It’s generally agreed that Ellen Olenska has lost her beauty. She first came to New York when she was about ten and very pretty. When her parents died, she was taken in by her aunt, Medora Manson. Medora was a wanderer and widow who often tried to settle down with a new husband or ward and always ended up selling her house of the moment in order to travel. Society indulged her because of her family connections, but people thought it a shame that Ellen only had Medora to take care of her. Medora didn’t follow the rules of American mourning, and she dressed herself and Ellen improperly after Ellen’s parents’ deaths.
Women are supposed to attract men with their beauty and innocence, so the fact that Ellen is neither beautiful nor innocent, yet still attracts many men, suggests that convention doesn’t understand the true nature of attraction. Ellen has never led a traditional life, and her unusual upbringing has predisposed her to flout society’s rules. In many ways, she follows in the steps of her aunt, who has never really belonged in one place or been accepted by society.
Ellen’s relations were quickly charmed by her precociousness and foreign talents. Medora Manson gave her an expensive but unconventional education. When Medora’s husband died, she and Ellen left New York. Eventually society heard that she had married a vastly wealthy Polish nobleman. When Medora later returned to New York in dire financial straits, people thought it a shame that Ellen hadn’t helped her. Then they heard that Ellen’s marriage was a disaster and she was coming home to her family.
Although Ellen hasn’t been to New York in a long time, people have been keeping tabs on her life from afar. Even ignoring her affair, Ellen has earned society’s disapproval in multiple ways: she’s married a foreigner, she failed to help a family member in need, and she has fallen short in a woman’s most important occupation—marriage.
Archer thinks about Ellen’s story as he watches her enter the van der Luydens’ drawing room the night of their dinner. Though she’s late and still putting a bracelet on, she doesn’t seem embarrassed. As she pauses, Archer decides that she is, after all, still beautiful, partly due to her surety and sense of authority. He later hears that people are disappointed that she isn’t more stylish; instead, she’s quiet and simple, which isn’t what society expected.
Not only is Ellen unconventional, but she doesn’t even fit with society’s idea of an unconventional woman. Moreover, she doesn’t seem to realize how unconventional she is; she breaks the rules without understanding that she’s doing so. Already, Archer sees a beauty in her that others miss.
Dining with the van der Luydens and a duke is a solemn and formal affair. New York society generally accepts noblemen with a distrustful snobbery, but because this duke belongs to the van der Luydens, he is received cordially. Archer finds these distinctions in society odd but endearing. The van der Luydens are using all of their fanciest china, and everyone is dressed most handsomely, if in an old-fashioned way. Though Ellen Olenska is the only young woman, she somehow looks more mature than any of the elderly women.
Because America doesn’t have an aristocracy, New York society can’t bow wholeheartedly to aristocrats, or it would always be acknowledging a foreign authority above its own—thus, its distrust of noblemen. Ellen seems particularly mature because she has so much more worldly experience than the older women around her, who are still as innocent as society demands that they be.
Though the Duke of St. Austrey is supposed to be the center of attention, he’s almost invisible. His clothes are shabby, and he has a quiet and unassuming manner. After dinner, he and Ellen Olenska immediately become engaged in discussion, apparently unaware that each of them should have first talked with certain important guests. When they’re finished talking, Ellen walks straight to Archer, despite the fact that etiquette requires her to sit in one place while men come to speak to her. She seems unaware of breaking the rules.
Since one might expect an aristocrat to have better etiquette than anyone else, the Duke’s general ignorance of or disregard for propriety emphasizes the difference between New York society and European society, which seems not to be quite so obsessed with appearances. Ellen has also been living in Europe, so her mistakes can be attributed to the same source. Her actions also demonstrate an independence that women aren’t supposed to have.
Ellen wants to hear about May. Instead, Archer asks her if she already knew the Duke. She says he used to come to their house frequently to gamble, but she thinks he’s dull. Archer is both shocked and pleased at her daring to say such things, and he wants to know more about her life. She asks whether he’s in love with May, and he says he has found no limit to his love. She seems surprised that their marriage wasn’t arranged in any way, and he reminds her that Americans don’t have arranged marriages. She’s embarrassed at forgetting how much better everything is in America than where she’s been. She wants to forget the past and become completely American again, because she feels that everyone is so friendly to her here.
While Archer is shocked at Ellen’s comments about the Duke because society would regard them as improper, he already likes her disregard for what society expects of her, proving that he doesn’t subscribe to the rules of his world as strictly as someone like his mother does. Ellen is still adjusting to being in the United States again, and she idealizes it greatly, thinking that it’s a place of freedom, rather than recognizing that everyone is judging her. Even she regards herself as somewhat European, despite her American roots.
Ellen points out that May has arrived. Archer thinks that May, in her white and silver dress, looks like the goddess Diana. He points out that the Duke is already talking to May, so Ellen says he should stay with her, touching his knee with her fan. He thrills to her touch. Though he intends to stay, other men approach and he gives up his seat. Ellen says that she expects him tomorrow after five. Archer agrees, though they have not discussed seeing each other again.
Diana is a goddess known for her perpetual virginity, so Archer’s comparison of May to Diana stresses her innocence that will never truly end, even with marriage. This image forms a contrast to Ellen, who lost her innocence long ago and seems to be flirting with Archer. For his part, he seems attracted to both of them.
Archer watches Lawrence Lefferts and his wife meeting Ellen Olenska, along with other couples who had refused to meet her at Mrs. Mingott’s. The van der Luydens’ power is apparent. Mrs. van der Luyden tells Archer that it was good of him to speak so long with Ellen, but she sent his cousin to relieve him. He smiles vaguely, and she says that May has never looked more beautiful.
Now that the van der Luydens have demonstrated their approval of Ellen, everyone else is following suit. Mrs. van der Luyden thought she was helping Archer by getting him out of talking to Ellen, when in reality he wanted to continue talking to her. This type of painful irony will forever mark their relationship.