Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world "balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper" (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society's smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.
Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska, after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society's most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora's box of "oddities" and "unpleasantness:" the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn't seen such façades even in her husband's household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that "[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend."
"The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!"
"Ah, good conversation – there's nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing."
"She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences."