After Mr. Jackson leaves, Archer goes to his study, which feels very welcoming. He sits by the fire and looks at a photograph of May, thinking that she is the type of girl society expects and thereby creates: innocent and depending on him to protect her. He’s realizing more and more that marriage is a difficult thing. The debate around Ellen Olenska has been disturbing certain of his long-held beliefs. Though he said that women should be free, the fact is that men are far more willing to offer freedom to the “nice” women who will never actually take it, meaning that the old conventions remain in place. Now he has to defend Ellen’s behavior, when if May, as his wife, were to behave similarly, he could condemn her in the eyes of church and state.
Already, Ellen’s presence in New York is changing not only Archer’s attitude towards society, but also his view of May as he begins to see how May is entirely a product of the society in which they live. Ellen’s publicly disastrous marriage acts as a reminder that marriage isn’t necessarily the ideal domestic harmony that society advertises, and Archer is beginning to recognize the power that men hold over women—effectively, the power of freedom or confinement. Even if women fight for their freedom, men eventually have to be the ones to concede it to them.
Archer worries that his marriage with May could go badly. They really hardly know each other, since it’s his duty to conceal his past and hers to have no past to conceal. Besides, they might tire or irritate each other. None of his friends have marriages that he considers ideal. His ideal, in fact, requires May to have certain qualities of experience and freedom that she’s been trained not to have. He fears that his marriage will become as unfeeling and hypocritical as those he sees around him. Lawrence Lefferts, for example, has frequent affairs while his wife remains ignorant and even blushes when someone implies that Beaufort might have a mistress.
Archer begins to recognize the way in which society’s conventions poison marriage at its root. May has been raised to be marriageable, which means having a spotless past and little knowledge of the real world. Though Archer actually has sexual experience, he’s supposed to pretend to her that he doesn’t, meaning that they can never come to marriage as equals. Ironically, in order to have a successful marriage May needs the experience that society keeps from her in order to make her marriageable.
Archer’s world is one in which the reality of a situation is never acknowledged, but only represented by signs. For example, Mrs. Welland knew why Archer wanted to announce the engagement at the ball, but she had to pretend that she didn’t want him to. As a result of this system, girls such as May remain perfectly innocent and unprepared, and yet must suddenly become disillusioned as soon they’re married.
New York society is inherently dishonest in the name of propriety. The ease with which its members pretend means that it’s difficult to truly understand everything that goes on. May clearly has a disadvantage coming in to marriage if this system of ignoring reality has kept her blind to anything unpleasant for her entire life.
Archer is in love, but not passionately. He takes pleasure in many aspects of May, including the intellectual engagement that he’s helping her to develop. She’s loyal and brave and laughs at his jokes, but he’s discouraged that her innocence is only the product of society. Humans are not naturally innocent, he believes, but devious. However, women create this unnatural purity in their daughters because men are supposed to want it just so they can have the pleasure of destroying it.
Archer seems to regard May as a sort of pet project, wanting to help her think in all the same ways he does. This isn’t, after all, so different from what society has done to her. Interestingly, the girlish innocence which so harms women is produced in younger women by older women, constituting a destructive female inheritance that is, however, necessary for girls’ marriage prospects.
Archer’s thoughts are shared by most young men before their weddings, but unlike other men, Archer doesn’t regret the fact that he can’t offer May innocence of his own. He can only think that if he had been as sheltered as she, they would be doomed in life, and he doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have been allowed as much freedom as he. He’s aware that his thoughts feel particularly pressing because of Ellen Olenska. It doesn’t really seem like she should influence his life at all, but he feels that the risks of defending her have just begun.
May’s innocence makes her a weak partner in marriage, placing more pressure on Archer, since he’s been trained to understand the world much better. Despite his somewhat radical thoughts on women’s rights, he himself is far from being liberated from society’s confining influence—he dreads the effects of his decision to publicly defend Ellen. He can’t even fathom a world in which he doesn’t care what other people think of him.
A few days later, the Lovell Mingotts send out invitations to a formal dinner to welcome Ellen Olenska. The guests invited are only the most fashionable people of New York. Within two days, everyone except the Beauforts, Mr. Jackson, and his sister has refused the invitation. The notes carrying refusals don’t even include the pretense of a previous engagement, and the insult is clear. New York society is so small that everyone knows which evenings people are free, so it’s obvious that people are simply refusing to meet Countess Olenska.
The guests obviously know that the Mingotts will understand that they’re insulting Ellen, meaning that they’re making a bold statement: Ellen is not welcome in New York society. She has committed acts that simply are not acceptable, and people don’t want to associate with her.
When Archer hears what has happened, he appeals to his mother, who eventually gives in and goes to see Louisa van der Luyden. People in New York society have long been cemented into unofficial ranks from which they barely move. At the bottom are the “plain people,” who come from respectable families and have married into ruling families. Mrs. Archer says that the old traditions of rank are beginning to crumble. Above this group are families including the Mingotts and the Archers. Mrs. Archer tells her children that the newspapers are wrong about the existence of a New York aristocracy, or if it exists, neither the Mingotts nor the Archers belong to it. Their ancestors were just merchants. Only the Dagonets, Lannings, and van der Luydens can claim ancestors from the European aristocracy.
Now that Archer is engaged to May, he and his relatives have an obligation to defend May’s family, including Ellen. While Mrs. Archer only discusses the ranks within high society, it must be remembered that only the wealthiest New Yorkers are members of high society, and the majority of even those who are wealthy don’t qualify to be included in Mrs. Archer’s rankings. She thinks she detects change in society that she sees as detrimental to its structure. The United States has never had true aristocracy; the idea is very European, and society’s respect for people with aristocratic blood shows deference to European tradition over American. This is strange in the context of the novel, as society people in New York generally regard Europeans with suspicion.
The van der Luydens sit at the top of this highest rank, and the only ones who are prominent are Mr. Henry van der Luyden and his wife. Mrs. van der Luyden was originally a Dagonet, and her family fought in the British army. She and her husband still visit aristocratic relatives in England. They divide their time between a house in Maryland and an estate on the Hudson which belonged to the first Dutch colonial governor of New York. They rarely come to their house in the city. Mrs. Archer wishes Archer would come with her to visit Mrs. van der Luyden. She’s only doing this because of his connection with May, and because everyone must stand together to preserve New York society.
Ironically, New York society sees Mrs. van der Luyden’s family connection to the British army as a marker of respectability, even though they fought against American independence. Their house further links the van der Luydens to American colonialism, so that it seems like their authority over society and its traditions actually pulls New York back in time. Mrs. Archer believes that New York society is in danger of falling apart, but to her credit, she thinks that Ellen is less of a threat than people’s refusal to receive her is.