The Age of Innocence: Novel Summary: Chapters 4-6
Archer and May begin their round of betrothal visits by calling on May's family matriarch, Catherine Manson Mingott, at her home. Mrs Mingott cannot go upstairs because of her obesity, and has arranged her sitting room on the ground floor, with her bedroom in full view of guests. This shockingly recalls "scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies. ." It amuses Archer to think of "her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery" (Chapter 4, p. 24).
To everyone's relief, Ellen Olenska is not present when the betrothed couple arrive. Mrs Mingott gives the couple her blessing and asks when the wedding will be. Mrs Welland offers a show of reluctance to hurry it. Ellen enters with Julius Beaufort. Archer tells her about the engagement, which she already knows of. As she bids him goodbye, she asks him to come and visit her.
After the Wellands leave, they discuss the occasion, taking care not to mention Ellen. But Archer knows that Mrs Welland disapproves of Ellen's being seen out walking with Beaufort, and also feels that Ellen should know that a recently engaged man does not call on married women. He is glad that he is to marry "one of his own kind."
Archer's mother, Mrs Archer, is shy but likes to know what is going on in society, so she invites the expert, Sillerton Jackson, to dinner. The unspoken implication is that she wants to know about Ellen. Archer is at the dinner, as is his sister Janey.
Eventually, after pretending to be interested in other topics of conversation, Mrs Archer asks Sillerton if Ellen was at the Beauforts' ball, and Sillerton replies that she was not. They discuss her in patronizing terms, Mrs Archer remarking that little can be expected of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball (presumably, a more demure color and fabric would be more fitting).
During the discussion about Ellen that follows, Archer defends her actions against the disapproving company. He defends her right to be conspicuous if she wishes, applauds the secretary for helping her escape from her husband, and hopes that she gets a divorce (divorce was an unusual and stigmatizing action at this time).
After dinner, Archer and Sillerton retire to the library. Sillerton tells Archer that the secretary did not merely help Ellen, but was living with her a year later in Lausanne, Switzerland. Archer is embarrassed but continues to stand up for Ellen, defending her right to make her life anew with whoever she pleases, especially since her husband preferred to live with harlots. "Women ought to be free - as free as we are," he says, condemning the double standard prevalent at the time that allowed men, but not women, to seek fulfillment outside a failed marriage. Sillerton comments that Count Olenski evidently agrees with Archer, since he has not tried to get his wife back.
Archer reflects on the case of the unconventional Ellen and his approaching marriage to the traditional May, "that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything." Now that his settled convictions have been shaken up by Ellen's story, May seems like a stranger, and marriage no longer a "safe anchorage" but "a voyage on uncharted seas" (Chapter 6, p. 36).
The author undermines Archer's championing of the freedom of women by commenting that, from his point of view, " 'Nice' women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore - in the heat of argument - the more ready to concede it to them." (Chapter 6, p. 37)
However, it is clear that Archer is questioning the convention whereby out of decency, men were expected to conceal their past from their wives-to-be, and women were not allowed to have any past at all: what could he and May really know of each other? He worries that his marriage might become what most other marriages around him were: "a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on one side and hypocrisy on the other." (Chapter 6, p. 37) An example is Lawrence Lefferts, whose well-trained wife averts her gaze indignantly when someone mentions Julius Beaufort's maintaining a mistress and yet turns a blind eye to her husband's love affairs.
Archer is also questioning the value of May's innocence, which he now views as oppressive, a creation "manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted." (Chapter 6, p. 39). His doubts have been prompted by the case of Ellen.
Mrs Lovell Mingott sends out invitations "To meet the Countess Olenska." However, everyone refuses, except the Beauforts and Sillerton Jackson. Ellen has been snubbed. Archer is outraged. Mrs Archer intervenes by going to see Louisa van der Luyden, whose family, descended from Dutch aristocracy, stands at the head of New York society. She says that she is doing this for May's sake and for the sake of society (not, it seems, for Ellen's sake, who seems the one most in need of help).
Because of Mrs Mingott's powerful place in New York society and her blameless life, she is able to transgress some of the forms of correctness, such as having her bedroom in full view of guests. She feels a kinship with Julius Beaufort, since both possess an ability to take "short-cuts through the conventions" (Chapter 4, p. 26)
Ellen shocks Archer with her ignorance or carelessness of convention in inviting him to call on her, a married woman. He prides himself on his cosmopolitan views, but is glad that he is allying himself to "one of his own kind," May Welland.
Mrs Archer and her daughter know all about Julius Beaufort's shady history, but they avoid talking about it openly. The Beauforts are, however, accepted and even courted because the scandal is not in public view, illustrating the extreme hypocrisy of fashionable society. Nevertheless, Mrs Archer, born into 'old money' and 'good family', believes Beaufort to be vulgar.
The theme of hypocrisy, in the sense of hiding one's true thoughts and feelings under a system of codes, continues in the narrator's comment on Mrs Archer and her son: ". it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts" (Chapter 5, p. 32).
We see a new and refreshing side of Archer when this young man, who has thus far appeared rather conventional, condemns the double standard prevalent in society at the time that allowed men, but not women, the freedom to seek fulfillment outside a failed marriage. However, the narrator points out dryly that he has not thought through the implications of his progressive view, perhaps with regard to his own traditional marriage. The author goes on to undermine Archer's championing of women's freedom as "humbugging disguise" (Chapter 6, p. 37), as, from his point of view, 'nice' women would not claim the kind of freedom he meant, and thus generous-minded men like himself were the more ready to concede it to them.
But Ellen's case has stirred up his old settled convictions, so that marriage seems less like a "safe anchorage" than "a voyage on uncharted seas," and May, the traditional girl who "knew nothing and expected everything," now seems disconcertingly like a stranger.
The narrator uses Archer's reflection on the falseness of most marriages to make an observation on the hypocrisy of New York society that could stand as emblematic of The Age of Innocence: "In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." (Chapter 6, p. 38). An example is Mrs Archer's pretence of reluctance at bringing forward the announcement of the engagement, when, in fact, she is eager to see the marriage happen soon.
Archer's new vision of May's innocence as a product carefully manufactured by relatives casts an ironic light on the novel's title. Through Archer, Wharton seems to ask, what is the value of the 'innocence' that girls aspire to and which men are supposed to want in a wife? Wharton's own answer, given through Archer's point of view, seems clear: "He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood." (Chapter 6, p. 39).