The next evening, Sillerton Jackson comes to dinner at the Archers’ house. Mr. Jackson and his sister Sophy, who lives with him, collect between them all the gossip worth knowing. Mrs. Archer is shy and doesn’t entertain often, but she invites Mr. Jackson to dinner whenever she wants the latest gossip. Mr. Jackson prefers to come when Archer isn’t there, since he sometimes seems to question the intelligence that Mr. Jackson brings. He also wishes that the Archers’ food were slightly better, but the families to which the Archers are connected have always been devoted to travel, horticulture, and literature rather than food and money.
Though Archer does subscribe to society’s conventions at this point in the book, his willingness to question Mr. Jackson’s gossip and obsession with scandal indicates that, unlike his mother, he is able to remove himself from society’s preoccupation with judging people. Wharton associates the Archers with a slightly more intellectual subset of society, which will make Archer more sensitive to Ellen’s experience of New York as a cultural desert.
Mrs. Archer has been a widow a long time and lives with her son and daughter. Archer has the upper floor, while Mrs. Archer and her daughter Janey live together below, reading novels set in Italy. They read about peasant life for the descriptions of scenery, but they understand better the novels about people in high society. When they travel abroad, they always admire the scenery rather than the art or architecture. Mrs. Archer was born a Newland, and she and her daughter both have the tall, pale Newland look. They appear and act almost like sisters. Though they have similar mannerisms, Janey is more romantic and imaginative than her mother. They love each other and Archer deeply, and Archer is satisfied by the authority they give him in the house.
Mrs. Archer and Janey are portrayed as quite close-minded, in a way typical of New York society. They don’t even try to understand anyone whose life isn’t like theirs, and they likewise make no effort to appreciate art or architecture when they travel, which would help them learn about foreign cultures. Admiring scenery does not require thought or an expansion of the mind, but only an appreciation for natural beauty. As the only man in their immediate family, Archer is essentially the highest power.
Archer is sure that Mr. Jackson doesn’t want him around at dinner, but he stays anyway. Everyone wants to talk about Ellen Olenska, and, since Archer’s presence makes this awkward, he’s curious to see how they’ll deal with it. They begin by talking about the regrettable presence of Mrs. Struthers at the ball. They blame her invitation on Beaufort, whom Mrs. Archer has never trusted. Mr. Jackson claims that Mrs. Struthers came from a mine or a saloon. He hesitates to go on because of Janey’s presence, but he says that Lemuel Struthers used her image to advertise his shoe polish and then eventually married her.
Now that Archer is engaged to May, he’s considered to be connected to the Mingotts, so people have to be polite about Ellen while he’s around. Mr. Jackson’s comments about Mrs. Struthers make it clear that he thinks her background disqualifies her from any position in society; she has base origins, and no connection to old money or powerful families. Because Janey is supposed to be an innocent maiden, her presence limits talk of sexual scandal.
Mrs. Archer doesn’t really care about Mrs. Struthers, so she turns the conversation to Ellen Olenska. She’s very glad to have Archer safely engaged to May Welland, an advantageous match, particularly after his earlier obsession with the married Mrs. Rushworth. However, she’s unhappy that Ellen Olenska’s presence forced the couple to announce their engagement prematurely. Though Mrs. Archer was perfectly polite when they went to visit Mrs. Welland, Archer could tell she was worried that Countess Olenska would appear at any moment. Still, he and his mother have never discussed what they were actually thinking about, so they didn’t discuss this, either. Archer doesn’t mind hearing Ellen Olenska talked about in private at dinner, but he’s already beginning to get bored of the subject.
It’s notable that Mrs. Archer knows at least something about her son’s affair with a married woman and obviously has not censured him harshly for it, though she certainly disapproved. On the other hand, she doesn’t even want to see Ellen because of the taint of scandal on her. This is a prime example of the double standard by which women are judged far more harshly than men for their affairs. Archer and his mother are typical of everyone in New York society in that they never talk about their actual thoughts, but instead talk around or ignore delicate subjects.
Mr. Jackson is visibly dissatisfied with the food, and he remarks that Archer’s grandfather loved a good meal. Then he says that Ellen Olenska wasn’t at the ball, but Beaufort certainly knows her, as everyone saw them walking together just that afternoon. Janey wonders what kind of hat she wears in the afternoon, since at the opera she was wearing something that looked like a nightgown. Mrs. Archer remarks that it’s good that Ellen Olenska didn’t go to the ball, but Archer says she only stayed away because she didn’t think her dress was fancy enough. Mrs. Archer and Mr. Jackson pity Ellen, implying that her fate was sealed when her guardian, Medora Manson, gave her too much freedom growing up.
Everyone is particularly quick to find fault with Ellen because her unstrict (and foreign) background makes them expect her to act in unacceptable ways. It’s clearly bad for her reputation to be seen walking alone with Beaufort, who’s a known womanizer. As Janey points out, even Ellen’s clothing sets her apart from the crowd and seems scandalous to New Yorkers. The pity that Mrs. Archer and Mr. Jackson express is really just condescension: Ellen is a woman to whom they feel far superior.
Janey says that Ellen should have changed her name to Elaine to sound more Polish, but Mrs. Archer says the name is too conspicuous. Archer, however, argues that Ellen shouldn’t have to hide just because she made a bad marriage. Mr. Jackson says there are rumors of worse, but Archer argues that the secretary with whom she’s supposed to have had an affair helped her get away from her brutish husband, which is perfectly honorable. Mr. Jackson says Ellen intends to get herself a house, and Janey says she intends to get a divorce. Archer exclaims that she should, but Mrs. Archer stops this line of discussion because of the butler’s presence.
Archer hasn’t been feeling overly charitable towards Ellen, but faced with the petty disdain of his family, he suddenly begins to defend her. Even before he gets to know her, then, Ellen is causing Archer to react against the rest of society and consider matters in a different light. Wharton seems to poke fun at Mrs. Archer’s stiff sense of propriety, as she mustn’t let the butler hear them discussing such a scandalous thing as a divorce.
After dinner, Mrs. Archer and Janey go to the drawing room, where they work on embroidery. Meanwhile, Archer and Mr. Jackson smoke cigars in the library. Mr. Jackson remarks that the secretary didn’t only help Ellen escape her husband, since they were seen living together a year later. Archer argues that there’s nothing wrong with that, since her husband was a good-for-nothing. He says women should be as free as men, not thinking about the consequences of what he’s said. Mr. Jackson says Ellen’s husband must agree, since he’s never tried to get her back.
It’s customary in this time period and social milieu for men and women to socialize separately for a while after dinner. Outside of the more sensitive presence of the women, Mr. Jackson can reveal the more sordid details of Ellen’s story. Archer makes quite a radical feminist statement for the 1870s; though this thought appears spontaneously, he will toy with it frequently in different forms throughout the rest of the book.