The Age of Innocence: Novel Summary: Chapters 19-21

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Chapters 19-21

Summary
Under the eyes of New York society, Archer marries May in a kind of daze, while thinking of Ellen. Mrs Manson Mingott is unable to attend, being too large to fit into the church. Her family are relieved, since they find her appearance embarrassing. Also absent is Ellen, who has gone to Washington with Medora. Ellen has written to May saying that neither of them is well enough to make the journey. Medora, however, does turn up.
Since her moment of awareness in St Augustine, when she offered to give Archer up, May has regressed to her previous state of inexpressiveness, and Archer finds himself looking at her as a stranger might.
Archer and May leave for their honeymoon. Mr van der Luyden arranges for them to stay at the Patroon's house, where Archer and Ellen had a poignant encounter. Then the couple travel to Europe. May worries that she is expected to visit the Archer family's foreign acquaintances. Such is New York society's fear of Europeans that people like May travel abroad in a state of isolation. Though travel is a particular interest of Archer's, May sees it only as an opportunity for pursuing her love of sports. Archer has given up on the idea of emancipating his wife, "who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free." But he admires her devotion, loyalty, and fineness of feeling for him. He plans to sustain his artistic and intellectual life outside the domestic circle.
In London, Archer and May visit two old friends of Mrs Archer's. They introduce him to a Frenchman who acts as the family's tutor, called M. Riviere. Archer and the cultured Riviere get along well. Though as poor as Ned Winsett, Riviere has lived a rich life, surrounded by literary geniuses and men of ideas. Riviere gave up journalism because it compromised his independence, and has worked as a private secretary and tutor. He asks Archer if there might be a job for him in America, but Archer feels that in that country, his gifts would hinder his success.
Archer tells May that he would like to invite Riviere to dinner, but she only laughs and dismisses the tutor as common. Archer fears that this is how disagreements between them will be solved in future.
Archer and May have settled into the newly built greenish-yellow house with the Pompeian vestibule, which he had despised. He has, however, arranged his library to his own taste, to the disapproval of the family. Archer wants to take May on holiday to a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine, but the Wellands always go to Newport, so that is where he ends up going.
Married life for Archer has settled into a predictable routine. He has trained himself to view the "momentary madness" of his encounter with Ellen on the eve of his marriage as the last of a series of discarded amorous experiments. But his mind feels like an empty and echoing place.
At the Beauforts' party in Newport, which hosts the annual archery competition, rumors are circulating about Beaufort. He has been seen with Fanny Ring, a woman of dubious repute (a prostitute or professional mistress, though this is not stated). He is also reported to be in financial trouble.
Archer watches the archery competition, which May wins. Beaufort says contemptuously, "that's the only kind of target she'll ever hit." He is sneering at May's "niceness." Though Archer thinks this observation from a coarse man is proof of her quality, he worries: "What if 'niceness' carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?" (Chapter 21, p. 180). He has never lifted that curtain.
Archer and May call on Mrs Mingott on their way home from the party. Mrs Mingott reveals that Ellen is staying with her, though she has gone for a walk to the seashore. Mrs Mingott asks Archer to go and fetch her. Ellen now lives in Washington, and has proved a great attraction in Washington society.
Archer walks to the shore and sees Ellen in the summer-house. The sight of her is like a dream; his reality now is the Wellands' world. He remembers the scene in the play, of the lover kissing the lady's ribbon without her knowing. He makes a bargain with himself: if she doesn't turn and look at him before the sail of a passing boat crosses a rock, he will go back without speaking to her. He waits, but she does not turn. He goes back to the house alone.
May muses that perhaps Ellen does not care any more for her former friends. She spends much time with the Blenkers, whom May believes to be "queer people." She wonders if she wouldn't be happier with her husband. Archer is shocked by her cruel remark, and asks how anyone could be happier in hell.
Back in his home, Archer feels a reversal of mood: where seeing Ellen had seemed like a dream, now that scene on the shore feels as real as the blood in his veins. It is the Welland atmosphere, with its minute observances, that affects his system like a narcotic. His life there seems unreal and irrelevant.
Analysis
Archer likens his wedding to the first night at the opera, another example of the performance metaphor that recurs in the novel. The effect is to draw attention to the unreality of the event: Archer, after all, loves another. The marriage between Archer and May, like most society marriages, is characterized by a mixture of mystery, fear, and awe, which in turn is sustained by things unacknowledged or unsaid. He has no idea what, if anything, lies behind the theatre curtain of May's "niceness."
May's dismissal of the French tutor Riviere, whom Archer finds fascinating, as common, bodes ill for their marriage. Archer will have to keep what he considers his real life - his literary, artistic and travel interests - separate from his life with her. There is pathos in Archer's only visible victory in self-expression thus far in his marriage - his arrangement of his library to his own taste. Even this has earned disapproval from his family.

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