not shy away from sex and betrayal.
Ever since Mrs. Mingott helped hasten Archer’s marriage, she has treated him as though they are partners in some secret, as she believes him particularly passionate. She admires May’s prize from the contest, a diamond-tipped arrow brooch which she says May should leave to her eldest daughter. The mention of children makes May blush, which makes Mrs. Mingott tease her further.
Mrs. Mingott seems to think that Archer just couldn’t wait to get May in bed, which is ironic, considering that the truth is almost the opposite. Even the mention of children embarrasses the innocent May, for whom it must come too close to touching on the subject of sex.
Mrs. Mingott asks them to tell her about the party so she doesn’t have to hear about it from Medora, who is coming by to pick up Ellen. Ellen has been spending the day with Mrs. Mingott. She calls for her, and when she receives no answer she summons a servant, who tells her that Ellen went down to the shore. Mrs. Mingott asks Archer to fetch her, and Archer goes, feeling like he’s dreaming.
Archer didn’t know that Ellen was at Mrs. Mingott’s house, and he hasn’t seen her since before his marriage, so this coincidence seems almost too good to be true. In fact, May and her family often push Archer and Ellen together as happens here, not realizing the effects of their actions.
Archer has heard about Ellen’s life since he last saw her; she spent the previous summer in Newport, but moved to Washington in the fall, where she moved through diplomatic society. He has listened to people talk about her as though he was hearing about someone dead, but when Medora spoke her name at the archery match, his last night in Ellen’s house suddenly became real again.
Until now, Archer has been pretty successful at moving past his love for Ellen and not attempting to pursue her. May and Ellen, as opposites, always seem to make each other almost unreal, and Archer has been living with May, so Ellen has come to seem like a dream in the meantime.
Through weeping willows along the path to the shore, Archer sees the Lime Rock lighthouse and the other islands in the bay. At the end of the path is a pier with a pagoda, and he sees Ellen leaning against the rail, facing the water. Archer stops, thinking this vision is a dream, and reality lies with May sitting in the house above, and Mr. Welland waiting for dinner in their villa. Archer thinks of himself as a son-in-law.
Ellen, along with Archer’s feelings for her, can’t fit into Archer’s monotonous and conventional married life. As their affair increases in strength, he will often feel that Ellen and May can’t both be real at the same time. Now, in his “real” life, Archer feels destined to become an imitation of his father-in-law.
Archer gazes at the boats on the bay against the sunset, and he remembers the scene in The Shaughraun in which the man kissed his lover’s ribbon. He wonders whether he would know if Ellen came up behind him, then decides that he’ll go back if she doesn’t turn by the time a certain boat reaches Lime Rock. Archer waits until the boat is far past Lime Rock, but Ellen still doesn’t move, and so he walks back up the hill.
Archer’s situation is similar to the one in the play, since in both, a man watches his love without her knowledge, making their interaction almost more intimate than it would be if she were aware of him. Archer wants Ellen to sense his presence, as this would prove some sort of connection between them. He will later learn that Ellen does in fact know he’s behind her.
On the drive home, May says she would have liked to see Ellen, but Ellen seems very different now. She stays with strange people and ignores her friends. May wonders whether she might be happier with her husband. Archer laughs, saying he’s never heard May be cruel before. There’s no way Ellen would be happier in hell. May replies, in the same tone that her mother uses with Mr. Welland, that Ellen shouldn’t have married a foreigner.
May sees Ellen’s situation through the inelastic eyes of convention, rather than compassionately considering the circumstances surrounding Ellen’s separation from her husband. May and Archer are already beginning to imitate May’s parents, just as Archer seems to have foreseen down by the pier.
As they approach the Wellands’ house, Archer sees Mr. Welland through the window, pacing the drawing room in exactly the way he imagined him earlier. The Wellands’ house usually pacifies Archer with all the small details that make up a system of time and life. It usually feels like the only reality, but now it feels incredibly unreal. All night he lies awake thinking of Ellen driving home across the beaches.
Mr. Welland is always predictable, preferring the comfort of sameness to the excitement of change, and Archer seems destined to the same kind of life. However, just the sight of Ellen has once again overturned Archer’s world, making him see possibilities that didn’t exist before.