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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

BOOK 1

CHAPTER 5

Summary

The following evening, Archer's mother and sister have invited the gossip, Mr. Sillerton Jackson, over for dinner. Jackson enjoys his visits with the Archer women because they are such good listeners and such good company. But all of them know he prefers that Newland be absent, since he is somewhat skeptical as to Jackson's credibility, and because his presence invariably stilts the gossip.

Newland's mother has been a widow for a long time. She and her daughter, Janey, live together in the house, with Newland occupying the top floor to himself. The two women have adopted each other's likes and dislikes over the years so that they seem almost like sisters. Newland is fond of both, and tolerant of their interest in gossip. On this occasion, Newland has perversely decided to stay despite his awareness that all of them would prefer he leave. He wants to hear the gossip about Ellen Olenska without appearing to solicit it for himself.

As is proper when gossiping, Mrs. Archer begins the conversation in a roundabout way, bringing up the presence of Mrs. Lemuel Struthers at the Beaufort ball. Mrs. Archer remarks that it is a pity the woman was invited, given her questionable background. Mr. Jackson tells them something of Mrs. Struthers' background. She had been involved in a saloon that served a mine, had some trouble with the police, and eventually married a man who was in the shoe polish business. As soon as the formality of not appearing too pointed in her gossip is completed, Mrs. Archer turns narrowly to the subject of Ellen Olenska. Mr. Sillerton says she wasn't at the ball, but says she was seen by all of New York walking down Fifth Avenue that morning on the arm of Mr. Beaufort. Mrs. Archer and Janey look shocked and then begin to discuss her mother, Medora Manson, who let her wear black satin on her coming-out ball.


Newland finds himself defending her, saying she shouldn't be made to hide in shame when she simply left a husband whom everyone admits was cruel. But Mr. Jackson reminds them that there are rumors about an affair with her husband's secretary. He adds that she plans to get a divorce and buy a house in New York. Newland again defends her, saying it is his understanding the secretary helped her escape a very bad situation. Mr. Sillerton wryly observes that he helped her for a full year afterward then, since she was seen living with him later. Further, he says meaningfully, her husband is doing nothing to get her back.

Notes

Wharton uses this chapter to comment on the uniqueness of a social setting that is both public and private. The dinner scene with Jackson is public in the sense that the Archers have a guest and they are served at their table by a butler. However, it is private in the sense that their guest is Mr. Sillerton Jackson, a close friend of the family, who is such accord with the Archers on form and family that he might as well be family. Since he is not family, however, Mrs. Archer and Janey play their public roles, inviting Sillerton properly and in a roundabout way to share gossip with them. In private, the two women have already discussed the particulars of the case, sharing their judgements and opinions with one another. For the sake of public display, however, they pretend to shield Janey from the worldly issues being discussed.

Wharton uses a third person limited omniscient narrator closest to Newland Archer in this scene and for much of the novel. Archer is someone both inside and outside his culture. He recognizes the practice of all its codes without the slightest missed cue and he also feels somewhat distant from the practice of such codes. In this sense, he is like many of Wharton's protagonists: he is a spectator. This chapter in particular highlights his ability to appreciate the code of his society and at the same time comment on it obliquely.

Jackson is a vehicle for some important exposition in this chapter. He tells the particulars of Ellen Olenska's disgrace for benefit of the Archers and the reader. Ellen Olenska has left her husband, whom all agree is a brute, and has lived for a year with her husband's secretary. Now she has returned to New York where she plans to buy a house and live. She has either forgotten all the social codes of New York society or she doesn't care, because she observes none of the formalities. She faces social ostracism for her failure to conform.

CHAPTER 6

Summary

After Mr. Jackson leaves, Newland Archer is upset with himself for what he sees as a sudden unsettling desire to question his life and convictions. In his exchange with Mr. Jackson, he even uttered the words "Women ought to be free-as free as (men) are." He knows this is nothing more than a pose since any respectable woman would never exercise such freedom. May, for instance, would never exercise such boldness. He realizes suddenly that the cultural practice of raising girls like May to be totally innocent and unassuming as a sort of gift to her future husband's sense of self- importance and worldliness is actually a calculated act. The hypocrisy of his life in contrast to what he has professed to believe upsets him. He finishes his thoughts by exclaiming, "Hang Ellen Olenska!"

A few days later, the Mingotts send out invitations to a special dinner party intended to welcome the Countess Olenska. All but a few of those invited send their apologies, but don't claim prior commitments. This lack of an excuse constitutes a less than subtle snub. The New York of this time is made up of a pyramid of families. At the bottom are what are called the "plain families," people of respectable but undistinguished families. Next is the small group of families--the Mingotts, Archers, and Chiverses. Finally, the aristocracy of New York is made up of three families. Of these three, the van der Luydens are the most accessible. When Mrs. Archer decides to take action on behalf of May Welland's family reputation, she decides to go see Mrs. Henry van der Luyden. She insists that Newland accompany her and exclaims, "If we don't all stand together, there'll be no such thing as Society left."

Notes

Newland Archer begins the process of questioning his life in this chapter. The discontentment will follow him most of his life. He first realizes it is common practice for men of his class to speak magnanimously and say women should have freedom while all the time knowing that a proper woman would never claim the freedom granted her. He wants May to be knowing and intelligent, but he realizes she has been brought up to be just the opposite. Whether Newland Archer is aware of it or not, he is performing a fairly deep critique of patriarchy here. He realizes that a girl like May is brought up to be totally innocent all for the sake of his own vanity and his own momentary pleasure in being the first and only man to have her. He also realizes that this kind of innocence is not at all natural, but inculcated artificially so that the native intelligence and instincts of a girl like May have been warped and twisted into gullible and trusting ignorance.

The end of the chapter returns to the theme of class in the New York social world. Mrs. Archer knows the newspapers have it all wrong to call her family part of a New York aristocracy along with five or six other families. Hers is only middling in the real sense of class. Only three families, in Mrs. Archer's mind, can claim aristocratic membership. However, she has access to one of these families, the van der Luydens, and she goes to them when she needs social power to counteract the reactionary old rich who have overtly snubbed a member of her son's future family-in-law.

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