The Age of Innocence: Novel Summary: Chapters 10-12
Archer tells May about his having sent roses to Ellen, though not about his visit to her; she approves of his kind gesture, but finds it odd that Ellen did not mention it.
Archer is not happy about the long engagement, since he wants them to travel together as soon as possible, but May accepts it because her mother would not understand them wanting to do things differently. He is impatient at the seeming inability of 'nice' women to speak for themselves, but concedes that society does not encourage them to do so. He wonders if, when he removes the "bandage" of innocence from her eyes, she will be able to see, or whether she will be like the Kentucky cave-fish, which ceased to develop eyes because it had no use for them.
He observes that he and May and others of the same class are "all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper." He asks her why he and she cannot strike out on their own. She suggests it would be "vulgar." He questions why she should fear this so much; she points out that he would not like it any more than she would.
At his office, Archer begins to feel trapped by the day-to-day sameness of his job as a lawyer. His colleagues, he thinks, are discussing the Duke and the scandalous appearance of one of Julius Beaufort's mistresses driving her own carriage on Fifth Avenue. Archer's sister Janey comes in, angry that Ellen has been to Mrs Struthers' party, and Archer didn't try to stop her for the sake of the family honor. The van der Luydens are, she says, so offended that they are going to Skuytercliff, their country estate.
Mrs Archer is incredulous that Archer is unrepentant at having upset the van der Luydens. Archer defends all those blamed for the offence - himself, Ellen and lastly, Mrs Struthers, who he says is amusing and offers good music. Mrs Archer wants her son to explain to the van der Luydens that Ellen comes from a different society. Archer says that he is not responsible; the culprit, if any, is the Duke, who introduced Mrs Struthers to Ellen and took Ellen to her party. But Mrs Archer says that the Duke is a guest and a stranger, whereas Ellen is a New Yorker "and should have respected the feelings of New York."
Henry van der Luyden calls on the Archers. Henry talks appreciatively of Ellen's charm and artistic ability. But after hearing from Sillerton Jackson of her visit to Mrs Struthers, he has warned her about going to such parties.
Mr Letterblair, head of the law firm where Archer works, tells him that members of May's family, including Mrs Mingott, Lovell Mingott and Mr Welland, have asked for Archer's advice on Ellen's wish to divorce her husband. The family does not want the divorce, but Ellen is insisting on a legal opinion. Archer reluctantly agrees to look at the case. He compares Ellen unfavorably with May, who would never hawk about her problems in this way.
Archer reads letters between the Count and Ellen. In a fit of pity mixed with disgust, he agrees to see Ellen about the case. Archer has been conditioned to believe that men who have illicit love affairs are only foolish, whereas women who do so are criminal. But he now begins to question whether "complicated" European societies might produce less simple problems. Perhaps a woman might be drawn into such a situation through defenselessness and loneliness.
He writes to Ellen asking when they might discuss the divorce, but she replies that she is going to the van der Luyden's estate, Skuytercliff, but could see him that Sunday. Archer dines with Letterblair, who agrees with the family that a divorce is unacceptable. Archer feels that Ellen is justified in wanting a divorce, but Letterblair pressures him into using his influence against the idea, in order to avoid marrying into a family with a scandalous divorce hanging over it.
Archer says he would rather not give an opinion until he hears what Ellen has to say. He goes to the writers' and artists' quarter where she lives. Such people are unacceptable in New York society, though in other parts of the world they are feted. Archer knows most of them. One, the journalist Ned Winsett, is a friend.
Ellen's maid, Nastasia, opens the door. Archer is angry when he sees Julius Beaufort's coat in the hall. Ellen is talking to Beaufort and, flaunting the dinner dress convention, is wearing a red velvet robe trimmed with black fur. Beaufort says it is a pity she is going away as he intended to invite her to a musical evening.
Ellen dismisses Beaufort so that she can discuss business with Archer. She tells Archer that she is trying not to care so much about the arts, as part of her attempt to cast off her old life and become like everybody else. Turning to her divorce, she tells him that she wants to be free and feels that she is justified in this desire by Count Olenski's "abominable" behavior. But Archer warns her that if he contests the divorce, unpleasant things may be said about her which may harm her. She will gain nothing in return. She protests that her freedom is not "nothing." But he points out that the individual is, by custom, sacrificed to the collective interest. She unhappily agrees to do as he wishes.
The schism between Archer and May grows, as is shown by his impatience with her acceptance of the long engagement and her inability to think independently. The comparison between the unworldly May and the Kentucky cave-fish, whose eyes had ceased to develop because it had no use for them, says much about Wharton's attitude to society's expectations of women. They were expected to be ignorant of worldly things. Archer's fear that there will be nothing of value under May's innocence is expressed in this sinister image: "What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open [her eyes], they could only look out blankly at blankness?" (Chapter 10, p. 70) The extent to which Archer is changing in his attitudes is evident from the contrast between this image and his paternalistic delight in May's innocence in the first chapter.
Archer's musings reflect Wharton's own interest in feminist ideas. To what extent, she asks, can an individual, particularly a woman, carve out their own fate, and to what extent must they accept the fate that is approved by society? In Chapter 11, Wharton bitterly notes the double standards that apply in illicit love affairs: the man is seen, especially by other women, as merely foolish, the woman criminal.
A gulf is growing between Ellen and the New York society she hopes to join. Ellen, in an attempt to fit in, is trying to become just like everybody else by caring less about the arts, which New York society does not value. But the van der Luydens are upset that she has gone to a party held by the "common" Mrs Struthers, and Mrs Archer and Janey are upset because the van der Luydens are upset.
Archer's talk with Ellen about her divorce is a testing ground for where he stands in the conflict between the individual and society. Though privately he supports Ellen in her desire to be free, when he talks with her, he comes down firmly on the side of doing as society demands and not pursuing the divorce. His advice is to help seal his own and Ellen's fates.