New York begins to prepare for the social season in October, and by the middle of November it’s in full swing. Around this time, Mrs. Archer always comments on how changed New York is, and in her opinion it only ever changes for the worse. Two years after his marriage, even Archer has to admit that New York is changing. Mrs. Archer brings the topic up, as usual, at Thanksgiving dinner, wondering what’s left to be thankful for.
Because Mrs. Archer worships tradition, any forward progress in society seems negative to her. She undoubtedly idealizes the past, making the present seem worse in comparison. However, since Wharton has never portrayed Mrs. Archer as a particularly wise character, this change might actually be for the better.
Everyone knew what the Reverend Dr. Ashmore meant when he gave his Thanksgiving sermon on a Bible verse about loving and pursuing foreigners. When he speaks against society he discusses its “trend,” an idea that frightens Mrs. Archer. Miss Sophy Jackson thinks it’s odd that he preached about it on Thanksgiving, but Mrs. Archer thinks they’re supposed to be thankful for what’s left. Miss Jackson exclaims that people are dressing very extravagantly now. She and Mrs. Archer think it’s awful to wear a dress from Paris immediately upon receipt, instead of waiting at least a year. Miss Jackson tells a story of one woman who died possessing forty-eight dresses that had never been worn, and her daughters were able to wear them fashionably once they got out of mourning.
The Reverend surely meant that New York society should be wary of imitating foreign cultures and abandoning their own morals. Mrs. Archer not only dislikes change, but she actually fears it; there’s safety in what she knows. Wharton seems to poke fun at Mrs. Archer and Miss Jackson for their inflexibility. They’re shocked by the idea of people breaking social rules that never protected anyone in the first place, but were simply pointless customs of fashion. Ironically, New Yorkers buy their clothes from Paris but don’t want to seem too French by wearing them while they’re actually in fashion in France.
Miss Jackson thinks Beaufort started the new fashion by making his wife wear her dresses as soon as she received them, which makes her look very improper. Mrs. Archer expresses pity for Mrs. Beaufort, because there are rumors that Beaufort is heading for financial ruin. People don’t really like him, but they don’t want to see him stain his wife’s family. New York socially ostracizes anyone who commits financial crimes, as it seems Beaufort is doing.
Notably, Miss Jackson blames this frightening trend on Beaufort, the foreigner in their midst. Society has been able to ignore Beaufort’s many affairs, but financial ruin cannot be ignored, perhaps because it’s more public. Mrs. Beaufort comes from a prominent family, and her husband’s shame will reflect on them.
Everything they talk about seems to confirm Mrs. Archer’s sense of change. She remarks that May now goes to Mrs. Struthers’s gatherings, but May says that everyone does. Archer thinks New York deals with change by ignoring it until it has entirely arrived, and then pretending it happened long before. Mrs. Archer says she’s never quite forgiven Ellen for beginning the trend of going to Mrs. Struthers’s. May blushes and speaks deprecatingly of Ellen. The Mingotts all speak of her this way ever since she refused to return to her husband, but Archer is surprised to hear May do so.
Even the reader can see the change that has occurred in society throughout the course of the book thus far, since it wasn’t so long ago that everyone was thrown into a tizzy by the news that Ellen went to Mrs. Struthers’s house. Though the Mingotts supported Ellen’s initial decision to leave her husband, they can’t accept her refusal to return to him when he offered her money. She has now asserted her independence too strongly.
Mrs. Archer feels that people like Ellen, who have lived in aristocratic societies, should help New York keep its social distinctions. May says that Ellen doesn’t care for society. Everyone knows that Ellen no longer has the Mingotts’ good opinion. They have too much family solidarity to publicly speak against her, but they have abandoned her to the company she chooses, and she has become Bohemian. The Mingotts take this as proof that she should have returned to her rightful place in her husband’s home. Miss Jackson says Ellen is favored by the gentlemen, and Mrs. Archer says this is a natural danger of her place in society.
Though everyone blames Ellen’s unconventionality on her foreignness, Mrs. Archer paradoxically thinks that this same foreignness should actually make her support New York’s conventions. Ellen has become even less conventional now that the Mingotts have given up on her and she doesn’t have to please them. Mrs. Archer essentially implies that women who let themselves fall out of favor with society have to become promiscuous to gain the attention they crave.
Archer and Sillerton Jackson retreat to the library. Mr. Jackson remarks that if Beaufort collapses, people will find out scandalous details about his affairs. Archer always thinks of Beaufort as he saw him in the snow at Skuytercliff. Mr. Jackson hopes that certain influential people can help Beaufort, as he doesn’t want Mrs. Beaufort’s life ruined.
Archer can’t separate Beaufort from his jealousy of Beaufort’s pursuit of Ellen. Since society generally agrees to pretend affairs don’t happen, Beaufort’s collapse could crack this pretense and force society to face its own ugly underside.
Archer keeps wondering about May’s sustained blush when she mentioned Ellen. He hasn’t seen Ellen in four months. He wrote to her once in Washington, but she said they couldn’t meet yet. He has built a place within himself filled with thoughts of her, and this has gradually come to seem like his real life. The life he actually lives seems unreal, and he’s absent from everything around him.
In the past, Archer’s reality has changed depending on which woman he’s with in the moment. Now, however, he has committed to the reality of Ellen even in her absence, making his everyday life with May seem fake. This is an unusual, but still harmful, way of being unfaithful to his wife.
Mr. Jackson says it’s a pity that Ellen refused to return to her husband, because she won’t have any money to live on now. Archer doesn’t understand until Mr. Jackson mentions Beaufort’s name, at which point he becomes enraged and demands that Mr. Jackson explain himself. He says that Mrs. Mingott reduced Ellen’s allowance, and she no longer has the money that Count Olenski offered to return to her if she came back to him. Archer insists that Mr. Jackson is making an improper insinuation, but Mr. Jackson says Lefferts is really the one doing it. Archer retorts that Ellen snubbed Lefferts for flirting with her. Mr. Jackson remarks that if Ellen goes back now and Beaufort fails, everyone’s suspicions will be confirmed.
Mr. Jackson implies that people believe that Beaufort and Ellen are having an affair and that Beaufort is supporting Ellen financially. If Beaufort goes bankrupt and Ellen then returns to her husband, everyone will believe that she was forced to do so because Beaufort could no longer support her. In this society, upper-class women are completely dependent on their husbands or their families for an income. If Ellen’s family refuses to support her and she wants to remain independent from her husband, she could feasibly have to find another man to give her money.
Archer says that Ellen certainly won’t go back now, but Mr. Jackson seems to have been waiting for this. He says that Medora Manson’s money is in Beaufort’s hands, and if he fails, Medora and Ellen will be penniless unless Ellen convinces Mrs. Mingott to give her more money. Archer is angry to the point of doing something foolish. He sees that Mr. Jackson can tell that he’s been excluded from family decisions, and has drawn conclusions. However, he’s aware that Mr. Jackson is his guest, and he must be polite. He suggests they join the ladies.
Mr. Jackson is the king of New York’s gossip, and he undoubtedly earned this position by being particularly attuned to any hints of scandal that might come his way. Now, it seems that Archer and Ellen have come into his purview. He’s baiting Archer by pointing out how likely it is that Ellen will have to return to her husband, and he seems to suspect that Archer might care for Ellen a little too much.
May is strangely quiet on the way home, and Archer is still worried about her blush at Ellen’s name. When they get home, he calls her into the library to complain about a smoking lamp. She says it won’t happen again, and he feels like she’s humoring him the way Mrs. Welland does her husband. Her youth strikes Archer, and he wonders with horror how long he’ll have to live this life with her.
May’s blush might signify that she, like Mr. Jackson, is suspicious of Ellen and Archer’s relationship. Archer is taking petty revenge on his wife, and they’re beginning to fall further into the shallow life that May’s parents live. Now that Archer has seen Ellen again, he’s even less happy in his marriage, almost to the point of wishing May dead.
Archer says he might have to go to Washington soon on business for a patent case. May says only that he must see Ellen while he’s there, but he knows that she means much more. She means that she’s on her family’s side in Ellen’s case, and she knows that Ellen is defying them on Archer’s advice, making herself vulnerable to gossip. May is warning him that she knows he might be going to Washington just to see Ellen, and he should tell Ellen the potential consequences of her actions. May turns out the lamp and pauses for a kiss in the doorway.
Archer is beginning to lie to May, as his main goal in going to Washington is to see Ellen. The excessive subtext in May’s reply shows how New Yorkers communicate—unable to deal with unpleasantness outright, their politeness conceals what they really want to say. Having grown up with this, and knowing May, Archer can decode her true meaning. It’s ironic that May tells him to see Ellen as a warning that she suspects their relationship.