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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
It seems that May and her family have brought along Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's who has been disgraced by having left her Polish husband. Newland Archer feels embarrassed and annoyed that his fiancé's opera box is the subject of everyone's attention; it is not a good thing to be associated with scandal of any sort, and he is troubled that his future family is the source of whispers and gossip. Newland approves of family solidarity, even in times of scandal, but public displays are another thing entirely.
In thinking about his future family, Archer reflects on the matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott. Her maiden name was Catherine Spicer and she had neither money nor position before she married a wealthy man who left her a widow at twenty-eight. She is a dignified lady in society now, after many years, despite several unconventional acts on her part. After her husband's death, she married two of her daughters to foreigners, a practice disapproved of by the conservative New York elite. Further, when she returned to New York, she upset the social order of the town by building a cream-colored stone house in "an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park" rather than building a conventional brown sandstone house in a respectably populated neighborhood. The "extreme decency and dignity of her private life," excuse her unconventional life.
After this reflection, Newland Archer looks once again to May's opera box and decides that, though he approves of family solidarity, the presence of Madame Olenska is an affront to taste. He is especially shocked by her choice of dress, a shoulderless gown with a low bodice. In his mind, someone so recently disgraced should cover more of her body. He overhears the men in his box discussing her failed marriage, the source of the scandal. One young man tries to defend her, saying her husband was apparently "an awful brute." But he goes on to say that the problem was that when she left him, she left with another man who happened to be her husband's secretary.
Archer decides he must act quickly to address the situation facing his soon-to-be bride. As soon as the act is over, he rushes to the Mingotts' box and greets May. He tells her they must announce their engagement that night and she agrees. Without explicitly stating it, both know that this decision will draw attention away from family scandal. Archer reflects that this similarly felt and unstated agreement is what he loves about May; they are perfect for one another.
Feeling very valiant, Archer sits beside the Countess Olenska. She is friendly, reminding him that they used to play together as children and he was not a good boy, but had once kissed her. She says she was actually in love with his brother, who never gave her the time of day. She says it's been so long since she's seen New York society that she can't help but think of all of them in children's clothes. Newland Archer is shocked that someone who should be contrite and embarrassed has just belittled the society that makes up his moral universe. The brief meeting both unsettles and embarrasses him, but he cannot quite figure out why.
This chapter reveals a brilliant display of character and action, subtly working together for a greater theme. The narrative and Archer's thoughts have mostly concentrated on the importance of the New York social scene. Newland Archer is extremely conscious of what is proper and acceptable. At times, he is so self- consciously into the New York social scene that he seems pretentious and affected. But he is also a champion in a heroic sort of way. When the strictures of the oh-so-important New York society are threatened by the scandalous presence of the Countess Olenska, Newland Archer acts decisively and quickly, going to the side of his young fiancée and grandly lending his public support for her plight. Without saying a word, both he and May know he is there to save the family. They decide to announce their engagement to deflect attention from the scandal. That decision made, Newland Archer is feeling benevolent and powerful; to emphasize his heightened position of power, he does what he thinks is a grand gesture by sitting down with the Countess Olenska, as if his courtesy will somehow elevate her.
For a brief moment, Archer is a champion. But with a few lighthearted words, the Countess Olenska deflates his self-serving "noble gesture" by poking gentle fun at the New York social scene. She first infantilizes all those present, saying that in her mind, they are all still wearing children's clothing; then she praises the place as a sort of quaint heaven. Both descriptions discomfit Newland Archer and take away his self-claimed mastery of the situation. Having been led by the narrator to look at him critically in the previous chapter, the reader probably finds his discomfiture both humorous and intriguing.