A young couple’s first big dinner is a great event. Archer often has informal company, though he wonders whether May would ask anyone to the house if left to her own devices. He’s given up trying to separate her authentic self from the self that social training has created. A big, elaborate dinner is very different, and people rarely refuse invitations to a young couple’s first one. Even so, it’s an honor that the van der Luydens have agreed to attend May’s farewell dinner for Ellen Olenska.
Ellen’s departure notably coincides with—even causes—what society considers a landmark event in Archer and May’s marriage, suggesting that they will continue to live under the guise of a successful union. Archer has accepted that May is entirely a product of society; he will never discover some deeper part of her that’s not ruled by convention, because it doesn’t exist.
Mrs. Archer and Mrs. Welland sit in May’s drawing room on the afternoon of the dinner, making last-minute preparations. When Archer gets home from work, they tell him that May is inspecting the table decorations. Mrs. Archer runs through the guest list, and Mrs. Welland says that May and Archer are certainly giving Ellen a good send-off. She knows Ellen will appreciate it. As Archer leaves, Mrs. Welland tells him to go look at the table, but he pretends not to hear. He goes to his library, which looks strange due to having been tidied for the gentleman to smoke in.
Mrs. Archer and Mrs. Welland are two of the principal enforcers of the rules of society, and now they have come to help May eject from all their lives one of the major threats to those rules—Ellen. Of course, they’ll do so with every politeness, never acknowledging that they’re glad to see her go. The library was the one place that Archer had some control over, but now even this haven has come under May’s purview.
In the ten days since Ellen left New York, Archer has only received from her a key sealed in an envelope. He’s determined to follow her to Europe, and he doesn’t think she’ll send him away once he has taken this step. His confidence in this outcome has allowed him to remain calm and not write to her. Even so, it was very difficult when Mr. Letterblair had him go over the financial arrangements for Ellen. He felt that he was being consulted for reasons besides his connection to the family. Mr. Letterblair said that Ellen has been treated well all around. Archer took this to refer to Count Olenski’s offer to give her back her own money, but Mr. Letterblair said that Ellen knew the law, looking disapprovingly at Archer. He took out a report suggesting that Ellen had an affair with her husband’s secretary.
Presumably, Ellen is returning a key that Archer gave her for whatever illicit meeting place they had chosen for sleeping together; by returning it she is attempting to symbolically end their affair. However, because Archer doesn’t yet know that May is pregnant, he doesn’t understand Ellen’s conviction that the affair is completely and conclusively over. Mr. Letterblair’s opinion acts as a reminder of how harshly Ellen has been judged for leaving her husband, particularly because people think she did so to have an affair. This is what also lies in store for Archer if he follows through with his plan.
A day or two later, Archer went to visit Mrs. Mingott, who lamented Ellen’s desertion of her. She thinks that Ellen couldn’t stand the dullness of New York in comparison to her life with Count Olenski. Now Ellen is going to Paris with Medora, and Mrs. Mingott will miss her fiercely. She just wants the family to leave her alone. That evening, May told Archer, to his surprise, that they should give Ellen a farewell dinner. Though he didn’t understand why she was doing it, she insisted that she was. He realized that it’s a matter of family loyalty.
Once again, Ellen’s unexpected actions are attributed to her foreignness—Mrs. Mingott thinks she needs the excitement of Europe. It’s ironic that May and Archer should give her farewell dinner, since May is eager for her to leave, Archer can’t stand the idea, and the two of them together are the very reason that she’s going. May needs to give this final show of approval to feel she’s done the right thing socially.
Archer finds May in the drawing room before dinner. May’s drawing room is generally thought to be decorated very nicely. She says she doesn’t think Ellen has ever seen the room lit up. Then the guests begin to arrive. Archer is showing one guest a painting when Ellen appears next to him. She looks very pale, and Archer is reminded of the parties that they attended together as children. Something about her face seems ugly, and he has never loved it more. She says that she’s sailing tomorrow on the Russia, and then May asks Archer to bring Ellen in to dinner. Ellen puts her hand on Archer’s arm, and it’s so beautiful that he thinks he would have to follow her just to see it again.
Just as Ellen sees the drawing room lit for the first time, so she now sees starkly the whole truth of May and Archer’s relationship, to an extent that neither May nor Archer can because of the secrets they’re keeping from each other. The fact that Ellen tells Archer which ship she’ll be on suggests that, even as she’s trying to save his marriage, a part of her wants him to follow her. Knowing her future is safe, May can afford to keep up appearances of normality by having Archer escort Ellen to dinner.
The fact that Mrs. van der Luyden is seated to her host’s left emphasizes the fact that Ellen is regarded as a foreign visitor. This sort of family rally around a member about to leave the family is an essential part of New York society. Now that she’s leaving, the Mingotts do all they can to show how much they love her, and Archer marvels at the way all grievances have been erased. He doesn’t feel entirely present, and it seems like the guests are all conspiring against him and Ellen. Suddenly he realizes that they all think he and Ellen are lovers, and they have been trying for a long time to separate the couple. However, they’re all here to support May in the assumption that nothing ever happened between Archer and Ellen. These people dread scandal and scenes more than anything.
Mrs. van der Luyden would typically be on her host’s right, the place of honor, but a foreign visitor takes precedence. Putting Ellen there is almost a snub, making it seem like she was never really a New Yorker, has never fit in, and was always expected to leave sooner or later. The Mingotts’ attitude toward Ellen as they’re about to be rid of her exemplifies how society works, presenting an impression of happiness and harmony that covers up the actual pettiness and strife underneath. Everyone is using this same strategy towards the issue of Archer and Ellen, which almost delegitimizes their love.
Archer feels like a prisoner. He takes a discussion about Beaufort and his wife as a warning about what could happen to him, and he laughs. Ellen is sitting next to him, and he becomes aware that her other neighbor is talking to someone else. May sends him a look, and he realizes he has to talk to Ellen. They chat about her journey to New York and the inconveniences of travel. He says he intends to do some traveling himself soon, and she looks alarmed. He suggests to Reggie Chivers that they take a trip around the world, but this idea is quickly shot down. Mr. Selfridge Merry begins to talk about his own trip around the world and what it’s most important to see. Finally the ladies go up to the drawing room.
Archer is beginning to come undone in his grief. It’s unclear to what extent he’s being paranoid in believing his guests are subtly reproaching him, but the feeling that they’re rallied against him while pretending politeness drives him crazy. It’s torture for him and Ellen to have to speak, perhaps for the last time, in this way—in public, and only about acceptable topics. She rightly takes his allusion to travel as an indication that he’s intending to follow her to Europe.
The gentlemen in the library talk about the Beauforts. Lawrence Lefferts gives a scathing speech about a man’s duty and the sacredness of the home. He doesn’t think Beaufort should ever have gotten into society in the first place; people should never have received a man of unknown origin, for it has put the very structure of society in danger. If things continue this way, he says, their children will be marrying Beaufort’s bastards. This last is taken as a bit much by the men present. Sillerton Jackson remarks to Archer that Lefferts is only saying such things to cover his own misdeeds.
Considering his own affairs, Lefferts is being doubly hypocritical by not only condemning Beaufort for his, but also doing it, presumably, in order to show his support for everyone’s silent condemnation of Archer’s affair. His reference to Beaufort’s foreignness also seems to reflect on Ellen, implying that it’s good she’s leaving. Ironically, Archer’s son will eventually marry one of Beaufort’s bastard children, showing how standards change.
Archer can’t focus on the conversation. He’s vaguely aware of an attitude of friendliness aimed at him, as though the men are trying to make his captivity more acceptable, which only makes him want to be free even more. When they join the ladies in the drawing room, he can tell that May is very satisfied with the gathering. Archer sees all the most important people flocking to Ellen’s side, intent on making it seem as though no one ever questioned the behavior of either of them. Their very determination to do so proves to Archer that all of society believes him to be Ellen’s lover, and he realizes that May shares this belief.
Some of these men have had affairs of their own, and can probably sympathize with Archer, but this only makes his affair seem more commonplace, which he despises. If society knows about the scandal, then everyone automatically becomes obligated to pretend that it never happened and that everyone is still innocent, even if people are gossiping about Ellen and Archer behind their backs.
Eventually, Archer sees Ellen preparing to leave. He can’t remember anything he said to her at dinner. She and May kiss, and someone remarks that May is certainly more beautiful than Ellen. Archer helps Ellen with her cloak. He’s been determined not to say anything to worry her, as he has already decided on his course of action. He’s robbed of a moment alone at the door of her carriage, as she’s going with the van der Luydens. They say goodbye, and he says he’ll see her in Paris soon. She assumes he means with May. Then the van der Luydens take her into their carriage. As he returns to the house, Lawrence Lefferts asks him to tell people that he’s dining with him at the club the next night.
This is the last time Archer will see Ellen for more than twenty years, but he believes that he’s going to leave May and rejoin Ellen soon. However, his extreme anxiety leaves the question somewhat open: If the situation were the same but May wasn’t pregnant, would Archer really have the guts to go through with his plan? Lefferts clearly thinks he and Archer are in cahoots now that they’re both having affairs, and he wants Archer to cover for him. Ironically, he was very recently condemning Beaufort for his affairs.
As soon as the guests leave, Archer goes up to his library, hoping May will go to bed. Instead, she comes to talk over the night with him, feeling that it went wonderfully. They both sit quietly for a while, until Archer says he needs to tell her what he didn’t manage to the other night. He says he’s terribly tired, and he wants to take a long trip to India or Japan. He doesn’t manage to strike the tone of indifference that he was trying for.
Archer is trying once more to tell May that he’s leaving her, although it’s unclear whether he plans to be completely honest, as he did the other night, or to just pretend he’s going on a long trip. Since May is already aware of his feelings for Ellen, however, she’ll certainly see through any excuses.
May says he can’t go unless he brings her along, and that will only be possible if the doctors allow it. Just that morning, she became sure of something she’s been hoping would happen. Archer feels sick, but he holds her. She says that only Mrs. Welland, Mrs. Archer, and Ellen know. She told Ellen when they had their long talk recently. She’s worried he’ll mind that she told Ellen first. He says he doesn’t, but points out that their talk was two weeks ago. May admits that she wasn’t sure of it then, but she told Ellen that she was. Her eyes are victorious.
Even in this most essential moment, May talks around the delicate topic of pregnancy, too proper to approach it with directness. Though May acts innocent, she clearly told Ellen she was pregnant—though it could have been a lie—in order to force Ellen to break off her relationship with Archer. Now Archer is truly trapped in marriage, as he can’t possibly leave a pregnant wife.