The Age of Innocence: Novel Summary: Chapters 13-15

Chapters 13-15Summary
At the theatre, Archer is moved by an incident in the play. The leading man and lady sadly bid each other goodbye. The lady leans on the mantelpiece and buries her face in her hands. Unnoticed by her, her lover approaches and kisses the ribbon that hangs down her back before he leaves. She never knows this. Archer is reminded of his leave-taking from Ellen.
Archer thinks that Count Olenski is correct in believing that Ellen and the secretary were lovers. He understands that she may have been prompted to this by gratefulness to her rescuer, but he also knows that these same actions would, in the eyes of the world, make her no better than her husband.
The Welland-Mingott family is delighted that Archer has talked Ellen out of the divorce. Mrs Mingott believes it is better to be a married woman and a Countess than plain Ellen Mingott and an old maid.
In the theatre, Archer visits Ellen in the Beauforts box. Ellen asks Archer if the lover in the play will send his lady a bunch of yellow roses in the morning – a reference to his own gifts to her. Archer is embarrassed but pleased that she associates his gifts with the tender scene in the play. He admits that he was going to leave the theatre then so as to take the picture with him. She asks what he does when May is away (the Wellands have gone to St Augustine). He works, he says. She tells him that she thinks he was right about the divorce, and she is following his advice.
As he is leaving the theatre, Archer runs into his journalist friend, Ned Winsett. Ned noticed Ellen in Beauforts box and asks Archer who she is. She lives near Ned and rescued his son, who had fallen and cut himself. Ned is amazed that a Countess should live in his area, but Archer says she does not care where she lives, “or about any of our little social sign-posts” (Chapter 14, p. 104). Winsett too has only contempt for such things.
Winsett is not a journalist by choice; he is a literary man, but could not make money from it. He advises Archer to enter politics, to “roll up your sleeves and get right down into the muck,” in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable fate of his entire class – being “like the pictures on the walls of a deserted house” (Chapter 14, p. 106). But Archer believes that a gentleman could not go into politics.
Next morning, Archer looks in vain for yellow roses to send to Ellen, and is late for work. His absence makes no difference to anyone: though it is proper for wealthy young men to have a profession, they achieve very little. He worries that after he marries, he may not be able to pursue his real interests, European travel and talking to “clever people,” which even now are confined to the margins of his life.
From the office, he sends a message to Ellen asking if he might call that afternoon. On the third morning he gets a reply from her at Skuytercliff. She writes that she ran away to think things over and that she feels safe there. Archer had just refused an invitation from friends, the Chiverses, who live near Skuytercliff. Now, he sends them a telegram saying he will come after all.
Archer visits Skuytercliff from his base at the Chivers house, but Ellen is out at church with Mrs van der Luyden. He goes to meet the carriage and meets Ellen walking along the road. He tells her he came to see what she was running away from. She says it does not matter, now that he is here to protect her. He asks her what has happened. She takes him to the van der Luydens Patroons house, which Mr van der Luyden has opened up, to tell him in privacy. He again asks her what she is running from. She puts her hand into his but, before she can reply, Julius Beaufort arrives. Ellen is surprised to see him, but Archer draws away from Ellen and invites Beaufort in, telling him dryly that he is expected.
It becomes clear to Archer that Ellen did not know Beaufort was coming, and that she is annoyed by his presence. The narrator tells us that Ellen was running away from Beaufort: the question is whether she was running because his attentions displeased her, or whether she did not trust herself to resist them. Archer worries that she is drawn to Beaufort by his cosmopolitan background and his familiarity with artistic people.
Archer returns to New York, where he feels that he is being “buried alive under his future” (Chapter 16, p. 199). Several days later, he receives a note from Ellen asking him to visit her the next day, so that she can explain. But instead, he leaves to join the Wellands at St Augustine.
The leave-taking scene at the theatre, full of unspoken emotion, is to become highly symbolic to Archer, who feels that it represents his leave-taking from Ellen. The metaphor of performance expresses the fact that Archer and Ellen have had to pretend and not been true to their love.
Archer is given an opportunity to become closer to Ellen by responding to her invitation to continue the intimate discussion that was foiled at Skuytercliff. But instead, he goes to join May at St Augustine, choosing what is right over what he thinks he wants.
Archers loyalties are torn between his drive to individuality and his drive to conform to societys conventions. On one hand, he approves of Ellens leaving her husband, but he advises her to avoid the stigma of divorce. He intends to make a conventional marriage, but associates with bohemian types like Winsett.
Archers divided sense of self is shown too in his theoretical championing of womens freedom, which he finds difficult to put into practice. He jealously assumes that Beaufort and Ellen are having an affair. Under this apprehension, he speaks to her contemptuously. Evidently, he is allowed to continue his engagement to May while secretly loving Ellen, but she is not allowed similar freedom.
The futility of Archers life as his marriage looms is a strong theme of this section. His lateness at the office makes no difference to anybody; he is a lawyer only because it is expected that a gentleman will have an occupation. His interests lie in European travel and cultivating what his sister calls “clever people,” but he worries about what will happen when he marries: “what would become of the narrow margin of life in which his real experiences were lived?” (Chapter 14, p. 107)