For a considerable stretch of the book I thought it was merely about the conflict between passion and duty; but the dilemma is manifold – Ellen (and arts, and running away, and Paris, and good conversation, and progressive circles) represents reality as defined by the call of personal freedom, and May (and the family, and society, and the old order, and the simple lines between acceptable and unacceptable) represents reality as defined by the need for belonging to a civilisation, to a society bound together by common rules and values.
It’s only in the last chapter, which serves as an epilogue, that I understood the primary focus of the book was change, and evolution, and how both realities are real and can slip and slide from primary to secondary place in one’s life. There’s a tangible feeling that this is a book backed by considerable life experience and wisdom. Despite its decidedly binary setup it draws nothing in black and white – Ellen’s conspicuous defiance of the collective break with Regina Beaufort is presented as both scandalous and compassionate; May’s resolute sticking with the ways of her mother’s generation is seen as both narrow-minded and dignified, her whole personality is described as honorable and unimaginative at the same time. And there’s equal measure of sober criticism aimed at both entrenched social order and the hypocrisy that goes with it (in the face of the Lawrence Leffertses of the world, that dictator of good form who breaks the basic code of masculine honour in plain sight) and for selfish break from the „old“ values such as family and honour to pursue personal happiness by betraying those who trust in you (seen in Ellen’s clear reproach of this impulse in Archer).
I don’t know what to make of Archer’s refusal to see Ellen again. Perhaps he wants to keep that part of his life forever in the colours of the past and not risk seeing it under the altered light of the new lives and new selves they both have put on them by 30 years apart. Or perhaps he knows chose his reality 30 years previously and shut the door to the other – even when all other doors have been removed, the one of his choice remains.
The theme of evolution is very interesting: it left me with the idea that Wharton had mixed feelings about social change. On the one hand, the new generation is freer in their communication, social life and pursuits, not bound to a predestined path by virtue of their origins, as Archer and his peers were (as evidenced by his son’s ease with conversation, freedom to choose a profession and his marriage to one of Beaufort’s bastards to unanimous approval); on the other, the preoccupation of forging their own destiny leaves them with less time to know each other and be able to understand and pity each other, as May did her husband without having to hear or utter a single word on the matter.