The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning Archer takes the train to Boston, where it’s oppressively hot. People move through the streets as carelessly as though they’re going to the bathroom. Even the fashionable neighborhoods seem less tidy than European cities ever do. Archer can’t imagine Ellen in this setting. He eats breakfast at the Somerset Club. He’s been feeling energetic ever since he told May he was going to Boston on business and would return to New York the next evening. A letter from the office had fortuitously arrived to make his trip seem plausible. The ease with which he lied made him feel guiltily like Lawrence Lefferts.
Wharton describes Boston as far inferior to European cities, particularly in the dignity of its residents, which is ironic, considering that New Yorkers generally think Americans more dignified than Europeans. Archer feels a sense of renewed life as a result of reclaiming his independence from May, but this also means that he’s deceiving her. He begins to see that he’s following in the footsteps of many other unfaithful husbands.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
After breakfast, a few men Archer knows come in, confirming that he still is, after all, in the same world as before. He has a messenger take a note to Ellen, but the man returns with news that Ellen was out. Archer can’t understand why Ellen would be out at this time. He decides to go to the Parker House himself. As he walks across the Common, he comes upon Ellen sitting listlessly on a bench. At first she looks startled to see him, but she quickly becomes happy. He sits.
Reorienting his life in relation to Ellen instead of in relation to May makes Archer feel as though his world has entirely changed. Notably, when Archer makes elaborate plans to reach Ellen, as he did going to the Blenkers’, they fail; but he manages to simply happen upon her on Boston Common. It seems that everything in their relationship must always be unexpected.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Archer says he’s come on business, and begins to pretend he’s surprised to see her. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying. She says she’s here on business, too, and he’s amazed that he doesn’t remember her voice. He comments that her hair is different, and she says it’s only because Nastasia isn’t with her. He points out that it’s unconventional for her to be alone at the Parker House, but to her it seems like nothing next to the fact that she’s just refused to take back money that belonged to her in the first place.
Archer has come to Boston for one reason: to see Ellen. The fact that he pretends otherwise proves that he doesn’t yet want her to know that he’s still in love with her. Unsurprisingly, Archer comes upon Ellen in the sort of unconventional situation that seems, in fact, to compose her entire life. By the nineteenth-century laws of marriage, Ellen’s money became her husband’s once she married.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Archer springs up. In response to his questions, she confirms that someone has come to meet her here with this offer, but she refused. Her husband wanted her to return to him, and was willing to pay a large amount. Archer asks whether she came to meet him, but she laughs. Her husband wouldn’t come here. He sent someone with a message, as he never writes letters. He doesn’t need to, because he has secretaries. Archer blushes at the offhand way she mentions secretaries. He’s tempted to ask whether the Count sent his secretary, but he doesn’t. Ellen says that the messenger insisted on waiting until the evening in case she changes her mind.
Ellen’s husband never actually appears in the novel, and the fact that he doesn’t even write letters only adds to his position as an invisible, hovering menace who can never be directly vanquished. Archer believes that Ellen had an affair with her husband’s secretary, so he’s shocked that this circumstance isn’t always in her mind the way it is in his. Ellen’s husband seems to regard her as his property, which will be returned to him if he simply pays enough for it.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
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Ellen tells Archer he isn’t changed. He wants to say that he was until he saw her. He suggests that they go out on the bay, saying there’s no reason they shouldn’t, as they’ve done all they could. She stands up and says he shouldn’t say things like that. He says it can’t do any harm—he just wants to listen to her. She says the man is coming to see her at eleven, and Archer says she must come with him immediately. She doesn’t need to be afraid, as he just wants to hear about her life.
Since he last spoke to Ellen, Archer has reverted somewhat to his old perspective on the world, but her presence makes the effects of his time with May melt away. He feels that he and Ellen have been virtuous in staying away from each other, so no one can blame them for going on one outing and talking. Obviously, his feelings are too strong for this situation to actually be so innocent.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
Ellen asks why Archer didn’t come fetch her at the shore that day at Mrs. Mingott’s. He explains that he swore he wouldn’t unless she looked around. She says she purposely didn’t look around. She knew he was there and went to the beach to get away from him. He laughs and admits that he came to Boston just find her. She says she must go back to the hotel to leave a note before they go to the boat, and he gives her materials to write there on the bench. He joyfully watches the passers-by staring at the strange sight of a well-dressed lady writing a note on her knee.
This revelation of what really happened at the pier shows how Archer and Ellen are always at cross purposes in their love for each other; Ellen avoids Archer because she can’t handle her feelings, but Archer continues to pursue her. May would never write a note in full view of so many people, and Archer seems to enjoy the fact that Ellen does so, because it reinforces his sense of freedom.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
The Rules of Society Theme Icon
When Ellen finishes the note, they begin walking and have the unlikely luck to come upon a cab. They drive to the Parker House, and Ellen takes her note in. Archer worries that the messenger might already be waiting inside. He paces by the cab, impatiently watching everyone who comes out the doors of the hotel. Suddenly he sees the face of a young man who seems different from everyone around him, and for a moment Archer thinks he recognizes him, but then the man disappears and he assumes he was just a foreign businessman. Archer begins to think Ellen must have met the messenger, and is about to go look for her when she reappears. Back in the cab, he realizes she was only gone for three minutes.
Now that Archer has found Ellen, he can’t bear the thought of losing her again and he becomes entirely fixated on keeping her at his side for this day. Archer will later discover that the man he recognizes is M. Rivière. The fact that he seems so different from everyone else emphasizes the divide between Americans and Europeans; something about his very way of conducting himself in this crowd marks M. Rivière out from the Americans around him.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
American vs. Foreign Theme Icon
Sitting next to each other on the boat, they realize that they don’t need to talk. Being alone is enough. As the boat begins to move, Archer feels that they’re starting on a long journey away from the normal world, but he’s afraid to say as much to Ellen for fear of betraying her trust. Though he has remembered their kiss with passion, he now feels like they’re closer than touch could ever make them. The air is cool on the water, unlike in the city. Ellen seems very calm.
This is, in fact, the beginning of a time in which Archer and Ellen will actively love each other in spite of them both being married, and Archer’s sense of beginning a journey gestures to this stage of their affair. Simply being together and joined in their knowledge of what has passed between them brings them closer than physical passion can, proving that Archer is, in fact, being unfaithful to May.
Themes
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon
Archer and Ellen go to the dining room of an inn at Point Arley, where Archer is disappointed to find a loud group of schoolteachers. He gets them a private room that opens on the ocean. It’s quite bare and doesn’t seem like the setting for an illicit meeting. Ellen’s quietness and simplicity makes him feel like they’re not breaking any rules; they’re just two old friends who want to catch up in private.
Archer is constantly trying to convince himself that he and Ellen aren’t doing anything wrong, while Ellen’s attitude adds to the sense of her great worldly experience. She knows that meeting in private will only mean as much as their actions in this room make it mean.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The Failure of Marriage Theme Icon