Mrs. van der Luyden listens silently to Mrs. Archer. Even if one knows that Mrs. van der Luyden is always silent and always kind to those she likes, her silence is still unnerving in the elegant drawing room. Her portrait on the wall faces that of an ancestress. She still looks just the same as she does in the portrait, though it was done twenty years before. Archer thinks of her as preserved in the airlessness of her faultless life. He likes her, but he finds her difficult to approach.
This introduction to Mrs. van der Luyden emphasizes her status as a relic of the past—she’s linked to her ancestors and looks like she could still be living her life of twenty years earlier. She’s almost like some immortal goddess of society and tradition to whom the Archers go to seek divine intervention in the problem of Ellen Olenska.
Mrs. van der Luyden never makes any decision without her husband’s input. She and he are so similar that it’s almost difficult to imagine them being separate enough to be able to discuss anything. Archer and his mother expect Mrs. van der Luyden to say she needs to talk the situation over with her husband, but instead she rings for a servant to summon him from his newspaper. The way she speaks of Mr. van der Luyden suggests that she thinks his every action is of utmost importance. Though bringing him in indicates that she thinks the situation is urgent, she pretends she’s doing so because he’ll want to see the Archers.
Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden are probably the best—and perhaps the only—example in this book of a happy, harmonious marriage in which husband and wife work together towards their common goals. However, they’re so shy and retiring that Wharton hardly seems to hold them up as prime proponents of the institution of marriage. In the typical way of New York society, Mrs. van der Luyden talks around her real reasons for calling her husband in.
Mr. Henry van der Luyden enters the room and greets the Archers. They discuss the most convenient time to read the newspapers, Mr. van der Luyden saying that life is so rushed these days. At Mrs. van der Luyden’s prompting, Mrs. Archer relates the tale of the Mingotts’ snubbing, saying that everyone felt the van der Luydens ought to know, particularly since Archer is engaged to May. Then they sit silently, Archer in awe of the regal couple who are forced to wield social authority when they would rather live quietly and alone.
Similar to his wife, Mr. van der Luyden seems to appreciate the past more than the present, which he sees as hurried. The van der Luydens are obliged to get involved in Ellen’s situation because they’re related to the Archers, and Archer is about to become part of Ellen’s family. The couple is perhaps better fitted than anyone to wield power in society, simply because they don’t want this responsibility, and thus won’t abuse it.
Mr. van der Luyden asks whether the situation is really Lawrence Lefferts’s fault, and Archer says he’s sure it is, because Lefferts has been having an affair with a postmaster’s wife. Whenever his wife begins to suspect, he works up a show of indignation about other people’s improprieties. Mrs. Archer and Mrs. van der Luyden exclaim that society is being ruined if the Leffertses have so much influence. Mrs. Archer makes the mistake of saying she wishes the van der Luydens went out more. They’re very sensitive to the fact that they refuse all invitations when they come to town. Archer covers her blunder by pointing out that the van der Luydens are authorities in society.
Lawrence Lefferts is often held up as the prime example of society’s hypocrisy, because he loudly condemns other people’s actions to distract from his own. Mrs. Archer is often worried about the destruction of society, and she usually attributes it to the inclusion of people whom she thinks really shouldn’t be included in society—in other words, society’s exclusivity allows it to keep up its defining traditions. She thinks that the van der Luydens’ influence would rectify the changes in society.
Mr. van der Luyden is unhappy about the situation because society should accept the decision of a family to support one of its members in a difficult situation. He realizes that Ellen Olenska is already distantly related to them, even before Archer’s marriage. The van der Luydens communicate with a look. Mr. van der Luyden says that they would attend Mrs. Mingott’s dinner if his wife’s health allowed, but as they can’t, they will invite Ellen to a dinner that they will be holding for the Duke of St. Austrey, who is arriving the next week. Mrs. van der Luyden will deliver the invitation herself. Mrs. Archer thanks them, and the Archers are shown out. Before long, everyone knows that Mrs. van der Luyden has invited Countess Olenska to dinner.
The principle of family coherence is one of the fundamental structures of high society, so family essentially has an authority that should trump that of outsiders who might want to judge Ellen. The van der Luydens can’t break their policy of never going to parties when they’re in the city. However, inviting Ellen to their dinner will show that they approve of her, and because they’re so powerful in society, this should convince everyone else to accept Ellen as well. Thus, without saying a word to acknowledge the snub to the Mingotts, the van der Luydens will rebuke the rest of society.