Wharton is obsessed with matters of propriety and being fashionable. We can tell from the way that Newland Archer, Lawrence Lefferts and Mr. Silverton Jackson are introduced (all are extremely concerned with what is "moral" and "the thing") that Wharton will spend a lot of time in the novel discussing and even critiquing these concepts. It is also interesting to examine which words are capitalised. "Society", "Family", and "Taste" are capitalised because they are the pillars upon which the rather flimsy New York society is founded. First, Newland becomes enraptured with Ellen because she defies these grand conventions ­ yet this is the very thing that is supposed to make her unacceptable. For example, she explains that the Duke is very dull and Newland thinks it is "undeniably exciting" that she would know him well enough to make the claim and be uninhibited enough to express it. Also ironic is that Newland would claim that his relationship with May is just romantic when it is clear that they are together simply because they are the "perfect match" in terms of the family backgrounds and not because they had fallen in love on their own. It is also ironic that although May is incredibly beautiful, it is the touch of Ellen's fan that excites him like a caress. Also, it is the Duke who finds May the "most handsome woman in the room"; yet, he is incredibly dull. It makes us wonder if May is handsome only to "dull" people. Is Newland beginning to break from convention and take less interest in her?

This chapter is also brilliant in that Wharton clearly articulates some of the stranger codes of this society. Women should not, for example, leave a man's side and walk across a room unescorted to join the company of another man. Why are these codes important to this society? Are they stifling or liberating? Newland disregards propriety to allow for Ellen's freedom, or so he believes. There is a lot in this chapter that deals with facades and hidden intentions. The first question that we must ask is: why is Newland chosen to convince Ellen not to divorce? On first glance, it seems that he is chosen because family members think it is in his best interest to curtail any bad gossip in his fiancée's family. Hence, he should want to keep her from divorcing, out of a selfish desire to make his new marriage successful. However, there is another possible answer: perhaps members of May's family have noticed that Newland seems interested in Ellen and they want to force him to understand the mandates of propriety. So, they place him in the position where either he does the "right" thing, makes Ellen choose not to divorce or does the "wrong" thing, encourages Ellen to divorce so she can be free to remarry anyone. Perhaps society is using this predicament as a test of Newland's character.

New York

This is a book about the conventions of "Old New York", New York City in the 1870's: Wharton loves contrasting the old against the new. She begins these contrasts in the very first paragraph. Here, she describes the new Opera theatre that is going to be erected in the "remote" forties. We can assume that the forties have been built up since then and people reading her book in the 1920's (when it was published) would enjoy hearing about how New York has changed. Along these lines, there is also a description of the old people versus the "new people, whom NY was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to."

When Ellen is "judged" by the Leffertses, Mrs. Archer can appeal to a higher authority: the van der Luydens, who are indisputably of better reputation. This chapter gives a deep sense of the politics of the times. Also interesting is the description of the "immortal" nature of the van der Luydens. Mrs. van der Luyden is described as "looking exactly like her portrait". Like Catherine earlier, van der Luyden never ages. She seems "rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death." There are many reasons why Wharton chooses to describe her this way. Perhaps Wharton is trying to draw a dichotomy between the "mortals" and the immortals". The mortals are people like Ellen Olenska, Ned Winsett (whom we meet later) and regular common folk. These people are alive; they age and they are relatively left out of the scheme of the great New York Society. People who are "immortal" are the van der Luydens, the Mingotts, the Archers, the Wellands, and the Leffertses. These families are like the gods of the New York pantheon. In making clear this distinction, Wharton can play with the problem of categorising Newland. Is he a mortal or an immortal? Where does he fit in? Another reason why these great families may be described as "alive but dead" is that they are quietly losing power as time moves on. Wharton is clear in telling us

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