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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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Newland Archer is in his library. It's thirty years since the dinner party May gave for Ellen. He's thinking about his life over the years, the most important moments of which took place in this room. It was here that May told him she was pregnant, here that they had their first child, Dallas. Their daughter Mary stood here moments before going off to Grace Church to marry Reggie Chivers' son. Dallas has become an architect and has taught Newland all sorts of things about it. Newland himself entered politics at the behest of the Governor. He even spent a year in Congress. His respectability in the community is firm.

He knows he has missed "the flower of life." He thinks of Ellen from time to time, always as the unattainable vision of his mind. He remained faithful to May, mostly owing to his memory of Ellen's sacrifice, all for the sake of May. To have done any less would have been a dishonor to Ellen as well as May. When May died two years previously, Newland genuinely mourned her as his faithful wife and companion. He realizes that there is good in the old ways which demand that people be true to their duties no matter how dull they might seem. He looks at May's picture on his desk. She never changed in all those years.

Dallas calls Newland and asks him to come to Paris for a few days, to see the gardens for an architectural project he's working on. After some urging, Newland agrees to accompany Dallas. It will be their last time alone together on a trip. Upon return, Dallas will marry Fanny Beaufort. May had never liked to travel, and as a result, Newland has become reticent about it himself. He is amazed at all the changes that have happened in society. He remembers Lawrence Lefferts standing in the library bemoaning the downfall of society and predicting that one day their children will be marrying Beaufort's bastards. Now his son is marrying the daughter of Beaufort and Fanny Ring, whom he married after his first wife Regina died. Now, no one thinks that at all improper or odd. Things are going on at such a fast rate now that no one keeps up the fine distinctions of the past.

In Paris, Newland stands alone in the hotel room, thinking that this is the place Ellen has spent the past thirty years. Dallas comes in and tells him that the Countess Olenska has invited them to visit that evening. To Newland's shocked surprise, Dallas has contacted her at Fanny's insistence. Fanny is indebted to her for having taken good care of her when Beaufort sent her to live in Paris. Dallas also tells Newland that he knows that Ellen is his "Fanny," the woman he would have thrown everything else away for but didn't. He says that on the day before his mother died, she had told him that she wasn't at all afraid to leave the children with Newland because once, when she had asked him to, he had given up what he wanted most in the world for her. Newland is numb with surprise. He manages to say, "she never asked me." Dallas says with youthful exuberance that this is one of the funny things he has discovered about his parents' generation: they always seemed to be able to read each other's minds and never discussed things openly.

Dallas goes out to visit Versailles and Newland spends the early afternoon walking around the streets of Paris. He goes to the Tuileries gardens and to the Louvre because Ellen once told him she often went there. Later, he goes back to the hotel and meets Dallas. They walk to Madame Olenska's house and stand outside. Dallas inquires and finds out she lives on the fifth floor. Newland is rooted to the spot outside the building unwilling to move. Finally, he tells his son to go up without him and to tell Ellen that he is old-fashioned. He stays outside looking at her shuttered window for a long time, thinking of his son greeting her and talking to her. He thinks it's more real to him in his mind than if he went up. He stays still out of fear that "the last shadow of reality should lose its edge." When the servant comes out and shuts the shutters, he takes this as a sign to leave. He walks back to his hotel alone.


The last chapter of the novel serves as a sort of after word, telling the reader what happened in the years after Ellen left the States, what happened in Newland's life to make him go on without her. It seems that despite his grief, he filled his life creditably. He became an active citizen, even serving a term in Congress. He has become a devoted and tolerant father. He has also been a good husband, true to his wife and managing to love her despite the limitations of their relationship.

Readers will probably find his reluctance to go up to see Ellen quite sad. At fifty-six years of age, he's still young enough to spend a good many years with her. They are both free, having been widowed. But Newland's excuse that he is old-fashioned actually means he is so attached to the idea he's made of Ellen Olenska that he can't bear to let reality crash in on that dream and change it into something else.

The novel ends happily in the sense that Newland seems content. In choosing to stay with May, he put his family's happiness above his own, just as Ellen learned to do from him when she wanted to divorce her husband all those years ago. By the end of the novel, he has developed a sense of ease with his life. The frustration has gone, and with its passing, all that remains is a sense of propriety.

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