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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK II

CHAPTER 23

Summary

Newland has found it easy to make excuses for a trip to Boston, since a note from his office had arrived the night before. When he gets there, he writes a note to Ellen and sends it by messenger to her hotel. The messenger returns to say she is not in. Newland goes to her hotel and wait. When she arrives she is startled to see him, then recovers her composure and seems pleased to see him. She tells him she has just turned down a large amount of money offered to her from her husband on the condition that she come back to him and serve as hostess. It was her money he offered to return to her, but she would not accept the terms. His secretary is waiting out the day in case she changes her mind.

Newland suggests that they go for a ride on a steamboat for the day. He urges her to come with him. She writes a note to her husband's secretary and they take it to her hotel. While he waits for her, he sees a man come out of the hotel whom he recognizes, though he is not sure who it is. Ellen comes out and they depart. Once on board, they find a private dining room. She asks him why he didn't go down to get her when she was on the beach at her grandmother's. He tells her that he had told himself he would not go if she didn't sense his presence and turn. She says she did know it was he, that she had recognized his horse when he first arrived in his carriage and had gone out to the water to get away from him. He has the feeling as they sit on the steamboat that they are going on a long journey, far from home.

Notes

Boston, yet another change of setting for the novel, is the place for Newland and Ellen's reunion. In this chapter, they say very little to each other. The emotion of the reunion is heavy and it is all described from Newland's point of view. The choice by the author to write this scene with so little dialogue is an effective narrative strategy as it increases the tension in the scene. Newland's thoughts are so heavy with unsaid things that the dramatic action seems overwhelmed by the potential of what could, or should, happen next.


CHAPTER 24

Summary

Ellen and Newland talk in an excited rush, catching each other up on their lives apart. Ellen tells him she became tired of New York society and realized she was too different from them to care what they thought of her differences. So she decided to settle in Washington where there were people like her. She talks to Newland about her aunt Medora, about marriage, and about the differences between America and Europe. Newland wonders aloud if she says these kinds of things to Beaufort. She replies that she hasn't seen Beaufort in a long time, but that when she had said such things he had understood. Newland says he cannot understand why she stays if she finds America so stifling. She answers that she stays because of him. She tells him he was the one who taught her of the things in life that are "fine and sensitive and delicate." She realizes that all the exquisite pleasures of life she had in Europe were paid for by what is "hard and shabby and base."

She tries to thank him for having changed her so much, but he interrupts her, asking her if she knows what she had changed in him. He tells her he's a man who married one woman because another woman told him to. She worries about May, and tells him it is for May that they have made this sacrifice. He accuses her of giving him his first glimpse of true love then forcing him to live out a sham and suffer. She cries out that she, too, endures the suffering. They long to hold one another, but settle for touching hands. She tells him she will never return to her husband. Further, she says as long as he is able to endure, she will as well. She tells him as long as he holds out, so will she: she will not go back to Europe to live with her husband. They stand there for a long time looking at each other, then she asks him not to be unhappy. They go inside and wait for the boat to dock.

Notes

This chapter is a poignant manifestation of the suffering undergone by two lovers who must never consummate their passion. It is one of the most painful and bittersweet chapters of the novel, and one that most clearly reiterates the theme of sacrifice to be explored later. Newland plays the conventional male role, urging his beloved to forget the consequences and run away with him. It is Ellen who plays out the sacrifice, reminding Newland of his own noble nature and entreating him to be truer to himself than to his passion. She reminds him that it was he who taught her the virtue of putting other people's happiness above one's own when he convinced her not to get a divorce.

In taking that advice to heart, Ellen changed her life and her values. She became a person who could not lightly carry on an affair with another woman's fiancé (not to mention her husband.) At the same time Ellen experienced this change of heart, Newland was jostled out of his slavish conventionality by exposure to her free ideas and lifestyle. He realized he had been living a fully scripted life and wanted to live a free one. Their life-changing realizations sent them in opposite directions. His would have freed him to break with May in order to love Ellen. Hers meant she could not betray May in order to enjoy a romance with Newland.

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