Archer is sitting in his library. He’s just gotten back from a reception at the Metropolitan Museum, where he had a flash of memory of his meeting there with Ellen. Now he sits thinking about everything that has happened in this library over the thirty years he’s lived here. It’s been twenty-six years since May told him she was pregnant. This is where their eldest boy, Dallas, was christened, and where he said his first words. This is where their daughter Mary announced her engagement and prepared for her wedding. Archer and May have always discussed their children’s futures here. The young men now are going into all sorts of professions, including politics, archaeology, and architecture, which Dallas is pursuing.
By jumping so far ahead in time for this final chapter, Wharton manages to present a broader view of Archer’s life and society’s influence on it. Though May’s pregnancy announcement may have seemed like it ruined his life, he obviously cherishes his children, who have given meaning to the life he used to think would be a desert. Notably, the Metropolitan Museum is now a cultural hub, and young society men are no longer limited to professions in law or business. It’s immediately clear that society has changed.
Archer’s most important memory of the library is the Governor of New York telling him to go into politics. Archer glowed at his praise and couldn’t resist doing as he said. In retrospect, Archer isn’t sure that he was the right type for politics; he spent a year in the State Assembly, but was not reelected. He then worked in city politics and wrote articles. As little as it is, he’s proud of his contribution to changing the expectations for young gentlemen. He has been a good citizen, and every charitable or artistic movement in New York has been consulting him for many years. His days are full.
Long ago, Ned Winsett urged Archer to go into politics, but he felt that path was closed to him because gentlemen simply didn’t go into politics. Eventually, however, he went against this rule, and society as a whole has changed its stance on this issue. Archer thought that his life would be empty and meaningless if he stayed with May, but in fact, he’s managed to make quite a bit of it. This outcome tempers Wharton’s criticism of marriage and society.
Archer knows that he has missed “the flower of life,” but it seems so unattainable that he hardly mourns it. Only Ellen Olenska could have provided this happiness. She now represents everything he has missed throughout his life. He was faithful to May, and when she died, he grieved with real feeling. He learned that it didn’t matter if marriage was dull, as long as it maintained its dignity. He mourns for the past, as the traditional ways had value.
In speaking of “the flower of life,” Wharton seems to reference a higher level of happiness, passion, and beauty. Ellen has become more a symbol than a reality. As society has changed, so has Archer; he can see the value in what he used to hate. Wharton argues that no time or society will ever be perfect, and as much as she has criticized high society, it wasn’t all bad.
Archer’s first photograph of May still sits on his desk. She remained always the way she was in St. Augustine, generous and faithful but so without imagination that she never even noticed the changes happening around her. Archer and the children always hid their opinions from her, and she died thinking that the same principles that she had grown up with would go on governing the world and her family. Opposite May’s picture is their daughter Mary’s. She’s even more athletic than her mother was, and just as conventional, but she’s more tolerant.
It was in St. Augustine that May offered to release Archer from his engagement, but she couldn’t act unconventionally enough herself to move the marriage up. She has remained conventional and innocent throughout her life, which was just what Archer used to fear would happen. However, these characteristics haven’t ruined his marriage the way he thought they would. Instead, he learned to accept them as part of her.
Archer receives a phone call from Dallas, who’s in Chicago on business. He invites Archer to sail to Europe with him the next week, as he has some business there. Archer marvels at how close Dallas sounds when he laughs, even though long-distance telephoning has become as normal as electric lights. Dallas’s laugh means that he has to be back in time for his wedding to Fanny Beaufort. He quickly convinces Archer to come with him. When Archer hangs up, he thinks that this will be the last time he and Dallas will be together before his marriage. He can tell that Fanny Beaufort, whom he likes, won’t harm their closeness, but it will still be different after.
Earlier, Archer could hardly imagine what the world would be like with telephones and electricity, but technology has progressed as much as social norms have, emphasizing how much time has passed and how much of life Archer has lived since Ellen left. Furthermore, the fact that Dallas is marrying Beaufort’s daughter with Archer’s blessing is a sure sign that much has changed, considering the social disgrace of the Beauforts and Archer’s hatred of Beaufort up until now.
Archer hasn’t traveled much, as May didn’t like to travel unless there was a specific reason to do so. When Dallas graduated from college, the family traveled through England, Switzerland, and Italy. Dallas wanted to see the French architecture, but Mary and Bill wanted to go climb mountains. May suggested that Archer could go to Paris, but he said they should stick together. Since May died two years before, he could have begun to travel, but he felt bound to habit.
It’s clear that being married to May has indeed restricted Archer’s life in certain ways, but Archer doesn’t resent this the way he did before. He’s come to value his family over his own interests and to accept that marriage requires sacrifices, but will also provide rewards. May’s suggestion that Archer go to Paris, where Ellen is, shows her trust in him, and his refusal shows his full commitment to his family.
The worst part about doing one’s duty is that it doesn’t let one do anything else. The traditional divisions between right and wrong don’t leave any room for unexpected situations. Archer suddenly regards his life with a broad view and wonders what’s left of the world that shaped him as a young man. He remembers Lawrence Lefferts suggesting that one day their children would marry Beaufort’s bastards. Dallas is marrying one of Beaufort’s bastards, but everyone approves. Janey even gave Fanny Beaufort Mrs. Archer’s jewelry.
In looking backwards, Archer sees that the main fault of society’s rules has been their rigidness. Though something may seem right in theory, when applied to a specific situation, one must be able to independently judge whether it’s actually right. Society has changed so much that a situation that seemed scandalous before is now occurring with the approval of one of the most conventional characters, Janey.
Fanny Beaufort came to New York at eighteen, after her parents’ deaths. Everyone accepted her as charming and accomplished, and no one cared about her origins. After Mrs. Beaufort died, Mr. Beaufort had married Fanny Ring and traveled all around the world. When they died, Fanny Beaufort came under the guardianship of May’s brother and his wife, which made her almost a cousin to the Archer children. Everyone is now too busy with reforms and fads to care about people’s pasts, particularly since society is far more equal now.
Fanny is the daughter of a woman who, it’s implied, was a prostitute. As such, the old society would never have even considered accepting her into its ranks, and instead would have despised her. Now, however, people have better things to worry about. They’ve found worthwhile ways to pass their time, notably with reform movements—society is changing because its members are working for change.
Archer looks at Paris out his hotel window and feels young and eager. He wonders whether Dallas gets as thrilled as this in Fanny Beaufort’s presence, but Dallas never worried that his family wouldn’t approve of his engagement. Archer realizes that the younger generation is confident they’ll get what they want, whereas his generation was confident they wouldn’t.
Thinking they wouldn’t get what they wanted gave Archer’s generation a harmful desperation that Dallas’s doesn’t have. However, Archer also realizes that he felt desire more sharply because he thought he would be denied satisfaction, and these emotions were valuable.
Archer insisted that he and Dallas stay in what Dallas considers an old-fashioned hotel. After Ellen left, Archer often imagined going to Paris, or imagined her life there. Now that he’s actually here, he feels inadequate compared to the person he imagined himself being. Dallas appears, saying carelessly that Ellen Olenska expects them at half-past five. He explains that Fanny made him promise to see Ellen while in Paris, because Ellen was very kind to her when Beaufort sent her to school there. That morning, he called Ellen and told her that he and Archer wanted to see her. Archer is astonished.
Though Archer used to get frustrated with the old-fashioned people around him, the progress of society has made him the old-fashioned one. Though Archer has done better for himself than he once expected to, reality always falls short of his dreams, and his current state is no exception. It’s unclear whether Archer even would have sought Ellen out if Dallas didn’t take the initiative, since he feels so inferior to the person he dreamt of being when he faced her.
Dallas asks what Ellen was like, as he’s heard that she and Archer were close. Archer says she was different. Dallas says it’s always like that; that’s what he feels about Fanny. Archer pretends not to understand, but Dallas insists that Ellen was once Archer’s Fanny. Dallas has always been extremely straightforward. He perceives that Ellen was the woman Archer would have sacrificed everything for, but didn’t. He reveals that the day before May died, she told him the family was safe with Archer because he had once given up what he most wanted when she asked him to. Archer is silent, then says that May didn’t ask him. Dallas agrees that Archer’s generation would only ever guess what each other were thinking. He hopes Archer isn’t angry with him.
Dallas acts in a way that his mother, or anyone entrenched in old New York society, never would have—instead of talking around a delicate subject, he confidently faces it head-on. In fact, he essentially speaks for May, who could never have discussed Archer’s affair to his face. It’s moving for Archer to find, after her death, that May understood what he had sacrificed in being married to her. In fact, their early trials made her trust him more deeply later on. However, Archer seems to still harbor some bitterness, pointing out that May’s coercion left him no choice about his future.
Archer spends the afternoon roaming Paris alone. He’s relieved and moved to know that May guessed how he felt and pitied him. Dallas probably sees the situation as a waste of effort, and Archer wonders whether that’s all it was. Ellen never went back to her husband, and he’s now dead. Nothing stands between them anymore. He walks to the Louvre and wanders through its beauty, thinking of her spending time here. He realizes that he’s only fifty-seven, but he tells himself it’s too late for anything but friendship.
Ironically, Archer wonders whether the entire story that the reader has just followed has actually been worth anything, but the affair was an important experience, and it was Ellen’s experience that drew him to her in the first place. Now is the chance to make something of his heartache, but perhaps a fear of renewed pain keeps him from seeking her love again.
Archer meets Dallas at the hotel and they walk towards Ellen’s house. Dallas talks enthusiastically about Versailles, where he’s been that day. Archer thinks that Dallas’s generation is very confident and has swept away all the old rules and fears. They emerge at the dome of Mansart, and Dallas exclaims at its beauty. Archer has known that Ellen lived near the Invalides, but he had forgotten how beautiful and rich the area is. She has lived this whole time in an atmosphere filled with art and knowledge. He remembers M. Rivière exclaiming over the value of good conversation. Ellen has been living a life that Archer can hardly guess at, and surely has not thought often of him.
By rejecting the social rules that enchained Ellen and Archer, Dallas’s generation has finally found the personal freedom that America failed to provide to Archer’s generation. Throughout the book, Europe has been characterized by its richly artistic culture. Experiencing it now, Archer has to deal with the sense of having missed not only a life with Ellen, but a life of beauty and enlightening intellectual pursuit. Ellen has probably been quite happy living in this this atmosphere, independent of her husband.
The neighborhood is quiet, and the daylight is fading. Dallas stops before Ellen’s building and puts his arm through Archer’s. He speaks to the porter to find out which floor Ellen lives on, while Archer gazes up at the windows. Archer says that he’ll sit on a bench for a moment, and Dallas should go up without him. Dallas is bewildered and says that Ellen won’t understand if he doesn’t come up. Archer says to tell her that he’s old-fashioned. Dallas goes inside.
After so many years, Archer is finally facing the possibility of Ellen again, and yet he now finds it too overwhelming. He labels himself as old-fashioned, which is ironic because old-fashioned notions kept him and Ellen from happiness. However, it also suggests that he prefers to live in the past rather than complicate his idealized image of Ellen.
Archer sits on the bench and thinks of Dallas going up to Ellen’s floor and entering her drawing room. He imagines the other guests who will be there along with Ellen herself. He realizes that the scene is more real to him in his mind than if he had actually gone up, and he remains sitting so as not to lose that reality. He sits watching Ellen’s balcony as it gets dark out, and finally a servant comes out to close the shutters. Then Archer gets up and walks back to his hotel.
Archer ultimately chooses not to meet Ellen again, having learned throughout the book that nothing real can measure up to what he imagines in his mind. He doesn’t want Ellen ruined by tawdry reality. Archer once opened a window to feel that he might find the freedom to be with Ellen, but now that window closes once and for all, tying up their story.