The next day, Archer, May, and their mothers conduct the proper betrothal visits. They go to Mrs. Mingott’s house to receive her blessing. Archer is always amused to visit her. The house is decorated more frivolously than most houses in New York. Mrs. Mingott sits at the window, patiently watching for the society that she knows will come to her door. Though she lives in an unfashionable area, she’s sure that stately houses will arrive there at any moment.
Mrs. Mingott claims some power in society by forcing everyone to come to her, particularly in such an out-of-the-way area of New York. She has the sense that she can set fashions, and though stately houses don’t seem about to arrive in her neighborhood, she does have the ability to affect the way society thinks, particularly about Ellen.
Mrs. Mingott has grown immensely fat. She accepts her size and now, in old age, is hardly wrinkled. Her face and hands seem tiny in comparison to the rest of her. She wears a pin with a miniature portrait of her dead husband. She can no longer use the stairs, so she has made her sitting room on the ground floor, though this is not usually considered proper. Sitting there, guests can see into a bedroom, which calls to mind scandalous novels and seems to invite immorality. Archer thinks it’s funny that she lives such an innocent life in this setting, but he’s sure that if she’d wanted a lover she could have found one.
Mrs. Mingott seems to encompass a number of paradoxes. Ironically, she is physically almost immobile, but her mind is far more open to change than most of the characters are. The environment in which she lives seems vaguely scandalous, but she lives perfectly innocently. Though her husband is always present on the pin she wears, she never speaks of him, perhaps gesturing to the general falsity of marriage in this novel.
Everyone is relieved that Ellen Olenska isn’t at Mrs. Mingott’s while Archer and the Wellands are there. She’s gone out, which seems improper at this hour, but at least they don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of her presence. Mrs. Mingott is very happy with the engagement, which the family approved of even before it was official. She admires the modern quality of the engagement ring and compares it to her own. Archer says they’re going to be married as soon as possible. Because it’s proper, Mrs. Welland says they must get to know each other better first, but Mrs. Mingott says they should do it very soon.
The fact that Ellen can’t even go out during the day without bringing judgment down upon herself shows how restricted women of this era are in their actions. The Mingott clan, including the Wellands, approve wholeheartedly of Archer as a conventional husband for May, as their marriage will unite two powerful families. Though it seems negligible now, the dispute over how soon they should marry will only become more important as time goes on.
Just as the guests are about to leave, Ellen Olenska enters, accompanied by Julius Beaufort. Mrs. Mingott welcomes him informally and asks for all the gossip from the ball. She and Mr. Beaufort have always gotten along well, and she wants to know why he invited Mrs. Struthers, who’s been trying to enter New York society.
This scene establishes conflicts that will soon grow; Ellen’s association with Beaufort becomes a point of contention, as does his approval of Mrs. Struthers, with whom most of society will not associate because they think her far too common.
While Mrs. Welland and May are putting their furs on in the hall, Archer says to Ellen Olenska that she must already know of his engagement, and that he couldn’t tell her in the crowd at the Opera. She understands perfectly and says he should come see her sometime. In the carriage home, the group talks about Mrs. Mingott, but not about Ellen Olenska. Archer knows that Mrs. Welland doesn’t think she should have been out and about with Mr. Beaufort, and Archer himself thinks it improper for Ellen to have invited him to visit her.
Archer’s earlier failure to tell Ellen about his engagement suggests that he may already feel a subconscious attraction to her. Ellen doesn’t hesitate to spend time alone with men, which invites censure from society, particularly because people believe she’s had an affair in the past. Archer seems entirely unable to interact with her without thinking about all of the ways in which she’s breaking the rules.