Mrs Archer and her son call on the van der Luydens to ask for their help in the case of the snubbing of Ellen. The Archers believe that the snubbing has been orchestrated by Lawrence Lefferts to divert attention from his own illicit affair.
The van der Luydens agree to support Ellen, who is a relative of theirs. Henry van der Luyden says that Mrs van der Luydens aristocratic relative, the Duke of St Austrey, is coming to visit next week. The van der Luydens will invite Ellen to join them and their other guests.
Chapter 8 tells us something of Ellens background. She was the pretty daughter of “continental wanderers,” and had traveled with them until she was orphaned. Thereafter she was brought up by her aunt, Medora Manson, another wanderer. Medora was repeatedly widowed and would return to New York to settle down, each time to a less expensive house, suggesting that her fortunes were diminishing. New York society considered her eccentric and tolerated her only for her family connections.
Ellen was taken to Italy by her aunt, Mrs Thorley Chivers, and became proficient in such barely respectable arts as Spanish dancing, drawing live models, and playing the piano with professional musicians. She later married a rich Polish count. A few years later, Medora again returned to New York, looking for a yet cheaper house. Soon, news arrived that Ellens marriage had ended disastrously and that she too was returning to New York.
Archer sees Ellen at the van der Luydens dinner for the Duke of St Austrey. The Duke, a shabbily dressed, unassuming man who nevertheless commands great respect by dint of his “credentials,” goes to sit next to Ellen and talks with her.
Later, Ellen rises and goes to sit next to Archer – a breach of the custom which requires a woman to sit immobile and converse with any man who decides to approach her. Ellen shocks Archer by calling the Duke dull and asking if Archers coming marriage was arranged. She is embarrassed by her mistake, which was prompted by her experience of Europe, and says she wants to forget her past and become a complete American again, like the Mingotts and Wellands.
May arrives, but Archer stays next to Ellen. Others who had refused to meet Ellen at Mrs Lovell Mingotts house now talk with her, including the Leffertses. Ellen invites Archer to visit her the next day, and he agrees.
The next day, Archer spends the day making more betrothal visits at the insistence of Mays mother. He had wanted also to bring forward the wedding, planned for the following autumn, but Mrs Welland had refused because of the preparations.
Archer calls on Ellen at her house, in a district of writers and artisans. He has not told May of this visit but excuses himself with the thought that he is obeying Mays request to be kind to her cousin. Ellen is out when he arrives, so he is invited by the foreign maid into the drawing-room. He has time to look around the room, which feels like an adventure to him. There are Italian paintings the like of which he has never seen, and an exotic fragrance.
Archer contrasts Ellens house with the house that Mr Welland has his eye on for the newly-weds, newly built of a ghastly greenish-yellow stone. Archer would like to travel, but though the Wellands approve of an extended honeymoon in Europe, the couple will be expected to return to this house. He expects that May will decorate it in the pretentious style of her parents house. He feels as if “his fate was sealed”(Chapter 9, p. 61).
Ellen arrives in Julius Beauforts carriage. Beaufort had taken her to see some other houses, since the one she is living in is not in a fashionable street. Ellen first says that she wants to make her own fashions, but then contradicts herself by saying she has lived too independently, and now wants to do what everyone else does, to feel cared for and safe.
Ellen asks Archer to help her understand the things she needs to know to survive socially. She says she counts him and Beaufort as her interpreters. Archer hates being linked with Beaufort.
Archer tells Ellen to stay close to the older society women, as they wish to help her. Ellen replies that they wish to help as long as they dont hear anything unpleasant, and says, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” She bursts into tears. Archer comforts her.
The Duke of St Austrey arrives with a friend, Mrs Struthers, who, being seen as common, was not invited to the van der Luydens but who wants to meet Ellen. Neither Ellen nor the Duke realize what a liberty he is taking in bringing the lady uninvited. Mrs Struthers invites Ellen and (as she assumes) her “young man,” Archer, to hear a famous pianist play at her house the next day. Ellen accepts. Archer leaves, and buys May the box of lilies-of-the-valley that he sends her daily. When he goes to the flower shop, he sees some bright yellow roses. He sends the roses to Ellen, without any indication of who they are from.
The hypocrisy of New York society is emphasized by the eagerness of the Leffertses and other families who had declined to meet Ellen at Mrs Lovell Mingotts, to pay their respects to her now that she has been welcomed by the powerful van der Luydens.
Wharton throws an ironic light on the books title, as Archer, paraded about by Mrs Welland on endless betrothal visits, feels he is being “shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped” (Chapter 9, p. 58). There is nothing innocent about this carefully contrived process.
Ellens house, shabby yet beautiful, full of exotic foreign paintings and fragrances, is contrasted with the house that Mr Welland plans for Archer and May – emphasizing the difference between the two women. It is newly-built of a ghastly greenish-yellow stone with a Pompeian-style vestibule. Archer imagines that May will decorate it like her parents house, a thought which makes him feel “that his fate was sealed” (Chapter 9, p. 61) – again, an image of being trapped.
Ellens comment that being in New York is like “being taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all ones lessons” (Chapter 9, p. 63) reveals the conventional nature of society. In contrast to this conformity is set Ellens careless disregard for convention. Ellens upbringing, with its flaunting of convention, foreshadows her unconventional adulthood. Her life with the Count is viewed as disappearing into “a kind of sulphurous apotheosis” (Chapter 8, p. 51) – sulphur, of course, being the gas of hell. Ellens childhood propensity for asking disconcerting questions has not deserted her: she asks Archer directly if he loves May and whether the marriage was arranged.
Archers increasing fascination with Ellen is betrayed by his forgetting to send May his usual box of lilies-of-the-valley. On impulse, he sends golden yellow roses to Ellen. The two different flowers, the one white, pure and chaste, the other rich, strong and fiery, symbolize the gulf between the two women, the different feelings they inspire in Archer, and the choice facing him.