American Identity in The Age of Innocence: A European Affair

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton attempts to recapture the essence of Old New York, a moment in late 19th century American history when social interaction was dictated by rigid standards of propriety and style. As Wharton explores this milieu through her protagonist Newland Archer and the conventional and transgressive characters in his life, the issue of American identity becomes a prominent theme in the novel. Although staunchly committed to the society they have built and the customs they consider devastatingly important, the New Yorkers constantly compare America to the continent from which their ancestors came. Their views of the place, ranging from interest in Europe’s alluring, dramatic reputation to disapproval of its lax moral codes, actively reflect and inform their beliefs about American society. It is as if the Americans only know their own country through its relationship to Europe. While Wharton explores this issue of national identity in her novel, director Martin Scorsese, in his 1993 film adaptation of the tale, is less concerned with America’s quest for an independent understanding of itself. Where the novel is able to examine theoretical and abstract issues like how 19th century American social identity is understood through its relationship to Europe, Scorsese’s film loses this dimension of the story, choosing to focus on the effect of the strict American society on Newland’s relationships. In Wharton’s novel, the geographical setting of America’s Old New York is equally important as the temporal setting of the late 19th century. During this period, a mere hundred years from the end of English rule over the colonies, American identity struggled to emerge as a unique entity. The country seemed inextricably tied to its relationship with Europe, feeling compelled to compare its society and customs to the paragon of Western civilization across the Atlantic. Throughout the novel, this sentiment is seen as Wharton’s New Yorkers define their nation in its relation to the Old Country, judging their own practices, fashions, values and ideas in comparison to those prevailing in Europe. Wharton introduces the pattern of assessing value based on European standards in the second sentence of the novel. She captures the spirit of competition between the continents through talks of a new opera house being built in New York that “should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals…” (3). From the start, Wharton illustrates America’s sense of competition with Europe, its desire to achieve and assert legitimacy in the shadow of the Old World. Wharton develops this feeling of inferiority and comparison through her characters’ diction as they describe Europe and America. Throughout the novel, the theoretical conflict between the supposed “brilliant” European society versus the admittedly “dull” American one becomes a recurring motif. While Archer is increasingly disillusioned by the rigid conventions of his homeland, his sister Janey defends her country. She says: “You mean, I suppose, that society here is not as brilliant? You’re right, I daresay; but we belong here, and people should respect our ways when they come among us. Ellen Olenska especially: she came back to get away from the kind of life people lead in brilliant societies” (71). Here Janey acknowledges the allure of Europe over America but ultimately demands respect for her country, casting it as a welcomed alternative to the dubious European lifestyle. Like Janey, most New Yorkers concede that Europe is the more brilliant society, but all the same, make clear their preference for the entrenched American way of life. There seems to be a definite American inferiority complex that Wharton conveys, a need for the Americans to justify their way of life and dismiss Europe’s customs, especially when they encroach into respectable American circles. Ellen Olenska’s very appearance in New York, along with her various social indiscretions, brings the discussion of continental differences to the forefront. New York society considers Ellen’s abandoning her husband and attending English Sunday parties in the city scandalous and unacceptable behavior. Mr. van der Luyden, august arbiter of New York society, attributes Ellen’s behavior to continental differences. He implies that Europe’s grand aristocracy has no need for such strict social rules and that “…it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves about our little republican distinctions” (73). In this statement van der Luyden intimates that the essential difference between the continents is in their social and political structures. Europe has titled nobles and royalty to maintain its social hierarchy; people are secure in their positions and can therefore seek pleasures as they see fit (van der Luyden uses the Duke as an example). Because America is a republic and positions are not inherited through bloodline, van der Luyden implies that the democratic nation needs highly-structured social decorum, or their “little republican distinctions,” to maintain propriety, to justify their perceived social stature. Still, at other points in the novel, the New Yorkers see Europe as a place of great fancy and mystery. Instead of disapproving of the lax morals and rules of Europe, the characters show interest and wonder for the Old Country. The unconventional layout of Mrs. Mingott’s house, for example, recalls fictional scenes from “wicked old societies” where illicit French lovers have their affairs (23). Newland’s romantic daydreams of his honeymoon with May take place on the banks of Italian lakes and in other “scene[s] of old European witchery” (6). While the New Yorkers often allude to Europe as a land rich with drama and fantasy, in doing so they create an alienating distance between the two continents, relegating Europe to the exotic and unknowable position of “the other.” Not only does Europe function as an actual standard that American society can measure itself against, it also functions as a fantasy, a vague place where imagined drama and intrigue play out. In this understanding, Europeans are not so much the human equals of Americans, as they are figures that represent everything that America is not. Newland adopts this line of thinking when he reflects on his time abroad after college. Although he spent his time there with “a band of queer Europeanised Americans” and not true European people, his reaction to their differences is still quite telling (161). Newland recalls “dancing all night with titled ladies in palaces, and gambling half the day with the rakes and dandies of the fashionable club; but it had all seemed to him, though the greatest fun in the world, as unreal as a carnival” (161). Here, Newland’s time in Europe is portrayed almost as a dream full of decadent activities that he would wholly abstain from in America. He admits that his European travel companions “…were too different from the people Archer had grown up among, too much like expensive and rather malodorous hot-house exotics, to detain his imagination long” (161). This is an extreme example of how Wharton’s Americans exoticize the differences between themselves and their European counterparts. In telling the story of the struggles of American identity, the novel as an artistic form has certain advantages. The modes of communication that are available to the novel lend themselves more easily to exploring abstract ideas such as national identity. In the novel, character reflection and detailed descriptions in scene help express the idea of Europeans as “the other.” It is much more difficult to accomplish this in film and it seems that Scorsese is ultimately not as concerned with exploring the theoretical identity of America. The diverging interests of film and novel are apparent in how each deals with May and Newland’s European honeymoon. In Wharton’s tale, the honeymoon chapter is full of Newland’s reflections on how Americans travel in solitude in Europe and do not dare to truly interact with the people or environment. The author continues to illustrate how distinct European and American societies are through Newland’s detailed conversation with the French tutor, Monsieur Riviere. The American takes a liking to the Frenchman’s ideals of “critical independence” and “moral freedom.” The fact that this man chose the life of a poor tutor in order “not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation” impresses Newland deeply (164). He also acknowledges, however, that a man of such liberal and forward thinking notions could never succeed, never even have a place in the hyper conventional society of his Old New York. This exchange is largely glossed over in Scorsese’s film. The dinner scene where Newland and Riviere converse in the novel is portrayed through a few montage shots—their conversation does not take place on camera—while the narrator summarizes the events of the evening. May, however, delivers some carefully crafted lines about which fashionable sights they were able to see in London. After dinner, Newland and May have an on-screen conversation in their carriage where Newland expresses his approval of the Frenchman and wants to ask him to dine with them. May rejects this suggestion, saying the tutor was very “common.” Without the novel’s exchange between Newland and Riviere, the issue of American and European differences is never addressed on the honeymoon. Rather, the crux of the trip is the increasing distance and incompatibility of the newlyweds. The marital conflict that the film highlights is a perfectly legitimate and worthy one. With different modes of expression available to him in the medium of film, Scorsese chooses to concentrate on the more concrete relationship between Newland and May as opposed to the abstract one between America and Europe.When considered generally, Scorsese’s cinematic adaptation of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is faithful in its adherence to the novel’s plot and most central themes. The film explores how the rigidity of New York society shapes the increasingly artificial relationship between Newland and May and deters the passion between Newland and Ellen from ever being fully realized or allowed. However, as Scorsese’s treatment of the story focuses on large, concrete conflicts, it leaves behind some of the more philosophical issues that the novel is committed to examining. Wharton’s original text deals with the important yet subtle question of American identity in the late 19th century, marked simultaneously by a desire to compete with, to achieve the grandeur of Europe and to distance itself from the Old Country through an elaborate social system. Though Scorsese seems uninterested and the medium of film ill equipped to address this issue, Wharton’s novel is predicated on this moment in history when American society grappled with its national identity and the complex part that Europe played in its formation.

Conformity in Disguise in Age of Innocence

“Ah, don’t say that. If you knew how I hate to be different!” (Wharton 69). Ellen Olenska in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is, to Newland Archer, the perfect example of an exciting rebel to the mores of society in the New York aristocracy. He is intrigued by her mysterious past in Europe and all the scandal she brought back to New York with her. Newland’s wife, May Archer, is what he considers the total opposite of Ellen Olenska. May is sweet and innocent, and she makes no attempt to hide the fact the she wishes to be very much a product of that society. Newland’s actions and thoughts around the two women make them appear very different, but Newland’s own feelings are not always concurrent with the ladies true actions, but rather with what he wants them to be to him. When Ellen’s behaviors, attitudes, and motives are analyzed alongside May’s, it becomes apparent that Ellen’s life would much more closely resemble May’s were she accepted by the upper-class New York society of the 1870s.The first instance where one can see a tendency towards conforming to society on Ellen’s part is the way both women respond to the subject of Ellen’s divorce. When Newland goes to see Ellen to talk her out of the divorce on the request of his family, Ellen mentions her married life and husband in a “tone that seemed almost to sigh over the lost delights of her married life,” which questions the firmness of her conviction to the divorce. Newland, perhaps, has an overly exaggerated view of the horrid conditions of Ellen’s life with her husband, as he is assuming a great deal (68-69). She says she wants “to cast off all [her] old life, to become just like everybody else [there]” (68). In this it is made obvious that Ellen wishes to be free of the stigma attached to her and simply fit in to the aristocratic society of New York. Ellen’s reaction to Newland’s warning about her husband spreading rumors publicly that could hurt her is indicative that she may not realize the scandal that will come with it – not that she does not care about it (70). She may be so eager to go through with the divorce because she believes it will enable her to fit in better with New York society, due to the fact that she will be free of her old, scandalous life. Ellen finally agrees to drop the divorce; she does not like it, but she realizes now the way that society would look at her decision, and she wants to be accepted. The fact that she does not like all the rules of that society does not imply that she is denouncing them and living independently in her own mysterious and defiant way, as Newland sees her, because she is still complying with them in further attempt to fit in (72). In the same way that Ellen’s primary concern is the avoidance of scandal, May also shares that goal. May agrees with her mother and her family that Newland must talk Ellen out of it as his duty to his future family. May’s opinions on this subject are made clear as she and Newland drive home from Catherine’s after the archery contest. May asserts that she would have liked to see Ellen, but then she might not have after all because she seems now “so indifferent to her friends, I mean; giving up New York and her house, and spending all her time with such queer people.” May remarks, “After all, I wonder if she wouldn’t be happier with her husband.” Then, when Archer comments about her statement’s cruelty, she replies, “It’s a pity she ever married abroad then” (132-133). So, in the end, both women’s utmost wish is to avoid scandal, which is very much in compliance with the societal mores of the New York they live in.Another similarity between the young women in Newland Archer’s life is their knowledge of and reaction to the language of flowers. When Ellen receives Beaufort’s bouquet, she quickly becomes very angry. In this, she acknowledges her understanding of the meaning of flowers, proclaiming, “who is ridiculous enough to send me a bouquet? Why a bouquet? And why tonight of all nights? I am not going to a ball; I am not a girl engaged to be married” (101). This scene is evidence of Ellen’s extensive knowledge of flowers, as was a necessity for a young girl in the New York aristocracy in that time (342). In the same way, May is extremely well versed in the language of flowers. The lilies Archer gives May every day signify “purity,” “future happiness,” and “sweetness” (Campbell). Both women realize the significance of flowers in that society, and they are not only very cognizant of the different messages portrayed by flowers, but also are deeply affected by these messages.Perhaps the most effective way to observe the women is in their actions around Newland, especially when they stray from the personality that Newland sees them as having. For Ellen, this would be in the carriage, when she shows an unsettling coldness to him based on her past experiences. It can be seen when Newland tells Ellen about his meeting M. Riviere that the reason Archer feels Ellen is so “unconventional” is because of the way he acts around her, not because of the way she herself actually acts. When Newland tells her of this happening and then asks if it was Riviere who helped Ellen “get away” from her husband, her response of simply “Yes: I owe him a great debt” is said in a tone that is “so natural, so almost indifferent” (173). She said this in the undetached and low-emotion way in which the New York aristocracy in the 1870s liked to deal with such unpleasantness. The statement’s effect on Newland, however, is that: “Once more she had managed, by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly conventional just when he thought he was flinging convention to the winds” (173). This is most likely only due, however, to his newfound realization of the society he has been adhering to all his life – with Ellen as good a vessel for the scandal to awaken this reality to him as anyone else would be. Similarly, as she is discovering her husband’s affair, May handles discussions of such situations with that same indifferent and unaffected tone. As Newland sees May’s pain, he comments that if she were to voice them than he could have “laughed them away,” but that instead she has been “trained to conceal imaginary wounds under a Spartan smile” (176). This is proof that, for the ladies of the New York aristocracy in the 1870s, it was proper to handle such difficult issues in the same “natural” and “indifferent” manner that the seemingly unconventional Ellen dealt with the discussion of the affair. In another example of this, when the couple is in May’s carriage as Archer is about to pick up Ellen from her train, May presses him about the lie he has told concerning his going to Washington, and he grows annoyed that she is “trying to pretend that she had not detected him.” Newland is flustered when she questions farther than he thought she would, and he “[blushes] for her unwonted lapse from all the traditional delicacies” (170). In this it is made apparent that their society believed it improper for a wife to make it too obvious she had caught her husband in a lie, or to press too hard for details about his life, even if she does know he is having and affair (170).In another moment during Archer and Ellen’s ride in May’s carriage, Ellen is revealed to be a woman of great experience and a mysterious past, though her view of scandal is shown to much resemble that of an aristocrat in New York in the 1870s – like May. Unlike the excitement that Newland associates this with, however, Ellen reveals a great deal of pain in her life, telling Archer that she has “had to look at the Gorgon,” and that “she [has dried] up [Ellen’s] tears” (173). Ellen is more mature than the typical young female product of the New York aristocracy – simply because she has experienced more trials in her life – but that fact is not stopping her from attempting to become one. Ellen does not wish to transform into an honest picture of what a young girl in that society should be and abandon those desires, but rather her intention is to not get caught doing unpleasant things. She does not wish to end the affair, but rather to be “near [Newland] only when [they] stay far from each other” (175). If Ellen truly cared about her family as much as she claims to over the course of this affair, she would not prolong it as she does. In this it is obvious that, no matter how noble she is trying to make herself appear, in reality she is selfish because she wants to be accepted into the society of New York. Also, Ellen knows that if she and Archer were to fall into a “hole-and-corner love affair” (174), she would have no hope of ever being truly accepted into society. She is already surrounded by too much scandal, and she knows that hurting “the people who trust [her]” (175) in this way would destroy any close connection with that aristocracy, and in turn her only hope to become a part of it. May shares Ellen’s opinion of scandal, and it is clear that both women’s chief aim is to avoid it at all costs. Rather than disrupting her world and family by bringing Newland’s affair to light, May simply works behind the scenes to make sure Ellen leaves, and then continues on with her life with Newland. Her plan is made fully clear near the end of the book when Archer’s son tells him his wife’s words: “She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted” (214).In May’s scheme to have Ellen leave and to hold on to her husband, another opportunity for comparison between the two women is presented. Also, when Ellen and Newland agree to consummate their affair. These are both pivotal points in the ladies’ relationships to Newland. Upon May’s return from her “long” and “really good” talk with Ellen, she is “breathless,” “flushed,” and “sparkling with unwonted animation” (188-89) – characteristics not of an unthinking mold of society, but rather of an intensely animated and independently thinking person. This demonstrates how one can be a passionate person and have their own thoughts but still desire to be a legitimate member of the upper class New York aristocracy. This reminds one of Wharton’s own life, as she was a dedicated member of that same society, but she was also an opinionated free thinker. Though Wharton lived her life by most standards of her society, she also had her own ideas and desires. For example, she believed that think layers of “window garniture…[symbolized] the superimposed layers of under-garments worn by the ladies of the period” (236). So, when Wharton had a house of her own, she refused to have them on her windows. Still, Wharton believed that her society, though it had some nonsensical rules, was of important value in that it upheld the important standards of “education”, “good manners,” and “scrupulous probity in business and private affairs” (249). Therefore, the fact that Ellen showed a bit of passion and independent thought occasionally was not evidence of her rejection of any desire to be included in that society.When May informs Newland that Ellen is going back to Paris, it is made obvious that she knows more than she pretends to about the effect this will have on her husband by her “fugitive flush” (194). It is mentioned repeatedly that she is keeping the hardened outer shell always required by a proper lady in the aristocratic New York society in the 1870s. When at last she tells Newland about the pregnancy, and it is then discovered that she had lied to Ellen by telling her the pregnancy was certain when it was not, it is seen that she is truly in love with Newland. She wants him to be with her even if she was not pregnant, and she is willing to forgive his past mistakes just to move on in wedded bliss. In this, another blend of both Ellen and May’s prominent personality traits is portrayed in the fact that May’s first motive was to keep her husband with her. If she had not been pregnant, she still wanted him to stay with her for the fact that a divorce would be unspeakable in her family, but also because it was truly her selfish desire to be with the man she loved, no matter what he had done. Ellen likewise had to balance her feelings for Newland with an obvious desire to conform to the mores of the aristocratic society. At the Art Museum, she admits she had come to New York in part because she was “afraid….of [Newland’s] coming to Washington” (186), and she believed she would “hurt other’s less” coming to New York. Shortly thereafter, when Newland exclaims he thinks that plan is, “a thousand times worse,” she reveals her true selfish confession that she agrees with him. Ellen had been enhancing any guilt she felt for betraying her family in this love affair to make it appear to be her sole noble reason for ending their relationship. Ellen knew what Wharton also was aware of in her own life, that “in those simple days it was always a case of ‘the woman tempted me’” (250). Therefore Ellen knew it would be she who would incur the most blame were the affair found out.When May’s plot to end her husband’s affair with her cousin begins to become apparent, Newland is stymied by her deception. She may, however, have felt justified in doing it because she had given him a chance before they got married to be with someone else if he loved another more. Then he had insisted there was no one else and that he was simply eager to marry her, but now she has discovered that there is indeed another woman. Obviously divorce is out of the question in May’s mind, so she feels she is doing the best thing she can for everyone involved at this point. Like May, Ellen’s selfish intentions are discovered when she admits that she agreed to stay with Catherine not primarily for the sake of her sick Granny. Rather, she confesses she believed it would keep her “safer from doing irreparable harm,” then adds, “Don’t let us be like all the others!” After a short protest about hurting those around her, she offers this solution: “Shall I – once come to you; and then go home?” (187). Again, selfishness is showcased, mixed with desire to comply with societal mores, but, again, it is seen that the view of the time was that one could lie and do as they wished, as long as it was not made public.In the end, May’s plan is successful and Ellen returns to Paris, though not to her husband. May and Archer continue their life together, having three children and living an exemplary life in their society. They never talk about the affair, though Archer thinks of Ellen constantly. May dies when Archer is 57, and their entire life together held no deepening of love or understanding of each other. This, unfortunately, was very common in that society, and many couples lost out on what could have been a wonderful relationship because their primary concern was to be approved of by society. After May’s death, Newland travels to Paris with his son, and when faced with the opportunity to meet Ellen, merely walks away. In this it is difficult to see how Newland could have ever truly loved Ellen if, after all these years of supposedly pining away for her, he refuses to see her. Perhaps Newland Archer’s life was wasted ignoring his wife in mourning for a woman who was nothing more than a reminder of the shortcomings of the world in which he lived.

Conflict Between the Individual and Society as Depicted in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

One of the main themes that is recurrent throughout Edith Wharton’s work The Age of Innocence is the ongoing struggle between the individual and society. This is an issue that Wharton was quite concerned with in the novel, and it is reflected in the characters in the book. The story is a window into the era in which she wrote, and we can see that the situations and dilemmas faced by the main characters are largely centered around this conflict. Any attempt to understand the conflicts in the novel in the context of the larger society in which they transpire must begin with a consideration of the main characters and their motivations. May Welland Archer is a product of the social code and hierarchy in which she was raised. We can see that her choices and actions are often based upon what she thinks that other people will think. Throughout the course of the novel she gradually morphs into a near mirror image of her mother. She becomes increasingly controlling of those around her, particularly Newland. Her trickery with regards to the pregnancy ruse speaks to how far she has come in attaining and maintaining control. Ultimately, while she cannot offer Newland what he seeks in a relationship, she ironically represents what can be said to be the prototypical ideal of the model wife of the period.In a manner similar to May, Newland also seeks to keep in line with the social graces and expectations of the era. Despite the fact that he has inclinations to seek out other women, Countess Ellen Olenska really represents a dream that can never be, as Newland will never follow through with an action that runs counter to social convention. While he feels the heavy burden of duty and responsibility that society bears upon him, he cannot seem to throw this weight from his shoulders. It is also unclear if he really wants to do so. This is something that May uses to her benefit in dealing with and controlling Newland. She knows deep down that she can utilize Newland’s personal need to keep within social expectations to further her controlling grip over his life and their relationship. While he feels the longing for another life or at least fulfilling his desires with Ellen, his overriding need to keep to his duty and social responsibility preclude this from being a viable option. Countess Ellen Olenska represents all that is different from the structured and stratified society that the other characters find themselves in. She comes from Europe and brings with her an unconventional style that symbolizes a sort of freedom that seems quite elusive to many of the other characters such as Newland Archer. Unlike many characters, she seems to act with far less deference to what others may deem correct or acceptable behavior. We can see the conflict between what the characters wish for and what they must settle for in response to societal expectations. Newland Archer wishes desperately to be with Ellen, yet society will simply not abide by such an eventuality. When Newland finally decides to travel after Ellen to Europe, May reveals that she is pregnant, quashing his dreams and effectively sealing his fate. Ultimately, he cannot gather the necessary will to defy the mores of his society. Similarly, Ellen harbors wishes and desires of her own as well. She wants to divorce her husband and be free to experience her own life, but Archer persuades her that she will hurt her family and be looked down upon by society. Her family even calls on her to go back to the husband who treated her poorly in order to uphold societal expectations and protect appearances. They even cut off her allowance in an attempt to reign her in when she refuses to give in to their demands. After giving her best effort at remaking herself to fit into New York society, she realizes it is not to be and returns to Europe. Yet, she does not return to her husband as might be expected. Her final loss is realized when May announces to her that she is pregnant with child. Societal expectations dictate that a man absolutely must stay with is pregnant wife. It is wholly unacceptable for him to do anything less in light of the overriding societal pressures of the day, and both May and Ellen know this. Ironically, it is Newland who stresses to Ellen the importance of denying her own desires and wishes to be with him for other considerations such as societal expectations and the impact upon those around them. It must be noted that Newland does not believe that this is necessarily the best course of action, but perhaps it is really the only option available to them. She clearly puts great weight in his words as she feels it is a nobler and more unselfish way of living than she has experienced in the past. Newland feels that “it was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammeled bachelorhood had dallied… Whatever happened, he knew she would always be loyal, gallant, and unresentful; and that pledged him to the practice of the same virtues” (Wharton, p.196-97). As the novel progresses it becomes clear that there love can never be. Ellen states that she knows there is really nowhere for them to go to be happy together as they will never succeed in truly freeing themselves from the constraints of society. “‘I want – I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that – categories like that – won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.'”She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. ‘Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there? . . . I know so many who’ve tried to find it (Wharton, 230)Another theme that runs throughout the novel and is closely tied to the notion of the conflict between society and the individual is that of appearance vs. reality. Many of the novel’s characters are actually more concerned with what people think about them and how they are perceived by others than in experiencing personal happiness. Ellen sees through much of this façade upon her visit to New York. She sees the hypocrisy inherent in the people around her and even informs Newland that the people just refuse to or do not want to acknowledge it. This conflict or disparity between how things appear and how they actually are in reality permeates the novel. It can be seen in the way that women are expected to overlook their husband’s affairs (so long as they are discreet for appearance sake), and in the fact that all of society turns out for the Beaufort Ball despite the fact that he is talked about poorly behind his back. This also is seen in the elaborate send-off given to Ellen, despite the undercurrent of hostility just beneath the surface. This party to say goodbye is also a societal expectation that has more to do with appearances than reality. “There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe” (Wharton p. 285)It is telling that the characters have something of a love/hate relationship with the structured society in which they live. In fact, Wharton herself uses the novel to critique the social code, while still not really branding it as absent of value. While she acknowledges that there are certainly issues with the way things were, the moral code of society is not without a certain measure of importance. This is because it is through these social mores and norms that society is able to pass down traditional values and cultural history. In truth, her work is an examination of the inherent tensions present in the conflict between personal happiness on the one hand and societal pressures and expectations on the other. The main characters of the novel try to find a middle ground but ultimately conclude that their society is filled with absolutes and they ultimately resign themselves to the way things are.

Why Newland Walks Away

It has been said that the true power of beauty is felt most deeply by those who have caught but a glimpse of its potential; those able to see its ethereal quality without demanding more. Perhaps, some have said, the fragility of aesthetic beauty can be stronger in human imagination than in reality. Between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence, there is a passion beyond the descriptive capacity of words; it is an exquisite relationship that seems incapable of existence in the realm of mere mortals – a connection of two souls. Unfortunately, these souls dwell in bodies bound to the earthly realm, and therefore must abide by societal rules. The theme of impossible love will be explored in the four stages of the relational evolution between Newland and Ellen: the initial spark that results from the conflict between Newland’s idealistic naivete and the reality of 17th century New York society embodied in the character of Ellen, the implications of its passionate yet non-consummated nature, its fundamental reliance on sacrifice, and finally, the destiny of the relationship to stay in the ideal realm, never to be truly realized. In keeping with her realistic style of writing, Edith Wharton creates a sympathetic yet conflicted individual in the character of Newland Archer. While he desperately desires to break free from the prescribed manners of New York society, it remains impractical for a true separation to occur; it is the infeasibility of a relationship between himself and Ellen that embodies the reality of this conflict. While he proclaims ideas ahead of his time regarding the status of women, the immense influence of his society remains. The perceived absurdity of his views at the time he speaks them condemn him to a lifestyle of feigned complacency. In a society where laws and customs radically differ, Ellen’s marital separation is a disgrace. Newland’s attempt to defend her lack of overt shame attests to his good-natured idealism: “[w]hy shouldn’t she be conspicuous if she chooses? Why should she slink about as if it were she who had disgraced herself?” (28). Newland goes further in verbalizing his opinion about the rights of women by saying, “women ought to be free—as free as we are” (30). Yet at the same time as he expresses these generous opinions, he also realizes their relatively safe nature: “‘nice’ women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them” (31). Therefore, at the same time as he can genuinely state these beliefs, he can subconsciously feel reassured by society that his open-mindedness won’t actually be called upon. It is this assumption of the inapplicability of his views that is questioned with the introduction of Ellen. While on the one hand Newland embraces modern ideas, on the other, the strength of the society in which he lives is an inescapable reality. Newland contemplates the double standard that New York has regarding relationships between men and women, and finds himself dissatisfied. While chastity (and later monogamy) is unquestionably a fundamental necessity in women, philandering in men is treated with little more than a slap on the wrist. Sexual relations then take on a degree of bias, with men being “foolish and incalculable,” while women are “ensnaring and unscrupulous” (26). Later, Newland reflects more on this topic and the reaction, especially of the older women in society to it. While he is repulsed by the unfairness of the situation, he is also drawn to its appeal in the case of his own affair with Mrs. Rushworth: “[w]hen the fact dawned on him, it nearly broke is heart, but now it seemed the redeeming factor of the case” (68). This particularly pertains to Ellen; she is living proof that his intellectualizations about the freedom of women are impracticable in the context of New York society. If she were a man, the social consequences would undoubtedly be more favorable. Though Newland believes himself an advocate for progressive ideas, Ellen challenges the strength of his convictions. The result is that she invigorates him; Newland is both attracted to and apprehensive about her untraditional style. The arrangement of her little house perplexes him at the same time as it appeals to him. He admits that he is unfamiliar with the paintings, yet he is drawn to their novelty: “[b]ut these pictures bewildered him; for they were like nothing that he was accustomed to look at (and therefore able to see) when he traveled in Italy; and perhaps, also, his powers of observation were impaired by the oddness of finding himself in this strange empty house” (49). He is mystified by Ellen’s unconventionality and has a newfound sense of adventure where there had previously been disdain at the opera. He is as strongly drawn to Ellen’s uniqueness as society dictates that he should be wary of it: “[t]he atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure” (50). The more Newland immerses himself in Ellen’s company, the more alluring he finds her vibrancy and vitality. He comments on his own traditionalism in light of her nonconformity: “he was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself into conditions incredibly different from any that he knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty” (73). She provokes his sense of adventure and stimulates his obstinacy against the closed-minded rigidity of society; in essence, she challenges him in a way he has never before been challenged. This provocation arouses a passion in him that never completely subsides. Ellen’s very essence challenges Newland’s own beliefs and fuels his desire and appreciation for her. Newland comments on his own bafflement regarding his attraction to her, and realizes that within herself, Ellen has a “mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience” (81). Her sense of raw humanity enthralls him; she embodies what society condemns. When he is with her he feels refreshed by her sense of immediacy: “Archer, through all his deeper feelings, tasted the pleasurable excitement of being in a world where action followed on emotion with…Olympian speed” (116). In speaking with Newland in the cabin, she once again captivates him with her sincerity: “I’m improvident: I live in the moment when I’m happy” (94). Ellen’s vibrancy and originality inspire Newland to reach beyond his own limitations; he comments on the unconscious effect she has in enabling him to see his own conventionality: “she had managed, by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly conventional just when he thought he was flinging convention to the winds” (201). Throughout the novel Ellen is characterized by her non-adherence to accepted social norms. She does not spitefully violate them; instead, she ignorantly and non-concernedly breaks them. Ellen’s violation of social nuances brings into question the strength of Newland’s modern views; it is the nature of this type of challenge that charges his passion for her. The effort required to develop his theoretical ideas invigorates him and incites strong feelings for her. The connection that Ellen and Newland share is more than mere physical attraction; it is an incommunicable connection of souls. Newland’s concern that their relationship will deteriorate into little more than the quality of Lawrence Lefferts’ love affairs is unfounded; Newland and Ellen share a devotion that transcends mere physicality. In fact, despite the distinctly sensual aura that distinguishes Ellen, their love remains unconsummated. There is little doubt as to the sexual tension that exist between Newland and Ellen; he comments on her physical appeal several times: “[e]verything about her shimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress had been woven out of candle beams; and she carried her head high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomful of rivals” (115). He is drawn to more than her appearance, however; he values her soul. For example, he contemplates the depth of her eyes: “[i]t frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes” (44). The non-sexual nature of their romance is referred to several times throughout the novel. Newland is aware of this aspect of their relationship: “Archer was conscious of a curious indifference to her bodily presence…He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied” (170). This non-physicality is so strong that Newland in fact reproaches himself for his inability to recall her exact appearance: “he saw Madame Olenska’s pale and surprised face close at hand, and had again the mortified sensation of having forgotten what she looked like” (198). During his last visit with Ellen, Newland finds her pallid and unappealing, yet he comments on the intensity of his love for her especially at that moment: “her face looked lustress and almost ugly, and he had never loved it as he did at that minute” (234). Paradoxically, it is the transcendental quality of their love that demands its own sacrifice. Unlike a passing fling, the depth of feeling shared between Newland and Ellen extends beyond that which is felt by most people in a single lifetime. However, the ideal nature of their romance is fundamentally based on sacrifice. From the initial acknowledgement of their mutual feelings, it is understood that the relationship is forbidden. As a prominent member of society, it would be unfathomable for Newland to break his engagement and pursue Ellen, the separated cousin of his fiancé. Yet the customs that enforce their public self-denial only serve to ignite their internal desire. Rather than act on their individual impulses, they sacrifice their own happiness to the collective. Though Newland speaks of being permanently together only several times, Ellen reminds him that the integrity of the relationship demands its surrender. From the time of Newland’s unwitting contribution to their perpetual separation, when he advises Ellen against divorce, the love between them remains on the plane of sacrifice. Because they honor those who care about them by forsaking their individual desires, their love is of a nobler quality than those who wildly abandon themselves to each other. They express their love precisely by giving each other up. In fact, Ellen repeats this conviction to Newland in the midst of her turmoil: “I can’t love you unless I give you up” (122). This theme of sacrifice is fundamental to the core of their spiritual intimacy. Not a conversation is had between the two lovers without the underlying theme of the necessity of denial. Archer speaks of individual rights and Ellen reminds him “what an ugly word that is” (123). Ellen’s resolve to honor her New York family is repeatedly demonstrated throughout the novel. During Archer’s engagement, his determination weakens and he says he will not marry May; Ellen gently says “[y]ou say that because it’s the easiest thing to say at this moment—not because it’s true” (121). Ellen painfully yet beautifully alludes to Archer that the relationship itself is built on sacrifice: But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands—and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before—and it’s better than anything I’ve known. (122)Perhaps the romance is so aesthetically beautiful precisely because of the impossibility of its fulfillment. The idea of two souls keeping themselves apart for the sake of an ideal that they do not even subscribe to is more than admirable; yet this is precisely what Newland and Ellen do for the sake of their family’s reputation. The reader can feel the depth of emotion behind the painful conversations between Newland and Ellen; but somehow, because of the honorable nature of their love, it is possible to see beauty intermingled with the pain. Archer, in a moment of frustration, tells Ellen “[y]ou gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It’s beyond human enduring” (170). Newland, a moment later, realizes that the enduring must continue because they are “chained to their separate destinies” (170). Abandonment, denial and sacrifice are the core tenets of this relationship. It is a relationship that exists in the realm of ideals, but is painfully bound to the plane of reality and therefore entails sacrifice. It is in tribute to the memory of this ideal that Newland walks away from Ellen’s window at the end of the novel. For Newland, the salience of memory is stronger than the pull of reality. For over two decades he enshrines her memory within himself; she has therefore become more significant for him in his internal world than in reality. The forbidden relationship was built upon the precept of sacrifice; the passing of May does not change this foundation. It is ironic that he imagines, during the early years of his marriage, that if May died he would be at liberty to pursue Ellen: “[h]e simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free” (207). As shocking as this sentiment may seem, it is important to remember that he thinks this not out of maliciousness, but rather out of desperation. He later realizes, however, that it is not external circumstances that keep Ellen and himself apart; instead, denial is the very premise of the relationship that they shared. He understands that seeing her after twenty-six years would break the magic of what they once had; a relationship marked by self-denial in the face of unwavering passion. Ellen undoubtedly was the woman who Newland would have “chucked everything for” (250); his refusal to see her is not the result of diminished love, but rather of waning vitality. Newland feels himself beyond the age of such emotional intensity: “[b]ut I’m only fifty-seven—and then he turned away. For such summer dreams it was too late; but surely not for a quiet harvest of friendship, of comradeship, in the blessed hush of her nearness” (251). He contemplates the power of their past relationship and cannot reconcile it with the docility that it would now be negated to. As a young man, he yielded his fervor to the traditional role of a respectable husband; after two decades functioning in that position, he is no longer the man he once was. Abruptly being reminded of the Countess forces him “to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime” (250). Newland realizes that he is unable to bring the same zealousness to the relationship that it deserves; it is in honor of that memory that he walks away. Though his son does not understand the significance of Newland’s instruction to repeat to Ellen that he is “old-fashioned” (253), the reader does. The audience has witnessed the power of the sacrificed relationship and understands Newland when he says, sitting outside her window, “[i]t’s more real to me here than if I went up” (254). Though not tragic by definition, there is a sense of sadness in the concluding lines of The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer’s life attests to the constraints that press themselves upon those who glimpse into the realm of the ideal. Though the relationship he has shared with Ellen is marked by anything but apathy, his reaction to the possibility of seeing her after twenty-six years is void of vibrancy: “Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel” (254). It is precisely because of the intense passion that they once shared that Newland chooses not to pursue her. He realizes that there is a splendor and intensity in memory that cannot be transferred to the reality that he now lives in. Ellen challenged him in his days of youth, they shared a bond beyond the physical, they forsook their own passions in the name of sacrifice, and now, in tribute to that relationship, he decides not to degrade it by dragging it into the plane of physical existence. Newland values its pure beauty and leaves it on the plane of the unrealizable in honor of its transcendence. Works CitedWharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Time Blurred: The Juxtaposition of Past and Future in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence

The past permeates the lives of New York Society as portrayed by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. Society appears to be an inherently conservative institution with extreme attention to ritual and tradition, evidenced by our introduction at the beginning of the novel to one character who can explain even the most intricate of Society family trees, and another who is the authority on “form” (7–9). Thus it appears that members of Society are conscious, if not explicitly so, of the past through their every ritual and tradition. Newland Archer, through his Harvard education in anthropology, continually makes references to pre-historic ritual with respect to Society: most notable are during his wedding (153pp) and engagement (59). The motif of the furs and feathers worn by the women and the use of words such as “clan” in the narration reinforces this focus on the past by comparing the current society to an ancient one. The future is also explicitly discussed: as an author of a historical novel, Wharton dangles her knowledge of Society’s futures before them; often, characters will discuss technological innovations that they’ve heard speculation about.This continual reference to time provokes the question of how these characters relate to the future and the distant past. Objects from the past and speculation about the future do play a large role in conversations: elements of the past are sprinkled throughout the narrative through metaphor and word choice, while speculation about the future occurs in a few conversations. While the past seems to have a larger presence, and different role from the future, there are two occasions when speculation about the future is present in the same scene as a significant presence of the past: in the Patroon’s house at Skuytercliff and at the Museum. The juxtaposition of past and future in these scenes raises the question of how a transition from discussion of the past to that of a future affects the mood of the scene.The first passage of interest occurs when Archer visits Ellen at Skuytercliff, the estate of the van der Luydens. Archer meets Ellen in the road, and they walk together to a stone house on the property which had been built in 1612 by the first Patroon (footnote – A patroon was a proprietor of an estate granted by the Dutch government). There they begin an emotional conversation, but are interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Julius Beaufort; to deflect tension, Ellen uses a remark of Beaufort’s begins a conversation about the prospect of the telephone.The setting of this scene establishes a sense of rusticness not present in New York Society; although separated from the era of the Patroon’s house by two and a half centuries, the change in attitude conveyed by the van der Luyden’s house as compared with this house may as well span millenia. The squat stone house has four rooms grouped around a central fireplace in which there is a bed of still-warm embers under an iron pot held by a crane (111, 113–4). This is much in contrast with the van der Luyden’s house: People had always been told that the house at Skuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had never been to Italy believed it; so did some who had. . . . It was a large square wooden structure, with tongued and grooved walls painted pale green and white, a Corinthian portico, and fluted pilasters between the windows. From the high ground on which it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustrades and urns descended in the steel-engraving style to a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhung by rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, the famous weedless lawns studded with “specimenâ€? trees (each of a different variety) rolled away to long ranges of grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments; and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stone house which the first Patroon had built on the land granted him in 1612. (110–111)The contrast between a house built to suit its environment and a house built in spite of its environment is quite clear. The house at Skuytercliff is built to appear as if it is an Italian villa in a natural environment, but it has borrowed elements of other architectures, and elements of nature within it are tamed within its bounds. The ground descending from the house is terraced as in Italy, but this terracing, normally used with agricultural land to prevent erosion, is unnecessary: these terraces are lined with urns and balusters, and no greenery is mentioned in connection with them. Below, a lake is retained by an edge of asphalt, yet is irregularly shaped, which raises the question of whether it is a natural part of the environment, or whether it, too, has been unnaturally created to set-off the rare trees at its edge. Additional rare trees (“one of each [specimen]â€?) are planted at regular intervals, “studdingâ€? the “famous weedless lawn,â€? the van der Luydens’ lawn a velvetine display case for their tree collection. By its presentation as a “foreignâ€? villa, as well as the words used to describe it (e.g., the lawn being “famousâ€?), this house was clearly built to be on display. Even a weedless lawn — planting acres of land with a single inedible plant and maintaining it in that state — is in sharp contrast with the aesthetic of the Patroon’s house; the cast-iron lawn ornaments ironically combine the mundane functionality of cast-iron with the notion of decorating this pseudo-natural setting.Contrasting this house with that of the Patroon highlights the roles of each with respect to its environment. The Patroon’s house was clearly built for functionality. Its central chimney, shutters, and stone walls conserve heat, while the presence of a cast iron pot and crane with which to lift the pot reinforces the age of the house. The only ornaments in the house are shiny “brassesâ€? (footnote – “brassesâ€? probably refers to brass utensils) and Delft plates, both functional but decorative.The setting in an antique house proves to be a place where Ellen is comfortable; May later speaks of Ellen’s feelings about the house, saying, “it’s the only house she’s seen in America that she could imagine being perfectly happy inâ€? (162). The house proves to be a beneficial environment to Archer as well:He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits. . . rose with an irrational leap. The homely little house stood there, its panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically created to receive them. (113–114)The house is described in the same sentence as “homelyâ€? and having been “magically created.â€? These ideas seem at first to contradict eachother: magically conjured houses are generally conceived of as magnificent and exotic, and more like that of the van der Luydens than a small stone cottage. However, both Ellen and Archer seem to view the cottage as an escape: Ellen notes, “we shan’t be missed at the house for another hour,â€? (113) giving something of a furtive note to their encounter; Archer appears disappointed that they will only have an hour together. Archer and Ellen both clearly seem to have an affinity for the old simplicity of this house, which allows them escape. (Footnote – Obviously, there are additional questions about which aspects of the house were comforting for them, and from what they preferred to escape; unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered through textual analysis of individual passages, if at all, due to lack of information.)A revelation of the source of Ellen’s worry seems imminent when Julius Beaufort is seen coming up the path. Both men are surprised to see the other. Beaufort explains that he had come to notify Ellen of a house which would be perfect for her:“If only this new dodge for talking along a wire had been a little bit nearer perfection I might have told you all this from town, and been toasting my toes before the club fire at this minute, instead of tramping after you through the snow,â€? he grumbled, disguising a real irritation under the pretence of it; and at this opening Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other from street to street, or even — incredible dream! — from one town to another. This struck from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne, and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the most intelligent when they are talking against time, and dealing with a new invention in which it would seem ingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of the telephone carried them safely back to the big house.â€? (115–116) Leaving aside the irony that Beaufort causes Ellen to leave the house which she has already decided is perfect for her in order to discuss a house he feels is perfect for her, we can note the transition from a focus on the past to a focus on the future, which is used to distract them from the present tension of Beaufort’s visit. A discussion about the future is a device of transition between the Patroon’s and the van der Luydens’ houses. In this discussion, Ellen seems to hold the most significant role: she raises a topic of conversation to prevent discomfort, and is referred to as “Madame Olenskaâ€? in the narration, while Beaufort and Archer are only implicitly mentioned.The attitudes of the characters towards the future seems to hold excessive speculation as fantasy. The insertion of the exclamation “incredible dream!â€? within Ellen’s unquoted remark that perhaps telephones will reach between towns seems surprisingly unbelieving about the prospect. The phrase itself offers a mix of connotation. Although it is used as a meaningless exclamation or superlative modifier, “incredibleâ€? generally refers to something which cannot be believed. Using this word to modify “dreamâ€? seems to imply that even ideation of inter-town telephones cannot be believed, i.e., the concept itself is unbelievable. This remark seems to be fairly extreme, then, in its expression of incredulity, and so might be read as adding some sarcasm to Ellen’s expression of enthusiasm, given Wharton’s and the reader’s stance fifty years hence. Referring to this as a “fantasticâ€? possibility reinforces their incredulity, especially considering that In its original sense, “fantasticâ€? meant a product of dreaming, rather than the meaningless exclamation that it tends to be in current parlance.The description of such a conversation as “talking against timeâ€? can be read in a few ways. If we parallel this phrase with “a race against time,â€? it can be taken to imply an opposition or competition between the discussants and time itself in which the latter is at a great advantage; in this case, it would be a valiant battle to force time to divulge its secrets. A reading which holds time to be monolithic, but not necessarily animate, might take “against timeâ€? to imply that their talking pushed against time as if it were a wall. Such talking might be regarded as a force, possibly moving the wall of time forward; however, that the wall of time moves slightly anyway might only provide an illusion of such motion. Regardless, “talking against timeâ€? might refer to an intense effort to push against the wall of time with one’s words.The diction here implies that the characters are discussing unbelievable prospects, and are engaged in an intense quest to learn the truth. The seriousness of the diction plays off the implication within the same sentence that the characters might not actually discuss the prospect of the telephone, but instead resort to banal remarks that they’d use about any innovation, lest they seem so gullible as to believe in such a thing. In other words, it seems that regardless of what sort of innovation these characters were discussing, the conversation would have been the same, with each character afraid to venture a belief in the possibility of the new technology. The existence of a generic conversation with the respect to the future is likely to have been part of a reader’s experience over fifty years after this scene; thus, describing such a conversation does add to the irony implicit in a discussion of the future that both the reader and Wharton know. There is already the dramatic irony, because the readers are given the advantage of at least 50 years on the characters; in addition, irony is present in the fact that people still seem to react to the future in the same way.One possible explanation for the juxtaposition of past and future is that it demonstrates the lack of the present within the scene. The present intrudes very little upon this scene, as it moves from the past within the Patroon’s house to the future, on the walk back to the van der Luydens’ house. Note, in addition, that Ellen has been the controlling character, in determining that the past and future will be the foci of the scene: she led Archer to the Patroon’s house, and leads the conversation to the future.Escape from the present also features in a conversation between Archer and Ellen in the Museum where the presence of the past causes them to consider their role in time. Archer asks Ellen to meet somewhere they “can be aloneâ€? to discuss his feelings for her, in the Metropolitan Museum (262). Avoiding a more popular main gallery,they had wandered down a passage to the room where the “Cesnola antiquesâ€? mouldered in unvisited loneliness. They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator, they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments of Ilium. (263). The juxtaposition of the antique with the modern is quite evident: a steam radiator, glass cabinets, and even “ebonised woodâ€? (footnote – which we can imagine is some sort of wood which has been artificially stained darker to appear like ebony, an expensive wood not native to America) contrasts with the ancient contents of the exhibit. The extent of the display is much exaggerated by referring to it as “the recovered fragments of Iliumâ€?. The use of “theâ€? and “ofâ€? (respectively) rather than, for instance, “someâ€? and “fromâ€? carries the implication that these are the last and only remains of Ilium, (footnote — Troy) when in fact the display likely comprised only a small portion of the available artifacts. Another interesting aspect of this phrase is the use of the passive in describing the artifacts which plays off the delicacy and sterility of the glass cases, the artifacts are “recovered,â€? as if they had been lost, and then neatly returned to the sterile setting of a museum. This language contrasts with the beginning of the description, where the artifacts are personified as “mouldering in unvisited loneliness,â€? as if the artifacts are decaying or falling apart in their glass cases for want of company.Upon arriving in this gallery, by way of apologising to Ellen for the modest state of the museum, Archer shares his prophetic notion that someday, perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a “great Museum.â€? This exchange between Archer and Ellen makes an interesting juxtaposition with the earlier passage. By looking at fragments of a society which no longer exists, and then discussing the future of the museum in which they sit, they place themselves in a historical context: acknowledging that they inhabit a time between this ancient society and the time of the potential greatness of the Museum. While it is an obvious conclusion that {\em anyone} inhabits a historical context which falls between the past and the future, the fact that Archer thinks of the future after being confronted with the past is not necessarily the obvious thing to do, and perhaps reveals something about Archer’s state of mind.Indeed, change, as it applies to Archer and Ellen, is mentioned, and again juxtaposed with artifacts.Presently, he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects — hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles — made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.\\ “It seems cruel,â€? she said, “that after a while nothing matters. . . any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: `Use unknown.’\ “\\ “Yes; but meanwhile —â€?\\ “Ah, meanwhile — “\\ As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, her hands thrust in a small round muff, her veil drawn down like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose, and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirring with her quickly-taken breath, it seemed incredible that this pure harmony of line and colour should ever suffer the stupid law of change. (263–4)In addition to the antiquity implied by the museum artifacts, we can note that there are extreme images of the tribal here which add to the effect of age: Ellen has an entire heron’s wing in her fur hat, and is wearing a sealskin coat. The choice of these more exotic animals, which one can picture being used by Native Americans, intensifies the image.The primary set of questions raised here relate to Ellen and Archer’s future. In one sense, it seems like Ellen and Archer are considering whether they will vanish into the past. Archer’s desire not to see Ellen vulnerable to “the stupid law of changeâ€? or as a “time-blurred substanceâ€? clearly seems to foreshadow Archer’s decision not to go up to see Ellen and perhaps rekindle their old relationship, or whether he need only rely on memories. This question evokes the continual tension between the tangible and non-tangible: the question of artifacts versus memory. Artifacts can endure and prove something while memories die with their owner, but may be passed on to future generations in skewed form. The fact that Dallas believes that Archer had an affair with Ellen demonstrates distortions within oral history.Examining the specific phrases yields additional insight. The phrase “time-blurred substanceâ€? carries a much different connotation than simply that of aged materials, which are described as merely “discolouredâ€?. The use of the word “time-blurredâ€? implies motion — as though the substance itself had become indistinct, and had its boundaries vaguely defined, after traveling through so many years.The “stupid law of changeâ€? may be interpreted in a few different ways. First, note the reference to change as being “lawâ€?, as though it were a physical law or ordinance, as opposed to a mere phenomenon: things do change, but there is no way to a law which says that they must because the notion of “changeâ€? is so vague. Archer seems unhappy about the notion of change in general, and, by extension, the notion of the future: since any future would be a changed version of the present. There are two ways to interpret his use of the word “stupidâ€?, which is an intriguing word choice. The first is that Archer might perceive the law as senseless and unfortunate; his use of the more childlike word “stupidâ€? might imply his stubbornness and unwillingness to confront the reality of the future. Another interpretation is that the law of change itself is blind, and acts mechanically upon the present, without an eye to the alterations in the present that it produces.This passage also raises additional questions about what Ellen is upset about. On first reading, it seems that she is upset about the fact that the use of the artifacts are forgotten, but a closer reading — noting the phrase “any more thanâ€? — shows that she is upset about something else, perhaps her lack of relationship with Archer, or perhaps something unrelated to Archer. Examining the juxtaposition of the past and future in Edith Wharton’s {\em The Age of Innocence} reveals that the juxtaposition can be interpreted as a means of escaping the present. One possible explanation of the focus on time in the novel might be that Wharton wanted to portray the movement of time through Society, which revels in the static, as well as emphasizing the aspects of Society which are rooted in some time other than the present.

There Was Good in the Old Ways: The Conventions of Society in The Age of Innocence

Although Edith Wharton describes a society that had disappeared in order to make way for the progress of a later age, she both criticizes and lauds the unrecoverable culture that helped to define New York City in the 1870s. Throughout The Age of Innocence, she uses the social interactions and attitudes of Newland Archer and his acquaintances as a means of weighing society itself. Years after the novel’s primary events, she has Newland reflect upon the good of the lost elite, and despite obvious problems, “there was good in the old ways” (Wharton, 347). At the end of the story, he has the opportunity to once again meet his former love, Ellen Olenska, but the fact that he would rather preserve untainted the memories of his youth shows how much he values the irreclaimable past. While Wharton frequently derides New York’s aristocracy, its reluctance to abandon the social standards and moral conventions of the period truly does make it a good society in Newland’s perception, and the author supports his conclusion through her depiction of the interaction between the New York elite.The activities of New York’s elite society create an atmosphere where the preservation of standards and conventions is of greatest importance for its participants, and communication or lack thereof plays a significant role in protecting the social norms. Every action or conversation has a purpose beyond its explicit meaning, and this form of expression permits the preservation of order and virtue in society. Through the events surrounding his marriage to May Welland, Newland experiences this communication firsthand. For example, he decides to declare his engagement to May earlier than anticipated in order to support her family when Ellen arrives from Europe (Wharton, 11-12). This action does not simply create an alliance between his family and May’s, but it helps to avert any disgrace that may have come upon the Mingott clan due to Ellen separation from her husband. This fact is never overtly stated, but it is the primary motive for his hurried pronouncement, and May and her mother understand without questioning Newland’s decision. The customs of aristocratic New York in the 1870s calls for the use of representative behavior rather than simple openness or forthrightness, and Newland understands his position within this system.While Newland is a product of the system that discourages disgrace through surreptitious action, Ellen presents another model to follow since she has adapted to the openness of European culture. The frankness that Ellen exhibits in the presence of everyone is appealing to the young man, and the conventions to which he is accustomed does not enchant him like the Countess does. She penetrates the facade of New York society and questions the need for the standards with which Newland is familiar, and during his time spent with her, he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his society’s way of life:”They like you and admire you—they want to help you.” […]”Oh, I know—I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. […] Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” (Wharton, 77).In this conversation between Ellen and Newland, the two modes of life come into direct conflict with each other. According to Newland, the people around the Countess only “want to help,” but she comprehends that in doing so, they simply desire for her to “pretend” like they do. Compared with the society in which Ellen has lived for so long, his culture is artificial, and it makes her lonely when no one outwardly pursues the truth. To her, they are concerned with preserving appearance rather than examining the foundation of a problem, and their unwillingness to authorize Ellen’s divorce is an example of this behavior. Tempted by Ellen’s mode of living, Newland must choose between the his own society and the possibilities presented by Countess Olenska as a consequence, but in order to select the latter option and yield to his love, he would have to abandon the standards that his culture had created for him.Newland’s choice between Ellen Olenska and his New York upbringing is a choice between open communication with the rejection of customs and hidden meanings with adherence to conventions. When he resolves to depart with Ellen so that he may love her openly, he decides to break the bond he has with his own values and standards. At the farewell dinner for Ellen, May achieves the victory that permits social convention to be upheld, and it transpires without the problem of her husband’s devotion to the Countess even being explicitly stated. “It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them” (Wharton, 335). Everyone present at the meal knows of Newland’s feelings and understands May’s need to frustrate his plans, but they never have to speak a word about either situation. The complex system of communication allows the truth to appear sans any disgrace that may come with its outward revelation. The elite culture discourages scandals and “scenes” that would disturb “decency” and virtue, and therefore it attempts to control Newland’s conduct by means that cause the least amount of shame for everyone involved.While it may seem that the aversion of scandal is the primary motivation for society to act as it does, it comes with consequent benefits, and much of the goodness of Newland’s culture is that it allows him to continue to devote himself to previous obligations. When Newland himself cannot be a faithful husband, the social conventions of the time force him to be, and everyone can appreciate the outcome. Without a word to being spoken, a situation that would breed shame if it were to be exposed by Ellen’s system of openness—like Olenska’s own separation from Count Olenski—do not result in scandal or disgrace. Everyone knows, but no one expresses the fact that they know, and therefore everyone participating succeeds in the end. Society avoids the stigma of an elopement involving two of its most prominent families, May retains her spouse, and even Newland remains faithful without ever having to tell his wife of his potential infidelity. Newland also emerges with the belief that this last accomplishment was his own doing, but only decades later when his son Dallas reveals May’s contributions to the affair does he realize the full extent of the situation. His children, his marriage, and his later life as a model citizen would not have existed without the intervention of his society’s social standards, and “it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty” (Wharton, 347). In his youth, his preference is for Ellen, but when she departs, he still has the responsibility to support May in marriage. Life with May might have been “dull” at times, but overall, staying with her allowed him to keep his dignity as a husband and father. As a result of his recognition that his culture had actually saved him from a scandal that would not allowed the happiness of his later years, and that it was not from his own doing, he can truly say that there was good in the old ways.Newland sees that the old ways provided the means for his own personal scandal to be minimized at any cost, and he is grateful for the conventions that his society had in place. For a time, he thinks that he can avoid the effects of an illicit love, but ultimately it is his culture that allows his marriage to survive and the happiness of his family to remain. He can proclaim the good of the former way of life because he knows how it prepared him to live a life of honesty and purity. Although Newland discovers that it is necessary to perform sacrifices—even to relinquish “the thing he most wanted” (Wharton, 356)—to ensure this innocence, he ultimately benefits from the standard set for him and the circumstances that force him to follow it. Wharton allows the reader to see the goodness of the lost past through the outcome of Newland’s life, and the fact that he was able to remain faithful shows the undeniable success of society’s ability to maintain its standards.Work CitedWharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1920.

Mythological Archetypes of May and Ellen in The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence lends itself as a work of social criticism against the tyrannous ideals of Old New York society through the experiences of Newland Archer and his torn love between two women. Wharton’s plot, set in the late nineteenth century, depicts the story of a young handsome attorney named Newland Archer who finds himself engaged to the lovely May Welland, yet hopelessly in love with the intellectual Countess Ellen Olenska. Newland’s love struggles between May’s passionate innocence and Ellen Olenska’s engaging intellect. Many times throughout the novel Wharton acknowledges the parallelism of the characters of May and Ellen to Classical mythology. Women at the turn of the nineteenth century were supposed to act according to society’s conventions, but Wharton depicts each female character as a Roman or Greek goddess in order to empower May and Ellen in a society where they could never have exercised power otherwise. Throughout The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton uses mythological characters as archetypes of May and Ellen to express her views on the repression of women in the late nineteenth century.Edith Wharton uses the Roman Goddess Diana to characterize the attractive May Welland and her own opinion on the repression of women. The Roman goddess Diana, equivalent to the Greek goddess Artemis, is generally known as the goddess of fertility, nature, and childbirth, while Artemis depicts the Greek goddess of the hunt. Wharton’s first reference to May’s mythological equivalent occurs at the van der Luyden’s dinner party with May’s entrance in a “dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, [a] tall girl [looking] like a Diana just alight from the chase” (Wharton 42). The color of white characterizes the innocence Newland observes in May while the color silver refers to her association with Artemis, whom Jackson refers to as the Maiden of the Silver Bow (“Artemis”). May’s dress depicts her discreet innocence, a common archetype of conventional women in the late nineteenth century. May’s “Diana-like” (Wharton 123) character allows her to manipulate Newland’s love for her by drawing him away from Ellen to a relationship he knows as conventional, safe, and secure. While visiting May in St. Augustine, Newland again notices her immortal nature with her shining “silver wire” hair and a “face [that] wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete” (91). Again, May’s resemblance to the immortals shows that she “is not truly an empty statue as Newland sees her” (Deter 6) but also embodies the goddess Diana in her hunt for her man, Newland. Deter feels that the most obvious allusion to Diana’s athletic abilities as a hunter is May’s beautiful display archery (8). She physically embodies Diana’s innocent beauty in “her white dress, with a pale green ribbon about her waist and a wreath of ivy on her hat, [having] the same Diana-like aloofness as when she entered the Beaufort ball-room on the night of her engagement” (Wharton 134). May’s relation to the color white and her “nymph-like ease” (135) represent her innocent nature yet also her ability to retain athletic qualities to hit her target, Newland. May’s “classic grace” (135) causes others to appreciate her unique ability and draws attention to herself in a way that no conventional nineteenth century woman would have done. Here, Newland first begins to realize that May is not as innocent as she seems and merely plays the game of life to suit her fancy. She strictly obeys all rules of society in order to appear innocent against the background of the conventional New York elite. According to Deter, Wharton uses the classical mythological figure of Diana to empower May as a woman existing in her own world, excelling at her own game (9). Later, following the wedding, Newland finally realizes May’s superior influence and the purpose of her “hunt:”Perhaps that faculty of unawareness was what gave her eyes their transparency, and her face the look of representing a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess. The blood that ran so close to her fair skin might have been a preserving fluid rather than a ravaging element; yet her look of indestructible youthfulness made her seem neither hard nor dull, but only primitive and pure (Wharton 120).May’s appearance of immortality challenges Newland’s first impression of her innocent life of purity. May obviously holds much more authority over her companions than a traditional woman in Old New York society. Wharton uses the mythological character of May to represent her opinion against the subjugation of women before the turn of the twentieth century. According to Gore Vidal’s introduction to The Age of Innocence, Wharton, “due to her sex… has been denied her proper place in the near-empty pantheon of American literature” (qtd. in Harold Bloom 4233). Obviously, Wharton’s femininity limited the initial success of her life’s work and caused her to become more feministic within her novels. Wharton expresses her concern for the repression of women’s rights by giving May a mythical goddess to empower her.Ellen’s associations with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the famous Helen of Troy also help develop Wharton’s belief on the subjugation of women. Unlike May, Ellen represents an attractive combination of passion and intellect that lures Newland away from his partner of convenience, May. Wharton confirms Ellen’s picturesque relationship to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture. Unlike May, Ellen has recently arrived from a distressing life with her ignorant husband in Poland and is completely unaware of the “intricate and tyrannous tribal customs of a highly stratified New York society” (Cutler 65). Her petty attempts at adapting to conventional New York society are unsuccessful, and her constant disobeying of all of society’s rules depicts a more liberal side of women not otherwise seen in the late nineteenth century. Actually, Newland appears tempted by Ellen’s rebellious nature, which he finds quite attractive. While May wears innocent little white dresses, Ellen “dresses in more provocative styles that depict her sensuality” (Deter 10). When Newland sees Ellen for the first time at the opera she is dressed in a dark blue dress with a “Josephine-look” that troubles him in her “[carelessness] of the dictates of Taste” (Wharton 7,10). Ellen’s enticing dress directly portrays the passionate attributes of Aphrodite. Ellen, like Aphrodite, seems to have the unique ability to combine lust and reasoning to attract her lovers. According to Carol Singley, Aphrodite and Ellen come from “ambiguous origins, both make marriages with unlikely men, and both are identified with roses…” in their association with the color red (qtd. in Deter 10). Like Ellen, Aphrodite was married off at her father’s convenience to someone who couldn’t make her happy. Aphrodite was also quick to punish those who resisted the call of love, much like Ellen’s departure from New York because Newland resisted her love. Many of Ellen’s attributes also relate her to the classic Helen of Troy. Montazzali infers that not only does her name sound like Helen but her “beauty of Helen is of the spirit, not of the body” (10). Nowlin states that the parallelism between Ellen and Helen of Troy is also implied by numerous references to Faust, a magician of German legend who miraculously conjured up the famous Helen of Troy (5). Ellen’s depiction of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and Helen of Troy emphasizes Wharton’s view on the struggle of women in the late nineteenth century. Wharton also makes her opinion evident in the novel when she expresses that “a woman’s standard of truthfulness [is] tacitly held to be lower: she [is] the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved” (195). Wharton continues to comment on the plight of women in American society by allowing May and Ellen to become more powerful and more influential than any common nineteenth century woman. By giving her female characters god-like attributes she is essentially empowering all women at that time in history.Within her novel, Edith Wharton deliberately refers to May and Ellen as goddesses because she wants to enable other women to contest their degrading status in American society. Wharton’s work is seen at less than its true worth because of her femininity. Edith Wharton gives May and Ellen mythical characters in order to convey her attitude opposing the repression of women in the late nineteenth century.Works CitedCutler, Constance A. “The Age of Innocence.” Masterplots. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 1. New Jersey: Salem Press, 1976. 65-69.Deter, Floramaria. “Mythological Versions of May and Ellen: a Reading of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.” Domestic Goddesses. Ed. Kim Wells. 28 Nov. 2000. 17 Feb. 2001. .Jackson, James W. “Artemis.” The Olympians. 1995. 18 Feb. 2001. .Nowlin, Michael E. ” ‘Where is that country?’: The returning masquerader in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. (post-Lacanian reading of Ellen Olenska’s character in ‘The Age of Innocence’).” Women’s Studies 26.3 (1997): 285-315. Northern Light. 28 Feb. 2001 .Vidal, Gore. “Introduction.” The Edith Wharton Omnibus (1978): vii-xiii. Rpt. in The Chelsea House of Literary Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. Vol. 7. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 4233-4235.Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.

The Disadvantaged Elite: Upper-Class Men and Feminism in The Age of Innocence

Feminism, in its early stages, was perceived as a form of activism reserved for women. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the suffrage movements of the 1860s, and the conception of Planned Parenthood in 1916 all revolved around and relied on female participation. However, Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence features a male character, Newland Archer, exploring and supporting feminist ideas. Throughout the novel, Archer struggles to maintain his newfound feminist ideologies as he deals with social pressures telling him to view women as prized objects. Newland’s conflict regarding his burgeoning feminist ideas illustrates that even elite men are disadvantaged when it comes to defying social norms in a social setting.

Social customs involving women are among the major concepts examined in The Age of Innocence. In the upper classes of society in 1870s New York, there were many standards and customs that were treated as law. One of the most rigid social conventions was the rejection of divorce. Divorce was seen as a sacrilegious and unorthodox process, and women were expected to remain with their husbands regardless of the circumstances. However, there were few who dared to break from the system and divorce their husbands, including Count Ellen Olenska. Count Olenska expresses her desire to leave her husband, but her family members and others in her social circle reject her desire to do, with the exception of one person – Newland Archer. In Chapter Five, Newland emphatically disdains the way women are treated in marriage, exclaiming that he is “sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman…if her husband prefers to live with harlots” (Wharton 19) when discussing Count Ellen Olenska and her situation with her cheating husband. To this, a fellow elite by the name of Mr. Sillerton Jackson responded by “emitt[ing] a sardonic whistle”, showing how despite being a man of status, Newland Archer is ridiculed for attempting to challenge a social norm and support a woman against her husband. (19). Jackson simply dismisses Newland’s point as a misguided opinion or a preposterous proposition. In this society, it does not matter how poorly the husband treats his wife. While Newland expresses concern for the female condition and his desire for change in the patriarchy, his status and gender do not get him anywhere due to the nature of his opinion, and he is therefore dismissed by his peers. With the concept of divorce being taboo in this society, this feminist cause is dismissed even when the one presenting the cause is an elite male in the society.

Another feminist ideology that Newland supports is that women deserve sexual freedom. Newland knows that it is easy for men to get away with having multiple sexual partners in his society, even when they are married. However, women showing any level of promiscuity are condemned, which shows a marked disparity regarding society’s views on sexual freedom between men and women. Count Ellen Olenska does not subscribe to the set of accepted customs that dictate how women should behave in this society, and chooses to live a sexually liberated lifestyle. Regarding promiscuity, Newland notes that “‘when such things happen’ it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman” (44). Contrary to almost everyone else in his social circle, Newland Archer believes that “women ought to be free – as free as [men] are”, showing that he believes men and women should be afforded equal treatment in this matter(19). In response to this, Mr. Jackson notes that he has “never heard of [Count Olenski] having lifted a finger to get his wife back”, with the reasoning for this being his extramarital affairs described in various parts of the novel (19). However, Mr. Jackson says showing that he is not bothered by this fact at all and simply accepts it as something men do. It is evident that Mr. Jackson would be bothered like the rest of his peers if Ellen were to do the same thing as her husband. Throughout the novel, many of his peers are bothered by not only the infidelities of women but also by unmarried women engaging in sexual activity as seen through the comments of characters like Janey Archer throughout the novel. While Newland’s status establishes him as a powerful member of New York’s upper class, his advocacy of sexual freedom for women fell upon deaf ears among the elite individuals in his social circles.

Alongside the previous aspects of society, the tradition of husbands treating their wives as possessions to show their success and status is endemic in the novel’s society. While Newland takes this sense of possession for granted early in the novel, he changes his mindset as the plot progresses. At the beginning of the novel, Newland “contemplated [May’s] absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity”, showing his enthrallment with the idea having power over a person and feeling superiority (4). However, he becomes disillusioned with the idea of possessing a woman as time goes on, and he realizes that the sense of superiority he had previously enjoyed was nothing more than an illusion. He realizes that “there was no use trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”, showing that when he started to accept feminist ideologies and decided to stop treating his wife like a possession, it was pointless because his wife had never thought of herself as Newland’s possession (87). May’s feelings stem from the way Newland treated her initially; this was the only way she had ever known since this dynamic was society and period-typical. His desire to “emancipate” his wife is complicated by the fact that it is “less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives” (87). Social pressures and traditions not only condone the treatment of women as possessions but encourage it. In this case, Newland’s support for feminism was not only rejected directly by other men in his society but also indirectly by the women whose internalized misogyny prevents them from seeking agency.

Early Feminism was a complex ideology as it diverged radically from the social norms of the late 1800s. While it was relatively rare to see women fighting for their rights and for their liberation from a patriarchal system that disadvantaged them, it was even more uncommon to see men rallying alongside them. Newland Archer’s character in The Age of Innocence has a progressive slant regarding feminism, compared to his peers in the upper-class of New York in the 1870s. However, despite his power as one of New York’s elites, his opinions on gender equality cannot gain any traction due to the traditions that entrench his society. The Age of Innocence shows that even for the most privileged individuals, supporting progressive ideologies will always be an uphill battle against generations of traditions and years of established mindsets.

A Struggle With Society

“It’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?” (164). Questioning the concepts of true freedom and liberty, the overall theme presented throughout Edith Wharton’s masterful novel, The Age of Innocence, is the abstraction of individualism. Narrated in the third-person omniscient point-of-view, this novel discusses old New York’s reactions to scandal and contrasts traditional ideas with those that their society denounces. Set in late eighteenth-century New York, the protagonist Newland Archer is torn between duty and passion when the mysterious Countess Olenska arrives. Trapped between two women with completely contradictory sets of ideals, Archer does not know whether to commit himself to the woman who lives for honor and decency or to accept the woman who understands his opposition towards society’s cruelty. The novel is “typically read as a discussion of the conflict between the individual and society,” as Archer struggles with abiding by society’s rules and fulfilling his colleagues’ expectations (Hynes).

One of the most significant conflicts present is the antithesis between the safety of conformity and tradition and the excitement and danger that come from deviating from the social criterion. Within the first few chapters of the book, society’s recognition for conformity is evident. In the beginning, every character is undoubtedly a victim of “a society that refuses to discuss any of the unpleasant facts of life, such as divorce, extramarital affairs among its members, or the possibility of marriages made for financial gain” (Hynes). None of the characters seem to question or doubt their ideals, even proving that they are willing to compromise their morality to maintain their reputation. Wharton illustrates that the social standards placed on the people of old New York essentially determine their lives and that “this complex set of prescriptions and prohibitions is…binding” (Evron). Their unattainable expectations and the social pressure they experience prevent them from expressing their opinions or demonstrating any form of individualism.

Placing great value and importance on the social class system and hierarchy, the upper class families are regarded as the leaders of society. Wharton makes this idea lucid by listing the families that “most people imagined…to be the very apex of the [social] pyramid…” (42). Two of the most distinguished members of their society introduced are the van der Luydens. Recognized for their lavish parties, this affluent couple determines whether or not someone is to be accepted into the upper class. Requesting that people receive their approval of status before essentially becoming a “somebody” in society demonstrates old New York’s exclusive nature. Believing that “there’ll be no such thing as Society left” if the upper class doesn’t stand together, they receive only those eminent enough to convene popular parties (43). By capitalizing “society,” Wharton demonstrates the amount of emphasis and importance the citizens place on society. Anybody beyond the social circles is considered inferior and is therefore neglected.

Along with the van der Luydens, Mrs. Manson Mingott, a woman physically isolated from society due to her weight, also represents the importance of appearance and reputation. “Her visitors [are] startled and fascinated” by the arrangement of her house, which recalls “architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of” (25). Physical extravagance is essential to their society because it represents wealth and significance, often displaying that the person is a member of the elite. Wharton creates these characters to provide readers with a setting that clearly conflicts with the main character’s beliefs. “This lost world, lavish with particulars of dress, food, wine, manners, is weighted with an abundance of reality, all the furnishings of excessively indulged, overly secure lives” (Howard). Whether or not their citizens exhibit unique personality traits is of no importance to them as long as everyone adheres to societal standards and participates in their colleagues’ ridiculous attempts to prove their worth.

Being one of the most notable motifs in the novel, money plays an essential role in the characters’ lives, as they are each entitled by their amount of wealth. “Wharton incorporates a tale of money, which at the bottom is what made the whole system of that endowed society work” (Howard). Many of the characters’ lives revolve around money and the acquisition of wealth. Wharton’s characters are consumed by their obsession with money, illustrating her intent of depicting old New York as a commercial society. The Beauforts, a family considered to be common, regularly hold balls to earn a respectable reputation and to reserve their place in society. When Julius Beaufort’s business dealings collapse and the family is no longer wealthy or honorable, everyone decides that “society must manage to get on without the Beauforts” (226). Demonstrating old New York’s hypocrisy and obsession with financial status, those who lose their wealth are shunned from society and ignored. Ned Winsett, a poor and failed author who marries an invalid, is not considered to be a constituent of their society because of his insufficient amount of wealth and style. Winsett’s character represents the disparate form of confinement that the lower class must endure. Although he does not possess any status and is virtually unaffected by societal expectations, he is still constrained financially. This illustrates that no one in Old New York can escape the feeling of confinement.

Because establishing and maintaining a reputation is so critical to the people of old New York, their “society insists upon the absolute innocence, purity, and ignorance of all sexual matters in its unmarried woman” (Hynes). Newland Archer’s sister, Janey, is a prime example of the outcome of their traditional views of women. Adopting a childish nature, she represents the unmarried women who are perpetually forced into blind obedience and submission. Still living together with her mother “in mutually dependent intimacy [that] had given them the same vocabulary,” Janey continuously makes decisions based on her mother’s approval (30-31). She has adapted to the belief that women are inferior to men and must not engage in the affairs of men. Wharton expresses her discontent and criticism of society’s traditional gender roles by depicting “both society and landscape in unmistakably feminine terms” and realizing Archer, the “American hero, as the opposite of the feminine,” thus causing the novel to become “exclusively male” (Hadley). Because the main character is a male, she exposes the popular notion that central characters must have elements of masculinity. Wharton poses her questions about certain gender-based expectations through Archer’s character when he is the first to dispute the denial of certain rights and freedoms for women. When discussing the Countess Olenska’s decisions, he exclaims that no one has “the right to make her life over” is she hasn’t and that he is “sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots…” (36). Stating that “women ought to be free” as men are, Archer defends the Countess and women in general (36). While criticizing men’s double standard, he demonstrates his support for gender equality. In the novel, this is the first sign of his conflicted nature and deviance from the popular opinion.

Throughout the novel, Newland Archer is extremely disapproving of the type of people his community breeds and the ideas planted in their minds at birth. However, in the very beginning “few things seemed to [him]…more awful than offense against ‘Taste,’ that far-off divinity of whom ‘Form’ was the mere visible representative and vicegerent” (14). Readers notice that Archer too supports the widespread belief that anyone with an appearance inconsistent with those in New York lacks modesty. His initial opinion of Ellen Olenska is homogenous with those around him, as he is equally repulsed by her disregard for manners. Wharton creates Archer to be another example of a product of their society, but he questions everything he has lived for when he is faced with the unfamiliar. Archer continuously feels constrained by his marriage to May Welland and his mother’s expectations. He immediately becomes associated with the Mingott family and their decisions when he enters their family’s box at the theater “without a word” (16). He is initially very eager and content with leading a conventional and stable life with May. “Archer’s softness, an outcome of his sheltered life…is such a fundamental property of his nature that even his fugitive flashes of insight into…the brutal practices of inclusion and exclusion that underlie his social reality do not seem harden him or turn him into a cynic” (Evron). He experiences extreme internal conflict because he does not possess the courage to revolt against the people he has known his entire life and the ideas he has always advocated.

After several glimpses of freedom from social oppression that the Countess Olenska grants to him, Archer finally realizes the confinement he feels. The ‘haunting horror of doing the same thing every day at the same hour besieged his brain…the word [‘sameness’ ran] through his head like a persecuting tune” (70-71). The effects of her eccentric personality have begun to affect his opinions of May. He not only feels limited by his marriage but also when he is denied the power to object to a family decision and is left in a state of ignorance of the situation. This adds another element of suffocation to his already confined life. However, it is evident that his narrowness of vision prevents him from acting drastically upon his frustration and that “his psychological constitution simply does not have the necessary reserves to sustain a lasting opposition to his social environment” (Evron). Readers witness his shifts in attitude as the novel progresses, but due to the way he has been raised, he does not undergo a complete transformation. He is constricted to the ways of old New York because of his past and that piece of him continues to haunt him in the present.

Written to be the most habitual character in the novel, May Welland veritably proves to be one of Wharton’s most interesting characters. Initially engaged and then married to Newland Archer, her character essentially symbolizes all that Archer desires to escape. Along with Janey, she represents the ideal type of woman their society praises and values. Although she is “straightforward, loyal and brave” and has “a sense of humor,” Archer believes that untrained human nature [is] not frank and innocent” and is “full of twists and defenses of an instinctive guile” (39). Archer begins to doubt his decision of marrying May to ensure himself of a safe future because he believes her conventionality may serve as a façade. Her passiveness and incapability of voicing her opinion proves to be the element that leads to Archer’s discontentment. Wharton utilizes her as Archer’s foil because her “incapacity to recognize change [in Archer] leaves her oblivious to the fact that all around her the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself” (Evron). Constantly “making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make,” she is sheltered from reality (70). This causes Archer to feel that life is dull and uneventful with May. In his future, he sees “the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen” (185). Wharton’s criticism of passiveness is depicted through Archer’s constant disapproval of his wife’s innocence. He does not want May to have “that kind of innocence- the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience” (120). He associates her naiveté and inability to stand up for herself with conformity and ignorance. He believes that “perhaps that faculty of unawareness [is] what [gives]…her face the look of representing a type rather than a person” (154). In this passage, Archer describes May’s physical appearance, viewing her as a representation of their society rather than an opinionated individual. Later, May catches her skirt in the step of a carriage and damages her wedding dress, a symbol of their marriage and love. This accident symbolizes the end of their infatuation with each other, and because their relationship is broken, the dress is now destroyed.

The most significant theme of the novel is the contrast between the restrictions that come with domesticity and the liberty adventure supplies. Wharton carefully utilizes language and detail in her descriptions to illustrate that “May’s house represents all the negative aspects of domesticity” (Hadley). In one scene, Archer perceives that “the mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing…other cities beyond New York, and a whole world beyond his world, [clears] his brain and [makes] it easier to breathe” (240). Wharton utilizes the possessive pronoun “his” to demonstrate that Archer believes May is infringing upon his space, the only place that he can design to his own inclination. “He looks out the window to ‘a whole world beyond’, much as the traditional American hero looks to the landscape and the frontier to escape from a domesticated world” (Hadley). When he furnishes his room to feel the sense of control he lacks in the other aspects of his life, it is ironic because it displays he is not as rebellious as he believes himself to be.

Wharton expresses her greatest criticism of eighteenth-century New York society through the unconventional and mystifying countess. Serving as the polar opposite of May, the Countess symbolizes “all that is unknown and exotic in European society” (Hynes). Raised in Britain by the repeatedly widowed Medora Manson and entangled in a disastrous marriage with a Polish count, Olenska is adamantly deemed an unorthodox foreigner involved in numerous scandals. Many people often make it “cruelly clear their determination not to meet the Countess Olenska” (41). Because she attempts to file for a divorce with a husband who is implicated of engaging in an affair, she is socially isolated by this society that severely chastises scandal. Along with Archer, she is initially discouraged and distraught over the incessant disapproval of those who are foreign and similar to her. When questioned about her feelings, she exclaims that “the real loneliness is living among all these…people who only ask one to pretend” (65). Olenska is disconcerted to learn that a person’s reputation is honored over their honesty, which accounts for everyone’s misleading appearances. Although she is constantly critiqued, “she has learned to find comfort and strength within herself, rather than seeking them in the external world” (Hadley). “She doesn’t care a hang about where she lives- or about any of the little social sign-posts” (101). Against the idea of the social hierarchy, Olenska does not place any importance on her location of residency. When she tells Archer that she is “improvident” and lives “in the moment” when she’s satisfied, she demonstrates her disregard for wealth and status (110). Without anticipating the future, she lives in the present, valuing happiness and spontaneity over safety. She provides a contrast to all of the other characters in the novel because of her strong-will, independence, and self-complacency. Through Olenska’s character, Wharton intends to convey to both Archer and her readers that women are equally capable and harbor just as much potential as men.

When Archer first learns about Olenska and is requested to inform her of his engagement to May, “some invincible repugnance to speak of such things to the strange foreign woman had checked the words on his lips” (23). Archer initially seems disgusted and appalled by the thought of her because of what he has learned from others. Without even knowing or understanding her, he generates assumptions based on her past and the reputation she upholds. While convincing himself he is aiding her with adapting to New York life, Archer subconsciously falls in love and realizes he constantly yearns to be with her. Even her “lightest touch…[thrills] him like a caress” (55). He begins to feel possessive over her and is overcome with jealousy at any news of her with another man. This is because “her presence in new York enhances his own sense of himself…[and] he prefers to think of himself as unconventional and liberal…” (Daigrepont). Wharton illustrates that Archer’s possessive behavior towards Olenska represents his eagerness to contrast himself with those in his social milieu and his desire to hold on to the only method of escape he has. Because he has been raised to believe in a certain set of ideals, behaviors, and characteristics, he is mesmerized with “Madame Olenska’s mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience” (95). Archer’s extreme fascination with her derives from her dramatic and mysterious countenance. In contrast with May’s house, Ellen’s house represents escape because she “offers the possibilities of individual freedom and experience, instinct and variety, cultural and sexual richness” (Hadley). Rather than developing an interest in her as an individual, he is fascinated with the concept of her. Archer regularly sends lilies, which represent future happiness, to May and one day decides to send the Countess “a box of yellow roses…without a card” (97). The yellow roses signify fiery beauty as well as infidelity and adultery. It is passion rather than true love that he feels for her and Wharton emphasizes this to demonstrate his obsession with escape.

The setting plays a crucial part in Wharton’s message about New York and the social oppression it places on its citizens. Shifting from New York to Britain as Archer travels, each location is associated with a different set of beliefs. While old New York allows for solely traditional beliefs and roles, Britain serves as its reverse in that Archer views it as a place where freedom of expression is encouraged. Wharton has the characters continuously take trips to Europe or encounter British culture to display the differences in ideals. Archer realizes these differences and accepts this as a means to escape New York society. A British man named M. Rivière parallels Ned Winsett in that he is likewise a man of low financial status, but he embodies the beliefs of British society. Through Archer’s discussion with M. Rivière, Wharton clarifies the contrast by indicating that the British value opinionated people and believe it is imperative for people to be able to think for themselves. She utilizes irony in this scene because myths entail that there is a ‘promise offered by the idea of America…that in this new land…a person will be able to achieve complete self-definition” (Hadley). Even though America is seemingly the land of opportunity, in The Age of Innocence, it is Britain that offers the laxity to express individuality. Whenever Archer returns to New York, his former beliefs return and he insinuates self-denial for the sake of pleasing his family. When he desires to run away from New York, he is saddened to learn that others have tried and have ended up in places that weren’t “at all different from the old world they’d left” (236). Wharton conveys that true escape from others’ judgement is essentially impossible because criticism and disapproval is prevalent everywhere. He is irritated with the conformity evident in New York and despises that “the individual…is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest; people cling to any convention that keeps the family together…[and] protects the children” (93). This overarching theme states that people must sacrifice their individuality and personal freedoms for the benefit of the society as a whole.

After the Countess leaves, rejecting Archer’s proposals of beginning an affair, the novel skips twenty-five years. Now often labeled a “good citizen”, Archer has successfully established an honorable reputation. Accountable for “every new movement, philanthropic, municipal or artistic,” he has achieved everything his family had ever desired for him (281). However, Wharton lists his accomplishments with a dismal rather than acclaimed tone that reflects his dissatisfaction towards the monotony of his life. Believing that he “had missed the flower of life,” he thinks “of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable” (281). Although he has accomplished many significant deeds, he feels he has missed out on what he believes to be the most important aspect of life- love. He compares his forbidden love for Olenska with the lottery, claiming that it has always been impervious for him to acquire true love. “At the end of the novel, Newland reminisces about having risen up at the call to politics… To the end, Wharton emphasizes that he is defined by his social roles” (Hadley). Even after twenty-five years, Archer continues to feel confined and now that he has children, he is gratified that they will be able to experience much more freedom from judgement. When he travels to Versailles and stands below the Countess’ balcony, “he has to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifles memories of an inarticulate lifetime” (289). Archer chooses not to see Olenska, illustrating his extreme regret and resentment towards his society. By making this decision and finally facing the realization that he must let her go, he renders her a symbol of his past. “Archer loses the habit of travel in his later years, preferring to stay within the narrow confines of the world he knows” (Evron). Wharton expresses her anti-romantic view of love and her belief that “love…is a contingent phenomenon, inextricably bound to social and historical factors over which the lovers have little control” (Evron). In the end when all the characters revert to their traditional roles, Wharton shows that the family unit is strengthened at the expense of the individual who wonders what might have been.

Ellen Olenska: Commodified Innocence

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton paints an intimate view of New York culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wharton does this by masterfully presenting a slice of New York, focusing on a few intricately developed characters in New York’s aristocracy. Of these characters, Newland Archer, through his pursuit of Ellen Olenska, encapsulates everything New York society represents. Through Archer’s projection of himself, it is tempting to view him as a heroic rebel, a man above others in his recognition of the superficiality of New York society. However, by critically examining the root of Archer’s attraction for Ellen it is clear that he is no different from anyone else in New York. Indeed, Archer’s love for Ellen mirrors Marx’ concept of commodity fetishism, where Archer values Ellen not for who she is, but for the value that she gives to him. More specifically, Archer falls in love with the identity he finds in Ellen—one where he vicariously lives through her uniqueness, making him feel different from what he views as a superficial New York society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Archer’s commodity fetishism towards Ellen evolves into an obsession, eventually turning what could have been love into nothing more than an objectified relationship. Consequently, Archer’s manipulation of Ellen, through his commodity fetishism, pushes the reader to reflect on all the characters of New York society: May Wellend, Mr. Beaufort, Larry Lefferts, and more. By looking at these characters, it becomes clear that all of the people of New York society, like Archer, are superficial and manipulative. This realization, turns the attention of the readers to Ellen, and to the ironic fact that—in contrast to what New York society thinks—it was she that was the innocent one. Not May, nor any other New York character. Thus, The Age of Innocence, describes the momentary place in time, when Ellen Olenska, came to New York.

In the beginning of the story, it is immediately made clear that Archer is somewhat different from New York society. It was Ellen Olenska’s arrival to New York that drove Archer to realize the flaws in his society. Indeed, the very fact that Ellen was singled out as an outcast by New York society, made it all the more easy for Archer to fall in love with her. As a result, it is easy for the readers to empathize with this scandalous romance, in full support of Archer’s romantic pursuit: “I want – I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that – categories like that – won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter” (213). Indeed, Archer and Ellen seem to be exactly what the readers want: a rebellious couple who truly love each other in a society of superficial relationships and hypocritical rules. However, it is not until the end of the story, when Archer and Allen meet in the Art Museum, that it becomes clear that Archer was never the the societal hero or lover that he seemed to be.

Perhaps the most noticeable part of this Art Museum scene, is the place that it marks in their relationship. After all, it is here that their unstable relationship begins to buckle. Indeed, the very fact that the whole conversation centers around the two having a “one-night stand,” reflects the point to where their relationship has come. For instance, when Ellen—in an attempt to placate the flustered Archer—offers the opportunity “to come to”(266) Archer, the readers see the extent to which Archer’s material desire outweighs his love for Ellen. This is seen in Archer’s reaction to the offer, when he thinks only of “the power she would put in his hands if she consented” (266).Here, Archer shows his ultimately selfish motives. As a result, Archer reveals his commodity fetishism by showing that he cares more about the pleasure he derives from Ellen than from how Ellen feels. It is when Archer’s commodity fetishism is revealed, that their relationship changes. For instance, at the end of the same conversation Archer and Ellen leave looking at each other, not as lovers, but “almost like enemies” (266). Even though it is Archer who notices this change in their relationship, rather than be worried or disheartened, “his heart beat with awe” thinking that he had “never before beheld love visible” (266). It is this very disillusionment of his relationship with Ellen that signals to the readers that Archer has commodified Ellen. Archer shows that he cares more about the emotional capital that Ellen provides him, than Ellen’s own emotions.

Not only does Archer’s commodification of Ellen signal a turn in their relationship, but it also marks an important point in the development of Archer as a character. It is during this conversation, that Archer shows himself to be no different to the very people he sees as superficial and corrupt. For instance, Ellen, wanting to be different than all the other people in New York proposes that she leave New York so as not to “lie to the people who’ve been good to her [me]” (266). In response, however, Archer argues with Ellen to stay, admitting that his desires are no “different from his [my] kind” (266). Here, Archer is so disillusioned by his commodified obsession with Ellen, that he fails to see his own hypocrisy, rejecting Ellen’s noble proposition for his own selfish desire, an type of action he would have preciously attributed to the “hypocrites” of New York such as Larry Lefferts and Mr. Beaufort. Thus, by revealing his commodity fetishism with Ellen, Archer shows to all that he is no different to those of New York.

Ironically, Ellen Olenska—a women viewed as an “alien” by New York society—is actually the most human character in the story. Indeed, when all the people around her seem to be concerned with “form” and propriety, yet are committing acts of manipulation, selfishness, and disloyalty, Ellen stands as the complete opposite, caring more about what she believes is right than what is seen as “proper” by the rest of society. Archer’s objectifying treatment of Ellen only proves that he is no different from the others and is a nevertheless a product of his society. Similarly, by looking beneath the exterior, all the other characters prove to be the same. This is seen in Mr. Beaufort’s infidelity, Larry Leffert’s scandals with other women, and even May’s subtle, yet manipulative ploys. All of these characters simply prove that no one in New York is innocent.

Thus, one must beg the question: to what does the title Age of Innocence refer? After all, it is clear that May who is seen as the innocent, naive girl, is actually manipulative in her own right. By looking at the irony Wharton has so deeply weaved within the story, I assert that the “innocence” in The Age of Innocence represents Ellen Olenska. Here, the word “innocence” is used to represent purity and integrity, all of which describe Ellen. Thus, The Age of Innocence represents a moment in New York for what could have been, or perhaps what should have been. Through Ellen Olenska—a women seen as scandalous, reckless, and “improper” by everyone in society—Edith Wharton depicts a life worth living, reminding the readers that it is not society, but rather the individual that determines who is truly innocent.