While Archer and Ellen eat lunch, she tells him about her life since he last saw her. She eventually decided she couldn’t really fit in with New York society, so she decided to try Washington. She’ll probably make a home there for Medora, who’s always in danger of making a bad marriage. Archer is surprised that Ellen isn’t worried about Dr. Carver, but she says he only wants Medora as a convert to his social schemes. She herself is more interested in his ideas than in everyone else’s dedication to European tradition. It seems silly to act like America is a copy of another country rather than making a new society.
Ellen’s comments on the relationship between America and Europe suggest that American society imitates that of Europe, perhaps at an older stage, as the American characters disapprove of Europe’s liberalism. She accuses America of simply being a bad copy of something that was already flawed. The only way to improve society, then, is to break from that tradition to create something modern and uniquely American.
Archer asks whether Ellen has seen Beaufort lately. She hasn’t for a long time, but he understands her point of view. Archer thinks she likes Beaufort because he isn’t like other New Yorkers, who are so dull. He asks why she doesn’t go back to Europe. After a long time, she says without emotion that she stays because of him. Archer doesn’t dare to speak. She says he made her understand that the dullness covers things far more delicate than anything in her old life. She’s realized the price of pleasure. She has long wanted to tell him how he’s helped her.
Archer is clearly still jealous of Ellen’s affinity for Beaufort, who lives as unconventionally as she does. However, just as Ellen has changed his view of the world, he has also changed hers. She can no longer be happy in the European life that New Yorkers think immoral, because Archer has shown her the goodness of the New Yorkers’ way of life. Though Wharton often criticizes society, here she also admits that it has a certain value.
Archer says that Ellen has changed him much more than he has changed her. He married because she told him to. She asks whether the marriage is bad for May. She has to believe that the most important thing is to save people from misery, or else everything she learned from Archer that made her old life seem bare is just a sham. In that case, she might as well go back. Archer says there’s no reason for her to stay if she’s been counting on the success of his marriage. She made him see what a real life would be like, and then she made him continue with a fake one. She says she’s enduring it, so he can too, and she begins to cry.
In changing each other to such an extent, Archer and Ellen have placed responsibility for their misery on each other’s shoulders—enlightenment does not, in their case, bring happiness. Ellen’s goal in life has now become entirely selfless, as she wants only to protect other people. Practically, this means protecting May from the consequences of Ellen and Archer’s desires. Ironically, they can’t be happy as they are, but neither can they be happy if they ruin others’ lives to be together.
Ellen’s face suddenly exposes her soul, and Archer sees that all this time, she has been feeling the same anguish as he. Half the room is between them, but they don’t move. Though Archer fixates on her hand on the table, he knows that touching her would not satisfy his desire now. Desperation soon overtakes him; they’re so close, and yet so much stands between them. He asks what’s the use of anything when she’ll go back anyway, but she promises that she won’t go back as long as he stays strong. He knows she means that if he makes any move that will hurt May, Ellen will leave. She says she’ll be all right as long as they are both a part of each other’s lives, but they can’t have any more than that.
Archer and Ellen both want to be together, and Archer is ready to do something drastic to make it happen. Ellen, however, knows she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she hurt May to be with Archer. At the same time, she’s too in love to give Archer up completely. This leaves them in a state that will prove almost more painful than anything else; they have to know that they’re in love with each other but accept not being together. Archer will have to manage his actions knowing that if he takes a wrong step, Ellen will return to her husband.
Archer springs towards Ellen, and she rises quietly. She takes his hands, but her arms keep him away. They stand that way in silence. Archer understands that he must not do anything that will drive her away. She says not to be unhappy, and he makes her promise again that she won’t go back. She leads the way out to the dining room, where Boston lies across the water.
Their pose here represents the emotional state they must maintain: connected, but not closely enough to do harm. This scene has taken place in a location removed from reality, but now they must return to Boston, where all their hardships await.