The Age of Innocence Synopsis

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An Old Gentleman of the 1920s introduces New York City and describes the rigid expectations of high society as he looks back on the social conventions of the 1870s.  At the Academy of Music, Mrs. Manson Mingott, an older woman, sits in a box with female family members.  Young men in another box, including Larry Lefferts, Sillerton Jackson, and Thorley, notice Countess Olenska—Mrs. Mingott’s granddaughter, known familiarly as Ellen—with the womenLefferts explains that Countess Olenska left her family in New York City to marry a Count in Europe, then ran away with the Count’s secretary.  According to Lefferts, the relationship did not last and Lovell Mingott, Ellen’s aunt, brought her scandal-drenched niece home.  Newland Archer, a bright young man of New York’s elite, interrupts the gossiping and stands up for the women.  The Old Gentleman explains that he himself is Newland, and in this moment he was distressed by his companion’s talk because of his as-yet-unannounced engagement to May Welland, Mrs. Mingott’s other granddaughter and Countess Olenska’s cousin.

Newland visits the ladies’ box, imploring May to announce their engagement at an upcoming ball hosted by Julius Beaufort so their family unity can be known.  May introduces Newland and Ellen, since the two have not seen each other since they were children. 

The night of the ball arrives and Newland declares his engagement to May.  When visiting Mrs. Mingott to tell her personally of the engagement, May, Newland, and May’s mother Mrs. Welland are surprised by Ellen entering the house with Julius Beaufort.  Ellen congratulates Newland on his engagement as May, Mrs. Welland and Newland leave.

At Mrs. Mingott’s home, Mrs. Welland and Mrs. Mingott discuss how all the invitations to a dinner they had planned for Ellen were declined.  Mrs. Welland insists they must ask Newland for assistance.  He enlists the help of his mother Mrs. Archer, to convince Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden, her cousins and social influencers, to turn a dinner party they are hosting into an exclusive event intended to repair Ellen’s reputation.  At the dinner party, Ellen boldly approaches Newland, shocking him both by her assertiveness in conversation and by speaking openly about her marital issues.

On a subsequent morning, Newland arrives late for work at the Law Office of Letterblain, Lamson, and Low.  He apologizes and explains that his daily custom of ordering lilies-of-the-valley for his fiancé took longer than usual that morning. Newland is assigned to the Countess’s divorce case. Her family, opposed to her divorcing the Count, has asked specifically for Newland to represent her so that the particulars of the case stay within the family.  Newland goes to Ellen’s home to talk her out of filing for a divorce due to the social disaster it would create, and touches and comforts her in the process. Ellen sadly agrees to stay married.  She plays Newland “Beautiful Dreamer,” a new song from a salon that she and Julius Beaufort attend together, to defuse the tension.  Ellen insists that Newland sing with her, and she gives him the sheet music to “Beautiful Dreamer” as a gift.

Newland later walks to the florist to order lilies for May. Impulsively, he also decides to send yellow roses without a note to Ellen.  May intercepts Newland exiting the shop and he updates her on his discouragement of Ellen’s divorce, and ponders aloud about her cousin’s elusive character.  Newland then urgently declares to May that he wants to get married sooner.  May dismisses his idea because she and her parents leave for St. Augustine in a week, and she voices her hope that he will watch over Ellen while they are away; the sole idea causes Newland worry.

When attending the Academy of Music alone, Newland is approached by Ellen who references the anonymously sent yellow roses, which she holds in her hand.  Julius Beaufort interrupts their conversation to take Ellen home, leaving Lefferts the opportunity to say snide comments about Ellen’s new living arrangements in an unfashionable neighborhood he deems a slum.  Newland reacts angrily, asserting her social independence much to the surprise of Lefferts.  A week later, Newland enters the florist shop again, this time to send yellow roses to Ellen only, which he justifies by telling the florist that May is away.  He includes a note with the roses indicating to Ellen that he must see her.  His note goes unanswered, until a few days later when, while at home, Newland receives letters from both May and Ellen; the letter from Ellen distracts him and explains that she has gone away to the country with his cousins the van der Luydens.  Newland rushes to visit Ellen and expresses his growing feelings for her.  They are close to kissing when Julius Beaufort appears. Newland jealously presumes that she’s solicited other men to visit her and angrily leaves.

Newland next goes to May in St. Augustine and asks her again to move up the wedding.  May startles Newland by accusing him of being in love with another woman but much to Newland’s relief, it is not Ellen that May suspects.  May offers him a chance to leave her if he is in love with someone else, which he declines. Newland decides to convince Mrs. Mingott to support his desire for an earlier marriage to her granddaughter.  At Mrs. Mingott’s house, Newland learns that the Count is attempting to court Ellen anew and Newland tells Ellen that May knows his heart belongs to another woman.  Newland confesses to Ellen that he loves her but that he also implored May to move up the wedding - a suggestion May refused based on suspicion of his loyalty to her.  A telegram then arrives from May; Ellen reads that Mrs. Mingott has successfully convinced May’s parents to move up the wedding.

May and Newland marry, but Newland immediately emotionally disconnects from May on their honeymoon in Europe.  After having dinner in Paris with Monsieur Riviere, a French tutor who lives for more than his career, Newland finds himself inspired by Riviere’s free spirit and lifestyle. May, failing to understand his experience, dismisses the Frenchman as common.

Time passes. One day, Ellen sees Newland on the street in New York, but decides not to go to him.  Newland then sees Ellen from afar, which surprises him because she now lives in Washington D.C. In that moment, he resolves to wait for her to look at him, interpreting it as a personal sign for them to be together.  She does not look his way.

Later, sitting together at their house, Newland persuades May to sing the song Ellen gave him.  She is so uncomfortable she stops.  He finishes singing by himself, further estranging them.  Accordingly, Newland decides he must see Ellen before she returns to Washington D.C. He waits for her outside of Mrs. Mingott’s house, where she is staying, and follows her to Central Park.  They sit together and talk.  Ellen shares that she’s refused the Count again and says she wants a life with Newland, but only as distant friends.  Ellen leaves Newland unsatisfied with the outcome of their conversation.  He resolves he must travel to Washington D.C. to see Ellen again, telling May work requires his travel.

At the law firm before departing, Newland learns that Julius Beaufort’s firm had to close its doors that morning, due to massive business failure.  A clerk brings Newland a note from May that Mrs. Mingott has suffered a small stroke.  Newland rushes to May at her grandmother’s side to learn that Mrs. Mingott’s stroke was brought on by Regina Beaufort, Julius’ wife, petitioning for money to stop the dishonorable closure of the Beaufort bank. The request so upset Mrs. Mingott that she had a stroke upon Regina’s departure.  Mrs. Mingott requests that Ellen be contacted to return from Washington D.C.  May points out to Newland that he will miss Ellen’s visit because of his work in Washington D.C.  Newland later tells May he no longer needs to go to Washington D.C., which she characterizes as “awfully convenient.”

Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.