The Age of Innocence: Novel Summary: Chapters 16-18
Archer arrives at St Augustine, impatient to bring forward the date of his marriage. Letterblair indulges Archer over his absence from work on the grounds that Archer dealt with the Olenski divorce to the satisfaction of the Welland-Mingott family. Mrs Welland thanks Archer for using his influence to dissuade Ellen from the divorce, and mentions that Ellen has unbounded admiration for him. Mrs Welland wonders what Ellen's fate will be. Archer thinks (though does not say) that it will be what they all contrive to make it: denied a divorce and the freedom to marry some decent man, she may be forced into becoming Beaufort's mistress.
Archer does not want May's innocence to be like her mother's - an innocence that "seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience" (Chapter 16, p. 123). Mrs Welland tells Archer that she refused to listen when Ellen tried to talk to her about her situation. Mr Welland grew so upset at the prospect of May learning "that such things were possible" that he became ill (Chapter 16, p. 124).
Archer presses May to allow their marriage to be brought forward. She wonders why it should be so important, and asks Archer if it is because he is not certain of continuing to care for her and because there is someone else. She wants them to talk frankly. He does not manage this, however, answering her question with another: if he felt their coming wedding was a mistake, why would he try to hasten it? May answers that he might want to settle the question by decisive action. She believes her rival is Mrs Rushworth. She tells Archer she does not want her happiness made out of a wrong to another. She believes that if two people love each other, there may be situations in which they should go against public opinion. She offers to give him up for this other woman.
Archer is awe-struck at having escaped confessing his feelings for Ellen, and by May's generosity. He does not admit to loving anyone else. He tells her he feels as she does on the pointlessness of conventionalities, and asks again if they can bring their marriage forward. May seems timorous, and Archer drops the subject.
Archer calls on Mrs Mingott, and tells her that May refused to hasten the marriage. Mrs Mingott thinks her family are "in a rut." She is thankful that she is "vulgar," and adds that the only one of her family who takes after her is Ellen. She asks Archer why he did not marry Ellen. He says she wasn't there to be married, and asks Mrs Mingott to use her influence to hasten his marriage to May.
Ellen arrives. Mrs Mingott tells Ellen that Archer rushed to St Augustine to try to bring his marriage forward. Ellen suggests to Mrs Mingott that they might persuade the Wellands to do as Archer wishes.
Archer visits Ellen at her home and meets there Ned Winsett and the bohemian Medora Manson. Also present is Dr Agathon Carver, founder of an alternative community called "The Valley of Love." Dr Carver leaves. Medora thanks Archer for his good advice to Ellen over the divorce. Count Olenski has petitioned Medora to persuade Ellen to take him back, on her terms. Medora stresses the material benefits of being married to the Count. She asks Archer to support her in convincing Ellen to return to her husband. Archer replies that he would rather see her dead.
Ellen enters and tells her maid to throw away the flowers that the Count has sent her, but then sends them instead to Ned Winsett's wife, who is ill.
Left alone with Ellen, Archer tells her that May wants a long engagement to give him time to give her up for another woman. Ellen is struck by May's nobility. Ellen suggests that he does not care for anyone else, but Archer corrects her: he does not mean to marry anyone else. She asks if the other woman loves him, but he denies that there is another woman. Ellen's carriage arrives to take her to Mrs Struthers'. Archer, wanting to keep Ellen with him, admits that May is right. There is another woman, though not the one May thinks. He tells Ellen he would have married her if it had been possible. Ellen points out that it is he who has made it impossible, by opposing her divorce; he showed her how selfish it would be, and that she must sacrifice herself to spare the family from scandal. For the sake of him and May and the family, she did as he asked. Archer sinks into despair as he realizes what he has done.
Ellen begins to cry. They kiss, and Archer comforts her, saying that nothing is done that cannot be undone. He is still free, and she could be. But Ellen says it is too late to alter their course, as he has taught her to hate "happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference" (Chapter 18, p. 146). She cannot love him unless she gives him up.
Ellen's maid comes in with a telegram. It is from May, telling Ellen that due to Mrs Mingott's intervention, May's parents have agreed to an earlier wedding. Archer laughs bitterly: his fate has been settled.
The damage wreaked by New York society's repressive mores is made clear in Archer's ironic comment that Ellen, denied a divorce and the freedom to marry a decent man, could be forced into becoming Beaufort's mistress. In a further irony, however, Wharton has him think this comment without speaking it out: to do so would render him socially unacceptable. With no one prepared to make waves, the smooth surface of New York society remains unbroken.
The unrealistic expectations placed on women by New York society are made clear by Archer's wish that May has innocence, but not like her mother's - "the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience" (Chapter 16, p. 123). Archer is more drawn to Ellen's greater experience and depth, but he draws back from embracing it fully.
That May understands more than Archer gives her credit for is revealed when she suspects that he wants to hasten their marriage because he is not certain of continuing to care for her. May, whom Archer deems as blind as a cave-fish, boldly challenges Archer to tell the truth. This is a perfect opportunity for him to admit his feelings for Ellen. But Archer fails to match her courage and does not admit to loving another. He is helped in his deception by her mistaken assumption that her rival is the married woman in Archer's past, Mrs Rushworth. Relieved at having escaped interrogation about Ellen, he claims that he feels as May does about the pointlessness of convention, while rapidly retreating into it. He asks May once more to bring forward the wedding.
Archer's subsequent attempt to back out of his marriage to May and be with Ellen comes too late. Ellen tells him that, in opposing her divorce, he has taught her to sacrifice her own wishes for the good of others. She cannot allow him to cause May and the family unhappiness in order to buy her own happiness. This turn of events is tragically ironic. Archer has denied his own views (that Ellen should be free) and dutifully parroted the family's view that she must not bring scandal on the family through divorce. He has taught Ellen to deny her own fulfillment and his.
During his visit to Ellen, his fate is sealed by May's telegram announcing the bringing forward of the wedding date. Archer responds with terrible ironic laughter. We shall see this response again, and in each case it comes at a time when fate delivers him a package which, by conforming to convention, he has enabled society to prepare for him.