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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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BOOK SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

BOOK 1

CHAPTER 7

Summary

Mrs. Archer tells the van der Luydens how society has snubbed the Mingott's invitation to meet the Countess Olenska. She doesn't need to explain the importance of social graciousness to Mrs. van der Luyden, nor does she need to explain how it affects Newland as a future member of the snubbed family. Mr. van der Luyden thinks the snub was intentionally instigated by Lawrence Lefferts as an attempt to appear moral when everyone knows he is cheating on his own wife. Mr. van der Luyden further pronounces that "As long as a member of a well-known family is backed up by that family it should be considered--final." In other words, if the Mingotts support Ellen Olenska, then their social circle should as well.

He says he expects a visit from his wife's relative, the Duke of St. Austrey, and will hold a dinner party in his honor. He decides to invite the Countess Olenska, thereby forcing the social elite of New York to accept her (since no one would dare snub his invitation). Two hours later, Mrs. van der Luyden's carriage appears publicly at the gate of Mrs. Mingott's house to deliver an invitation. That evening at the opera, Mr. Sillerton Jackson tells everyone what the invitation was for, and they all turn to Lawrence Lefferts for a reaction. He tries to appear uninterested, claiming to dislike the opera singer.

Notes

The description of the van der Luydens and their home is limited to a brief chapter despite the fact that they are the source of absolute social power in New York. In this chapter, Mrs. Archer calls on them to turn the wealthy New Yorkers around and accept the Countess Olenska. The influential couple is described with quiet, almost passive blandness. However much power they have to move the provincial-thinking New Yorkers to accept May's cousin, they certainly don't seem vital in any other ways.


CHAPTER 8

Summary

In this chapter, Newland Archer reflects on some of the gossip he has heard about the Countess Olenska, as well as some of her history. He remembers stories of her being raised by her Aunt Medora Manson, a woman prone to marriages and break-ups, adoptions and leavings, and a taste for travel. Medora was so well liked, though, that New York society always forgave her for her unconventionality. When she took up her orphaned niece, Ellen Mingott, and returned to New York, everyone was worried about her influence on the child. She was dressed with seven inches less of black mourning veil than was customary and Ellen was dressed in red. Soon she and Ellen returned to Europe and, a few years later, everyone heard the news that Ellen had married a very wealthy Polish nobleman. When Medora came back to New York, this time taking up residence in an even smaller home, everyone wondered why her rich niece wasn't helping her. Then they heard that Ellen had left her husband and was returning to New York.

A week later, watching the Countess arrive a few moments late for the van der Luydens' dinner party, he realizes that the general agreement about her having lost her looks is all wrong. She is quite beautiful, but only subdued and quietly beautiful. The dinner is conducted in complete formality. Newland knows that New Yorkers don't care much for nobles in general, but the van der Luydens' duke was another matter. He looks again at Ellen Olenska and sees that her eyes are more mature than the eyes of the elderly people who sit around the table. He wonders what went into the making of her eyes.

After dinner, the Duke goes directly to Ellen Olenska and they talk for twenty minutes. This action is an unexpected violation of social rules that require the Duke to make his way among the guests from most important to least. Further, after she is finished speaking to the Duke, Ellen Olenska sits with Newland Archer. This action also breaks a rule. Women are supposed to sit still in a drawing room waiting for men to come to them. She asks Newland to tell her about May, but instead he asks her how she knows the duke. She tells him the Duke was a frequent visitor to her home in Europe. Further, she says, he is a terrible bore. Archer is delighted by this unexpectedly fresh remark.

Again she asks him about May. He tells her he loves May boundlessly. Soon May and other after dinner guests arrive. Ellen encourages him to go see May, but his fiancée is surrounded by others, so he stays where he is. However, they are interrupted by Mr. van der Luyden and Mr.Urban Dagonet. As he is leaving, Ellen Olenska tells him she'll see him tomorrow at five. She hasn't asked him to come before, but he follows her cue and agrees. When he moves away, he notices Lawrence Lefferts and his wife greeting the countess. Then he notices others who had declined the dinner invitations put out by the Lovell Mingotts coming to greet her graciously. He is pleased that the van der Luyden's lesson is so well taught.

Notes

The movement in this chapter is slow and subtle. Newland Archer watches Ellen Olenska during the dinner party and is fascinated by her maturity and grace. She is a total contrast to May. In the previous chapter, he was worrying about May's ignorance of the world and his own responsibility as her husband to show her the world. Here, he sees a woman who knows much more of the world than he can even guess at. By the end of the chapter, he has spent so much time with the Countess that he is subtly chastised by Mrs. van der Luyden for spending so much inappropriate time away from his fiancée. Further, his failure to react to the Countess' untoward invitation leaves his relationship with May open to compromise. This chapter marks a significant turning point for Archer; he is drawn to the Countess, the first step toward falling in love.

Ellen, for her part, is deliciously difficult to pin down. She appears to make advances toward Newland, but at the same time she eagerly and graciously asks about May. Her freshness is in part why Newland is drawn to her. She seems as unused to the stiff formalities of New York society as May is a part of them. Archer finds this hard to resist.

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