The Age of Innocence
Unhappy with Ideas Passed Down from Parents: Characters from Babbitt and The Age of Innocence
According to Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel, it comes easily to accept radical ideas like prejudice as a means of not worrying yourself with more troubling, rational, ideas. Amiel attributes this to an unwillingness to reflect and is suggesting that a community with a higher standard of education and thinking can be a community with less or perhaps entirely without prejudice. Amiel was not an unintelligent individual, in fact, quite the opposite, and his views support the previous claim. The artistic works Babbitt and The Age of Innocence reflect this quote through their individual uses of literary devices as well as certain themes and instances in each book. Both novels, in their relative time periods, portray people who are unhappy with blindly living the rigid, strict lives that they live and live based on ideas passed down to them from parents.
In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 Horatian novel of social criticism Babbitt, the reader follows George Folansbee Babbitt, resident of Zenith, Ohio, and middle-aged real estate salesman with a state college education, as he attempts to please everyone by living out his painful conservative life day by day in the roaring twenties. In trying to live for others, Babbitt finds himself adopting prejudice based on the sophisticated “traditional” men that he tries to emulate. One prominent recurring conservative institution that stimulates George’s prejudice in the novel is the Zenith Athletic Club. This club, and others of this nature in Zenith were open to particularly successful kwhite males with clout who hold conventional thoughts. The watering hole of orthodox societal views that they called a club was nothing more to Babbitt than a place of gossip and as such he found himself molded there regularly. Approaching the end of the novel, Babbitt finds himself being influenced by rather than a conservative, a liberal by way of Seneca Doake. Doakes status leads Babbitt to rather blindly follow him and now adopt liberal prejudices, similarly to how he had with the conservative businessmen, as Babbitt finds it easier to follow others radical beliefs rather than to contemplate thoughts for himself and form a less biased opinion..
Lewis’s use of literary the devices of foreshadowing and irony strengthen Amiels quote as well. For example Babbitt admits that early in the novel that he had wanted to be a lawyer, but when a friend of his is incarcerated near the middle of the novel, he finds himself asking lawyers to commit acts of perjury and other immoral behavior. This irony, based on Babbitt’s surroundings and what is best suited for him at the time of his actions fortifies Amiels view further. A second device used is foreshadowing, Babbitts blind willingness to accept the conservative prejudiced views foreshadows his eventual acceptance of the liberal views later in the novel.
Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel of social criticism The Age of Innocence follows the young Newland Archer as he lives in the gentry and generally doesn’t enjoy his lack of freedom in life. The book takes place in New York City during “The Gilded Age” as coined by Mark Twain where Archer, a member of the gentry is stuck in a monotonous fake life where he is forced to live based on the ideals of his ancestors. As such he is virtually forced to take up whatever prejudice his family has held before him. For example, Ellen Olsenska, a countess, is attempting to leave her husband which in the gentry is considered taboo and as a result Newland is expected to believe that Ellen is committing a naughty act. Another particular instance where Archer had a prejudice that his family basically forced him into accepting was gender roles, placing a prejudice against women throughout the entire novel as the men work in the firms and the dainty women remain at home.
Literary devices employed by Wharton the amplify Henri Amiels ideas include irony and symbolism. To identify irony look no further than the title, The Age of Innocence. The story is so very obviously drenched in prejudice against women, lower class humans, and even members of the gentry, making The Gilded Age anything but innocent. The novel also employs a hefty amount of symbolism, including flowers, particularly yellow roses which Archer gives to Ellen as a symbol of friendship, despite the fact that Archer and all of the rest of the gentry is obligated to despise Ellen and hold prejudice against her.
Henri Amiel was a well educated man and his views support that, equally as much as much of historical literature supports his ideas. Amiel was a man that knew that prejudice is adopted as a means of negligence to common sense and contempt for fairness. His proposed solution is a simple one, which is to employ knowledge and in doing so to eliminate the stupidity required to allow prejudice.
The Age of Innocence and The Awakening: Interpreting Internal Social Conflicts
Internal Conflicts and Society
When it comes to internal conflicts as a result of societal pressures, The Age of Innocence puts you in a different perspective of the process of social change, orbiting the theme of the hardships between the societal group and the individual. Similar to The Awakening, this novel takes you into the world of a high-class, closed minded society that follows strict social standards in order to keep an overall balance of morality. Societal rules that determine who you are as a person and shapes the future for you are the main factors of internal conflict. With the expectation to sacrifice his desires in order to not upset the established order of society, Newland Archer faced the internal conflict that was very similar to the conflict that Edna faced; the conflict of following his own wants and desires for satisfaction or preserving the high-end reputation of his family. He was also, like Edna, expected to behave according to a strict code of morality, and faced the internal conflict of either following his love for Ellen and disrupting the societal balance of his family, or stabilizing the overall condition of his family by continuing to marry May and accepting Ellen into the society without having his own desires get in the way.
The citizens of New York in The Age of Innocence were expected to behave according to a very strict and concrete “code” of morality, which is what kept society in balance and in check. That code of morality included avoiding any type of scandal, staying within your royalty/status quota, and putting your family first. The societal pressure of following this specific code pushed Newland into an internal conflict that lasted throughout the book. Following his love for Ellen was his main conflict; she provided him the satisfaction that his wife, May, could not. His other conflict was preserving the high-end reputation of his family over his feelings for Ellen. Both sides of the family (Archer and Welland) earned more status to their already-high reputation as a result of the marriage between Newland and May, and it was up to Newland to preserve that reputation by following the societal code of morality. His internal conflicts were very similar to Edna; the town of New Orleans followed a strict code of morality, forcing Edna to face the conflict of either following her love and desires for Robert and other men or preserving her own reputation in the town and as a Creole woman. Robert had given her the satisfaction that her husband could not, and Edna had earned status through her marriage and was soon known throughout town. The first few internal conflicts that Newland and Edna had to face as a direct result of societal pressures began to reveal the theme of hardships between society and the individual, leading to larger conflicts later on in the novels.
The societies in both The Awakening and The Age of Innocence were given the expectation to sacrifice feelings and desires in order to fortify and not disrupt the established order of things in that society. Newland faced the conflict of either following the expectation to stabilize the general condition of his family or following his own wants and desires for satisfaction. This was especially evident with his relationship with Ellen; despite his various protests and conflicting feelings, Newland was expected to welcome Ellen into the society and put his family’s needs above his own at all times. This was a duty to his family along with the expectation to promote and protect the solidarity and reputation of both sides of the family, which created a larger conflict than the last. Edna had faced similar internal conflicts of either following her own desires or stabilizing her family and society. The internal conflicts had grown in importance and effectiveness as a result of the societal pressure of keeping order and balance and the desire to fulfill one’s personal needs. This was the case for both Newland and Edna.
The Age of Innocence and The Awakening used internal conflicts in the main characters to thoroughly express the theme of hardships between the societal group and the individual. Internal conflicts were the most efficient way to express this theme, as highlighting external conflicts would have given a different perspective of the expression of the theme. The reader would be unsure as to how exactly the main character was feeling emotionally or morally, as an external conflict could just be a result of what society wants to see that character act and not how they actually feel on the inside. The internal conflicts that Newland and Edna had faced (from the decision of following their love and desires to preserving and stabilizing family and societal needs) were a direct result of the societal pressures of behaving according to a certain code and the expectation to sacrifice personal desires in order to keep the society in balance. The internal conflicts presented throughout these two novels effectively revealed numerous important themes of the split between the group and the individual.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: the Problem of Double Standards
The Age of Double Standards
In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, she examines the complicated relationship between men and women, both in the public eye and behind closed doors. The double standard of the sexes played a great role in New York’s upper class during the 1870s, specifically how they are expected to act and show themselves. The contradictory opinions supported men living a double life, one in their home and one outside, while women observe their husbands infidelity but must be polite enough to not mention it. They must maintain the picture that society has painted of them, innocent and pure, much like May Welland. The relationship between men and women consists of a united public front, regardless of internal conflict and favors infidelity in men while expecting women to remain supportive and submissive to these practices.
In the public eye, men and women had an unspoken agreement to show a united front and to maintain the image of what a married couple should look like. The relationship between Julius and Regina Beaufort is a prominent example of how the seemingly unbreakable bond is only a public display and behind closed doors, the bond is much more strained. Mrs. Beaufort visits Mrs. Mingott to beg for support as she and her husband endure a financial crisis and she debates deserting her husband. Mrs. Mingott reminds Regina that her name “was Beaufort when he covered you in jewels and it’s got to stay Beaufort now that he’s covered you with shame” (203). While the extreme financial strain that plagued the Beauforts created a type of scandal, Mrs. Beaufort leaving her husband’s side at such a crucial time would become an even larger ignominy. Despite Mrs. Mingott’s grating response to her niece’s plea for help, she is only trying to save the reputation of the Beauforts. If Mrs. Beaufort were to file for divorce, she would be shunned in the same way Ellen was when she wanted a divorce from Count Olenski. Although the law may favor divorce, society does not. In the eyes of the public, a woman must remain pure and wholesome, supporting her husband no matter what difficulties he faces, even if these difficulties include an affair.
Infidelity in the 1870’s came with a double standard for men and women that fed into shaping the complicated relationship between the sexes. Men like Julius Beaufort, Lawrence Lefferts and Newland Archer are examples of how society acknowledges but doesn’t challenge the affairs that married men engage in. During the dinner party that’s thrown in Madame Olenska’s honor before she departs for Europe, Newland Archer finally realizes that everyone knows about his emotional affair with Mme Olenska. “And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears…” (249). Nobody ever formally confronted Newland about his relationship with Madame Olenska, instead they quietly observed the two sneak around behind the backs of their spouses. Newland had thought for so long that he had everyone fooled, even his wife. However, he was terribly wrong considering everyone was well aware of what he and Madame Olenska, two married members of society, were doing. Among these people were other men who shared the same secret as Newland, sneaking around behind the backs of loved ones, believing they were the only ones who knew about their illicit affairs. However, Newland has become one of these men, joining the twisted fellowship which he once looked down on. Within this group of men, they cover for each other when they’re in need of an excuse in order to see their mistresses. Lawrence Lefferts asked Newland that it be understood that he is dining with him at the club the following night as a cover for a night with his mistress (254). While Newland doesn’t respond to Lefferts, he can finally see that he has become everything he prided himself on not being. Newland goes through the most change out of all the characters in The Age of Innocence, but the change ultimately changed him to fit the description society deems acceptable.
On the other side of the spectrum, society looked much differently upon adulterous women than they did men. While it is unclear if Madame Olenska ever had an affair during her marriage to the count, the mere speculation of her relationship with the secretary cast a dark shadow over her reputation. Newland Archer was one of several characters that severely judged her for even potentially having an affair. Monsieur Rivière, a messenger sent by Count Olenski to retrieve Madame Olenska, mentioned to Newland during a conversation that he “used to see her in her husband’s house” (189). M. Rivière appeared to be blushing after he mentioned that he knew Madame Olenska, which he later discovered that she had lived with M. Rivière for a year prior to returning to New York. Newland’s reaction was not notably dramatic but it was clear that he looked on the supposed affair with disdain, as did the rest of New York society. Unfortunately, Madame Olenska had not learned the customs and ideals of society yet and did not realize how large of a scandal she was capable of making by not strictly following the social rules the rest of society follows.
The standards to which men and women are both held in 1870’s New York are conflicting on several fronts, creating the complicated relationship that Edith Wharton analyzed in The Age of Innocence. The two drastically different principles support men cheating on their wives and women supporting this twisted tradition in the upper class. The image created of how men and women should appear creates the dynamic between men and women, forcing them to prevail in public but lack a real relationship when the return home. These unfortunate circumstances have shaped the relationship between men and women in high society long before The Age of Innocence was written and they continue to shape this dynamic relationship today.
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.
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.
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.
The Influence of the Tripartite Psyche: Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
In a society, there are often multiple unspoken rules that members must adhere to in order to fit in. When an individual begins to deviate from these rules, it may be difficult to understand why. In the novel The Age of Innocence, the aristocratic Newland Archer makes many decisions that are seen as socially unacceptable, along with many that he grudgingly makes for the sake of appearances. Though they may be confusing to the other members in society, these actions can be better understood after a psychological analysis using Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ego, id – in combination with Lacan’s objet petit a – and superego. The theories of Freud and Lacan regarding the psyche reveal how the actions of an individual, such as Newland, are driven by the unconscious mind.
Newland Archer, a product of the social world of old New York, repeatedly finds himself torn between his unconscious desires and his apparent social obligations. Newland is the epitome of an aristocratic male in New York society – he is financially well endowed, comes from a respectable lineage, and is educated to the point where European art has become a common conversational topic. Growing up, he was made intricately familiar with the rules of etiquette and mannerisms that govern his society, such as his social obligation to one day marry an acceptable and pure woman. However, he feels himself “oppressed by this creation of factitious purity” (Wharton 25; ch. 5). While expectations of social compliance have loomed over him for his entire upbringing, resulting in a privileged yet lackluster childhood, he cannot help but feel as if there is something more to his stifling society (Bussey 3). The incompleteness and early helplessness of human beings often produce a quest for satisfaction and fulfillment (Kirshner 83). Newland wishes to be exposed to the entire range of human experience, rather than just operas at Faust and vacations in Skuytercliff. Even though Newland wishes to escape the confines of New York, he is reluctant to put his appearance and reputation in jeopardy. As a result, Newland’s structured environment and upbringing set the stage for his multiple acts of defiance against, along with acts of compliance with, New York society.
Newland Archer’s passionate affair with Countess Ellen Olenska, the black sheep of old New York, depicts his id’s underlying desire for freedom and a change of pace. The id in Freud’s tripartite psyche drives an individual to engage in impulsive acts of self-satisfaction (Lapsley and Stey 5). As a result of Newland’s insipid childhood, he desires something different from the society he has been familiar with for his entire life. He finds his breath of fresh air in Ellen Olenska, who has just returned from the fascinating continent of Europe. Her experiences in Europe exemplify what Newland imagines he is missing, and he believes that being with Ellen will bring about the much-needed excitement that his life had previously been barren of (Bussey 3). In terms of Newland’s society, Ellen is an outcast. She is surrounded by scandal from the failure of her previous marriage in Europe and does not conform well to the accepted guidelines for young women – she even wore black to her white-dress coming out ball. Newland understands that a relationship with someone like Ellen is forbidden, but he cannot shake the “vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska” from his mind (Wharton 79; ch. 25). Newland’s first major decision in the novel is to act upon his infatuation and run away with Ellen to Europe, where they can unload their responsibilities and “be simply two human beings who love each other” (Wharton 163; ch. 29). This decision is extremely impulsive considering that his entire life, from the money he earns as a law firm partner to the mother and sister that he loves, is rooted in New York. In fact, Newland’s decision lacks a plan entirely – he has not informed anyone of the decision nor made the proper travel arrangements to execute it. This is because the id is not concerned with details but rather focuses on the quickest way to immediately satisfy an individual’s unconscious desires (Lapsley and Stey 5). While Newland’s rash decision deviates from societal expectations, it can be explained as a desperate act of Newland’s id, that desires Ellen and Europe because of the freedom from New York society that the two offer.
Combined with Freud’s theory of the id, Lacan’s theory of desire further explains Newland’s infatuation with Ellen. Lacan’s theory involves the objet petit a, a fantasy that functions as the cause of desire (Kirshner 1). In relation to the novel, Ellen quickly becomes Newland’s objet petit a as she able to offer him the change of pace from New York society that he desires (Witherow). Her ability to offer Newland a refreshing perspective is apparent from New York’s violent reaction to her return (Eby 97). However, the most important aspect of the objet petit a is that it always remains a fantasy. Newland chases Ellen for the polarity between her and his society, but he is often uncomfortable from just how different the two truly are; his discomfort accentuates their differences and widens the gap between them. When Newland proposes his plan of running off with Ellen, she responds by asking if she is expected to live as his “mistress.” The word “mistress” stuns Newland, who had seldom heard it uttered by the women of his class. However, he notices how easily the word rolls off her tongue, and he wonders if its presence in her vocabulary is due to the “horrible life she had fled from” (Wharton 163; ch. 29). When he recovers from the shock of the word, Newland explains that the purpose of Europe is so the two do not have to hide their relationship. The differences in background between the two are so large, from Newland’s point of view, that he cannot find a way to assimilate Ellen into the position he currently holds in society. As a result, Newland sees Europe as the only feasible option. While Newland’s pursuit of his objet petit a is the result of his desire for difference, his retention of some of the old New York viewpoints that he was raised with creates a large gap of difference between him and Ellen that cannot easily be closed.
Newland Archer’s socially acceptable marriage to the golden daughter of New York, May Welland, is the result of his obedience to his superego. The superego, also known as the conscience of the personality for its ability to induce guilt, is a result of family life and offers moralistic goals (Lapsley and Stey 6). Old New York is governed by a “superegoic” voice. The members of New York society are suppressed by this voice but unknowingly sustain it (Witherow). Whereas Newland recognizes that marriage is a “dull association of material and social interests” and is reluctant to marry May, he follows through with his marriage in order to satisfy his family and society (Wharton 196; ch. 34). In the eyes of society, May is the epitome of a desirable wife – she is demure, proper, and comes from respectable genealogy. Even though Newland realizes before his marriage to May that he loves Ellen, he feels as if he cannot disobey his obligation to marry someone like May. Not only does he fear society’s judgment, Newland also fears for his family ties. When Julius Beaufort, a reputable banker in old New York, is speculated to have shady dealings in his business affairs, his wife refuses to be acknowledged as a Beaufort because his name has now been dragged through the mud. Newland’s superego, which is rooted in family life, may fear the repercussions of such an unacceptable act, which could include being shunned by his family. When Newland is made aware that May is pregnant, his second big decision must be made. He decides to abandon his dubious dreams of Ellen and Europe to become a family man in New York, where he will remain in the safe yet stifling society that he desires to escape. His id can be suppressed because of the guilt he feels that stems from his superego. Newland’s upbringing, which was based on propriety and responsibility, tells him that he cannot abandon his duties as a husband unless he wishes to risk the chance of having his family ties cut off. In fact, his superego is so powerful that he remains married to May until she dies. After May’s death, Newland makes it clear that he did not mind fulfilling his duty of marriage “as long as it kept the dignity of a duty,” meaning that he never transferred his desire for Ellen to May (Wharton 196; ch. 34). Newland’s ability to compartmentalize his desire for Ellen in order to fulfill his familial duty is due to the strength of his superego, which is a reflection of his structured upbringing.
To appease both his desires and obligations in the most socially acceptable way possible, Newland’s ego develops in order to take over and drive him to make several compromises. The ego is seen as the agent of reason – it attempts to balance the id with the superego by deciding the mode of satisfaction, or if satisfaction is to be had at all (Lapsley and Stey 6). Throughout the novel so far, Newland has made two monumental decisions based on the opposing sides of the tripartite psyche. In the last chapter of the novel, Newland makes his third decision. At the age of fifty-seven, Newland has fully matured and is able to make his final decision out of wisdom, as opposed to desire or a sense of duty. He finds himself sitting outside Ellen Olenska’s apartment in Paris after a visit with his son, contemplating whether he should go in and face Ellen. Throughout the years of his marriage, Newland has held onto his desire for Ellen as a “faint and tenuous” vision (Wharton 196; ch. 34). However, when he is just inches from her, Newland cannot bring himself to see Ellen. He believes that the fantasies he has of Ellen are plenty satisfying, and he does not wish to jeopardize this satisfaction with the reality of the situation – they might not be good for each other. He decides to head back to his hotel and not pursue Ellen. This is the ultimate act of the ego. Balancing his id and superego, Newland’s ego rationalizes that the memory of Ellen can offer him more satisfaction than actual confrontation. By deciding to not pursue Ellen, a decision that was not influenced by other factors but his own wisdom, Newland abandons his objet petit a and gives it a proper burial (Witherow). Newland is now wise enough to understand that his relationship with Ellen was not created out of love but rather an unconscious desire for change; he even admits to his son that he did not know if he thought Ellen was lovely, he simply thought that she was “different” (Wharton 200; ch. 34). Whereas he was drawn to Ellen for their differences, he also realizes that he and Ellen are so different that they cannot possibly complement each other well. As a result, his objet petit a remained a fantasy that he would never obtain due to the very reason that he desired it (Witherow).
Throughout the novel, Newland is stuck with desiring Ellen but knowing that his obligations prevent him from fulfilling this desire. As his ego develops from age and experience, he is able to find a fulfilling mode of satisfaction and finally put his objet petit a to rest. Throughout the course of the novel, Newland’s major decisions can be effectively analyzed using Freud’s theory of a tripartite psyche. Along with this theory, an analysis of his upbringing and an understanding of his objet petit a reveal that his overall desire is to escape from the confines of New York society. His affair with the mysterious Ellen Olenska is a direct result of this desire, while his marriage to the proper May Welland is due to the opposing superego. Near the end of the novel, Newland is able to demonstrate his overall maturation through his cognitive balancing of the two forces. Whereas many of Newland’s actions may be difficult to understand because they either deviate from what is socially acceptable or from what he desires, a psychological analysis is effective in revealing the unconscious motivators behind them.
Edith Wharton, Alice Walker, and Female Culture
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence  and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple  both paint a portrait American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This culture appears to be male, with no room for the female as any manifestation other than a trophy or a servant. However, in both cases an unconventional female arrives to bring attention to the fact that a female culture also exists, no matter how small and unknown.
It is tempting to argue that both novels support the notion of the female culture as being both marginalized and, to a large degree, secret or underground. In The Age of Innocence, the use of a male narrator is crucially important in relation to the idea of a dominantly male American culture, specifically within the novel’s late nineteenth century setting. Clare Virginia Eby describes the novel as one “poised between the Victorian and modern eras which provocatively examines the potential for women’s freedom through a male centre of consciousness”. Certainly, Wharton, although female, uses the voice of the opposite gender, and it is from this perspective that she examines and critiques the marginalization of female culture. Carol Wershoven supports this point as she argues that “[Newland’s] is the sole point of view of the novel, although it is one that Wharton distances herself from by irony and supplements with authorial comment”. This leads us to question the merits of using a male narrator over a female one, providing us with yet another patriarchal voice even in a novel heavy with the idea of the necessary rejection of this patriarchy. An answer to this question is posed by Amy Taubin, who suggests that Wharton is one of multiple authors who aim to “examine the culture in which they came of age from the fictional perspective of insiders, when they themselves were outsiders”. Taubin’s view of Wharton as an “outsider” is one which supports the idea of the othering of females and their culture within a patriarchal American society. Indeed, it is largely conceivable that Wharton chooses to tell her story from a male perspective in order to make her text compatible with a society in which both genders do indeed conceive culture from the same, single, male perspective. Ultimately, the action of transplanting her own views into the voice of fictional male character, allows her to achieve a greater influence over her early twentieth century audience than if she used the voice of a female. Ironically, she subscribes to the expectations of patriarchy in order to dispute and reject it. Eby puts forth a view which aligns with this idea, as she states that “In a moment of rebellion…Newland articulates what no female character could possibly say – “Women ought to be free – as free as we are””. Coming from a woman, this assertion may lack the credibility that a male voice holds within the confines of patriarchy.
Meanwhile in The Color Purple, in sharp contrast to Wharton’s use of a distanced, male voice in The Age of Innocence, Walker utilizes a character whose experiences and societal positioning are more aligned with her own. This alignment comes primarily from the fact that she is a black female who has been born and raised in the deep south of the United States during the twentieth century. However, although the voice of Celie is not spoken from the same immediately male perspective as the voice of Newland, it is heavy with the male influence of Celie’s ‘father’ and husband. This influence is, in fact, so prominent that Celie’s skewed female perspective is once again more in line with the perspective of the males around her than with her own raw, unaltered female views, further suggesting that American culture is indeed universally conceived from the male perspective. For example, she refers to Alphonso as “Pa”, due to the incorrect idea that he has planted in her mind of him being her father. In addition, she also believes herself to be financially dependent on men despite the fact that she is actually the legal owner of her late parents’ house, which she believes to belong to the false “Pa”. The implication of this is that, although men and women do indeed both conceive American culture from the male perspective, for the latter party this is often a result of their blind and helpless manipulation at the hands of men and their lies. They believe culture to be male because it is what they have been conditioned to believe. Richard M. Gula highlights this effect as he argues that “We respond to what we see. It is that simple. But we always see from a certain perspective, from a certain framework of meaning”. Indeed, in the case of American society, this framework can be seen as being the framework of American patriarchy and male culture. However, Gula also suggests that the female perspective of culture is not forever lost, as in realising it has been hidden women can reject the male view of society in favour of their own. He argues that “Celie liberates herself from male oppression only after she removed the cataracts of sexism that had been blinding her”. The “cataracts” of which he speaks are symbolic of patriarchy, and the way in which male culture stands as an obscuring force preventing women from embracing their femininity and the culture which goes with it.
While both novels present a view of nineteenth and early twentieth century American culture as being universally coloured by the dominant male perspective, they also deal with the reasons that the feminine cultural counterpart remains unofficial, minor, and often actually driven underground. The America portrayed in The Age of Innocence is one in which the female voice is silenced just as the male voice is promoted. The prime example of this is the character of May, who can be viewed as a character who has been conditioned to allow her perspective and her preferences to be rendered obsolete in the face of male culture. Eby supports this idea as she argues that “It is May’s “duty” neither to think nor speak nor to think for herself; her duty is to wait until men speak to her, to “have no past”, and to acquire no experience, to remain an undefiled, indeed an untouched, idol”. However, this reference to ‘duty’ suggests that, although oppressed, May is in actual fact neither naïve nor blind to the lies and indiscretions of her husband. This is evident as May tells archer that he “mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices.” Indeed, it can be argued that May is representative of the way in which nineteenth century American women subscribed to the male perception of culture and society not through manipulation as suggested earlier, but simply because they were aware of societies expectations of their place in society. May is aware of her husband’s betrayal but stays silent in order to remain faithful to the expectations and traditions of marriage prevalent in a patriarchal American society. Slavoj Zizek supports this notion as he states that “far from being an ingénue blessedly unaware of the emotional turmoil’s of her beloved, she knew everything, yet she persisted in her role as an ingénue, thereby safeguarding the happiness of their marriage”. This suggests that, rather than understanding herself to be a victim of Newland’s unfaithfulness and acting in accordance with this, she prioritises the necessity to accommodate her husband’s misplaced passion for another woman while continuing to act as the perfect wife. Lois Tyson argues that in Wharton’s novel, “women are represented as marriage commodities who sell themselves to the highest bidder in their attempt to move up the American dream’s socioeconomic ladder”. The implication of this view is that women are not only aware of their oppression and expected submission, but they also use it to better themselves in a society where female achievement and worth directly correlates with whom she marries. It can be argued that Female culture in The Age of Innocence is so minor and unofficial that success can only be achieved through allowing themselves to become pawns for the demands of male culture.
Similarly, in The Color Purple, Celie begins as an entirely passive character. Her rape at the hands of Pa symbolises the destruction of the female at the hands of the male, with her being reduced to serving an instrumental purpose in satisfying his male sexual urges. She is forced to marry Pa, fulfilling the male cultural practise of men choosing their wives with or without their consent. After Celie and Nettie are separated by Mr_ , their relationship is reduced to communication via letters sent by Nettie. This epitomizes the underground nature of female culture as the sisterly relationship is forced underground to survive via discreetly written letters which, although intercepted and hidden by Mr_, are eventually uncovered by Celie. Furthermore, Celie silently and secretly fights back against old Mr_‘s derogatory comments about Shug. Although she mentally pictures a more conspicuous form of revenge as she says “I think about ground glass, wonder how you grind it”, she ultimately settles on simply spitting in his drink when he isn’t looking. This epitomizes the notion of a secret American female culture, unable to operate out in the open or to rebel against it. God and religion also play a prominent role throughout the book, as Celie’s narration comes in the form of letters addressed to “Dear God”. However, her understanding of God is one which fits with a nation of male and white privilege, as she pictures him as “all white…looking like some stout white man work at the bank”. Such a male perspective of theology can be seen as a contributing factor of female culture remaining unofficial and underground. In a Victorian society with a long history of Christian values and priorities, it had become expected for women to remain passive not just from a societal point of view, but from a religious one, with the Bible itself fuelling the prevalence of patriarchy for so long that it had become deeply imbedded in the minds of both males and females as being the right, and more importantly the only, way to do things. Furthermore, in buying into the idea of God as a white male, he becomes something of a figurehead for Patriarchal culture, justifying the oppression of female culture by males. The implication is that if God is a white male, then in simply being the closest physically to God, white men possess some divine right to dominance.
Both Wharton and Walker emphasize the female oppression of nineteenth and twentieth century American culture by my making comparable references to other nations. In The Age of Innocence, Countess Olenska arrives fresh from Europe, and embodies the free spirited and socially diverse culture predominant in eighteenth century Europe. When this vision of European society is juxtaposed against America during the same time period, the latter’s unforgiving rigidness of class structure and expectation of gender based roles become all the more visible. Her lavishly European inspired house with a window from which her bed room is visible is described as standing “in flagrant violation of all the New York properties”, and highlights the difference between Europe’s sexual openness and America’s prudish sexual double standards which see women expected to remain virginal until marriage. The contrast is further highlighted during Newland and May’s honeymoon. May attempts to “show herself at ease with foreigners [by] becom[ing] more uncompromisingly local in her references”. Her inability to divulge from her staunchly oppressive American customs stands out against the exotically foreign surroundings. She, unlike the women of Europe, has had her sense of culture entirely defined by the society she was born and raised in, without any allowance for individuality or creativity. Walker, on the other hand, offers us a comparison between the early twentieth century United States and the native culture of Africa, the two of which actually appear to be largely similar with regards to the treatment of the female. Indeed, in her letters to Celie, Nettie describes the African tribal practises of genital mutilation and facial scarring, which serve to oppress and control the sexuality of women in a more violent and obvious way than America’s threat of social othering. Nettie’s assertion that “The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated”, along with an African mother’s justification that “A girl is nothing to herself, only to her husband can she become something…the mother of his children”, emphasizes that women are to learn no culture other than in relation to their expected part in male culture. This is reminiscent of May’s expectation to stay silent and virginal and engage only in the apparently correct behaviours for an American woman. Dave Kuhn supports this idea as he insists that “the use of African culture and ritual to dramatize the universality of the oppression of women is the most significant manifestation of African settings in The Color Purple”.
In the two novels, both Wharton and Walker create one solitary female character who stands as proof that, even in the face of oppression and rejection, an underground female culture does exist and endure. However, they also show the negative repercussions for these few women who dare to stray from their subscription to male American culture. In The Age of Innocence, this character is the enigmatic Elena Olenska. Essentially, Olenska does indeed represent the female culture that occupies the small corner of what is thought of as human experience by a Victorian American society. When juxtaposed against the rigid customs of nineteenth century New York, her lack of conformity to these societal expectations renders her an outcast, leading her to be seen as an intruder as she refuses to be bound by expectation, class or gender and instead prioritises her own freedom. Elfriede Poder supports this view as she argues that “Ellen Olenska is “the other” defining a world outside a very specific society and representing a set of values this (patriarchal and capitalist) society actually lacks and refuses to integrate”. Indeed, after arriving in New York Olenska is by all means a social pariah, as evident when the entire guest list to Madame Olenska’s welcoming dinner decline their invitations to socialise with a woman who has not only left her husband, but has also been rumoured to have taken a lover. The snubbing of Olenska by the entirety of New York’s elite suggests that her adherence to female rather than male culture is enough of a threat to American patriarchy that society would sooner look the other way and pretend she does not exist than confront the issues of their own society. Indeed, Olenska becomes a victim of harsh double standards with regards to female versus male sexuality. Newland himself ponders these double standards as he notes that non-martial or adulterous sexual behaviour is seen to be “undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman”. Sexuality stands as a key aspect of female culture for Olenska, and indeed for females in general, but it is supressed by the social expectations of women as virginal creatures who become faithful wives. The women who, like Olenska, retain their sexuality and act on it are forced to either do it in secret or to face rejection and severe moral judgement. Much like Wharton’s Countess Olenska, Walker portrays the minor and unofficial female culture through the character of Shug, who is an embodiment of raw feminine qualities. She rejects the limitations on female sexuality and embraces her desires, in a similar but more extreme way to Olenska. Mr_ vocalizes the same sexual double standards present in Wharton’s vision of New York, as he says that “young womens no good these days…Got they legs open to every Tom, Dick and Harry”. Of course, Mr_ is somewhat promiscuous himself, making advances on his wife’s daughter and having Shug as a mistress, but as a male in a patriarchal society this is deemed far more acceptable. These double standards lead to the othering of Shug, who is labelled with a poor reputation for being indecent. When she is sick, nobody in town other than Mr_ will take her in and society rejects her, much like the way in which Countess Olenska’s welcome party invitations are rejected. Like Olenska, Shug is the object of much social speculation and disapproving gossip such as the rumour that she has “some nasty woman’s disease”, or a sexually transmitted infection, indicating the strong social stigma between female sexuality and promiscuity. The church preacher indirectly refers to her as a “strumpet in short skirts…slut hussy, heifer and street cleaner”. Indeed, she stands as an example of why female culture remains underground. Those, such as Shug and Countess Olenska, who unashamedly adhere to impinged female cultural norms are forced into the outskirts of a patriarchal society which refuses to accept them.
However, despite the seeming rejection and othering of the characters of Shug and Countess Olenska, there is a contrasting sense that these women, contrary to being anomalous stains on the portrait of patriarchy, are pioneers in an emerging openness of a much larger female culture. This is particularly evident in Walker’s novel as Shug draws Celie out from the oppression of patriarchy and victimhood by teaching her to embrace her womanhood. Sanguin supports this as he argues that “Shug plays the role of mentor to a young and naïve Celie”. Indeed, it is through the influence of Shug and her bold assertion that the male perspective is not necessarily the correct perspective, that Celie ultimately frees herself from the constraints of patriarchy and comes to see the world from the perspective of a liberated female. In contrast to Celie’s description of the “stout white man”, Shug tells her that “God ain’t a he or a she, but a it”. Here, she rejects a crucial part of male culture, which is male orientated theism, in favour of her own ideas about God. Bruce Sanguin highlights Shug’s dismissal of the male culture of religion and God as he argues that “Shug, anticipating a postmodernist feminism, has deconstructed the white man’s version of the Christian faith. She has learned to do her own theology.” Indeed, in passing her ideas onto Celie, Shug takes on the role of a religious teacher as she sets her view of God free from its marginalization and its influence begins to convert others. In addition, both Mr_ and The Age of Innocence’s Newland are ultimately more drawn to these women who openly convey their adherence to a female culture. Mr_, in spite of society’s misgivings about Shug’s open sexuality and femininity, openly declares his love for her even telling his father that he “should have married her when [he] has the chance”. This is strikingly similar to Newland’s declaration of love to the countess as he tells her that “you are the woman I would have married if it has been possible for either of us”. The implication of this is that females who do not yield to the force of patriarchal culture should not be rejected by society and seen as flawed or as abominations, but rather be admired for their loyalty to their own feminine natures. Wershoven highlights this rejection of the stereotypical Victorian American female in The Age of Innocence as she argues that “The female intruder becomes part of a romantic triangle in which a [male] hero must choose between a conventional woman, and an intruder who cannot fit into a conventional world”. Indeed, the preference which Newland has for Olenska, and that Mr_ has for Shug, delineates that female culture should not be forcibly entwined with male culture, as their womanly differences make them far more desirable and admirable than females like May who appear to conform to rigid expectations without question. Perhaps, in placing limitations on the uninhibited practise of female culture, limitations are also unintentionally places on male culture, as their desire for true women is left largely without fulfilment. Wershoven underpins this notion as she states that “The women of Wharton’s novel are, with one exception, little girls, never permitted to grow up”. In other words, with the general absence of real women like Shug and Olenska, men are forced to settle for conformist girls like May in order to remain conventional and respectable within the confines of American patriarchy.
Contrary to the idea of female culture as occupying only the smallest corners of human existence, The Color Purple is actually rife with the idea that female culture, although largely underground, is actually much farther-reaching among the American female population than it appears to be. A sense of community can be seen as women help and guide each other in their fight to be truly free. Katherine B. Payant supports this idea as she argues that “pleasures and redemption are achieved exclusively through love and friendships between women. Men in this novel are the enemy”. This is evident in the aforementioned scene in which Celie spits in the drink of old Mr_ for speaking ill of Shug, as Celie secretly fights not for herself, but for another woman who is incapable of defending herself due to her illness. Janet Doubler Ward highlights the importance of the female community for the protagonist as she states that “Celie is highlighted by her female relationships”, and Katherine B. Payant supports this as she suggests that Celie “finds independence, hope and finally transcendence through her love of women”.The key example of one of these empowering female relationship is the sexual relationship between Celie and Shug. At the start of the novel, Celie is merely a vessel for the wants and needs of a predominantly male culture. In the physical sense, she is raped and sold off to a husband who wants her more as a slave than as a wife. She comes to see sex as something which at best she has little say in, and at worst is used purely as a form of cruelty. However, through her homosexual passion for Shug, she discovers her hidden female sexuality, and leans to enjoy not only the pleasures of her own female body, but of another woman’s body. Furthermore, the relationship between Celie and Nettie is shown to be incredibly strong, as Nettie never gives up on her sister, and when Celie finally discovers Nettie’s hidden letters she finds the strength to walk away from her controlling and abusive husband. The instincts which are specific to these female dynamics not only remain strong inside the oppressed Celie, but so strong that they eventually provide her with the incentive to rebel against her husband as evident when she ponders how she will even “keep from killing him”. In contrast, this sense of community is seemingly far less prevalent in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Olenska, the only female character who truly rejects conformity to the male orientation of American culture, actually shows her preference for male company over female company. This is evident as she spends much of her time socializing with Newland and Julius Beaufort, and little time socializing with any women. Indeed, the other women of the novel are actually shown to be just as judgemental of her non-conformity, if not more so. At the dinner table during unkind gossip about Olenska, Mrs Archer says that it “was in better taste [for Olenska] not to go to the ball”, encouraging the othering of the subject of her gossip. However, Countess Olenska does show some loyalty to other members of her gender as she undermines Newland’s male right to marry the woman of his choosing as she turns him down out of compassion for May. This highlights the way in which she refuses to take the happiness away from a fellow female in order to sustain her own, or to uphold the desires of the male Newland. On discovering May’s pregnancy, Olenska’s decision to leave for Europe and entirely cut ties with Newland is an example of her indirect female bond with May. She refuses to leave her alone as a single mother because, as a female herself, she can empathize with the possibility of such a situation.
As oppose to shedding their female virtues in order to integrate into a society centred on the male, the women in The Color Purple are shown to use their feminine traits to fight against the oppression which forces them underground. This is supported by Catherine E. Lewis who argues that “Women’s common experiences that have too long been undervalued, such as domestic and manual labour, can be used to overturn the systems that have imposed and labelled the tasks”. In Celie’s case, a primary example is her sewing, which provides her with a means of channelling her feminine creativity and artistic talent into garments which can be displayed openly. The quilt which Celie and Sofia create can be seen to represent the coming together of the underground female community, as they pull together much like the needle pulls together the pieces of fabric in order to become part of a strong, whole and open female culture. Later, in one of Nettie’s letters she tells how Corrine has also made a quilt as a result of hearing about Celie’s practise of quilting. This supports the earlier assertion that liberated females like Shug and eventually Celie can subsequently free other females and introduce them to their own culture. Nettie describes the pieces of fabric used in the making of the quilt as she tells how Corrine “altered one square of appliqued figures with one nine-patch block”. The patchwork nature of the quilt suggests that, as well as symbolizing the female community, it may also stand as symbolism for the integration of females, and also of black people, into the white male-centric culture of twentieth century America. Much like the different colours and types of fabric displayed in the quilt, the deduction is that both genders should be displayed equally and openly, with female culture helping to make up the patchwork fabric of American society. Another way in which Celie’s sewing serves as a means for fighting back against the male culture eclipsing the female one can be observed as she uses her skills to create a pair of trousers. Indeed, Daniel W Ross suggests that “Celie’s sewing associates her with a select group of female characters in American Literature who use their art not to reveal their shame, as Freud suggests, but to transplant it, placing it where it belongs – on their male oppressors”. Indeed, Daniel W. Ross argues that this female making male clothing overturns the constricted gender roles and asserts that female culture is not subordinate to male culture. He states that Celie’s sewing is used as a means “of binding together the sexes so that both male and female can “wear the pants””. On a more literal level, Celie channels her creative sewing skills into the creation of her own pants sewing business. This progression towards economical self-sustenance stands as proof of female culture breaking free from obscurity, with the fact that her pants are worn by males creating a powerful image of female cultural activities like sewing quite literally emerging to reclaim their place in open society. The sewn fabric covers the male’s genitals, much like patriarchy had once obscured the female community. In The Age of Innocence, although on the surface May appears to be either entirely oblivious to the fact that she is not free, or aware of the fact but accepting of it in order to protect her marriage and carry out her spousal duty as expected of her, she can be viewed as character who actually does fight back just like Olenska, but in a far more discreet and well thought out manner. Like Celie, she uses her imposed domestic duties and expectations to fight an underground war to keep her husband. Primarily, May uses to her advantage the expected female role of motherhood. As Archer attempts to leave her she reveals her pregnancy, drawing him into the unwanted duty of fatherhood. From this it can be deducted that she also used her virginal appeal to entice him into impregnating her even though his heart lies elsewhere. Indeed, the novel’s resolve leaves the audience with the suggestion that May had been intending to trap Newland all along, and her act of innocence is merely a façade. Unlike Celie, who uses her physical female assigned skills and duties, May uses her intelligence and intuition. This idea culminates in the farewell party which May throws for Olenska. On the surface this may appear to be a literal farewell to her as she leaves for Europe, but for May and for Newland it is a celebration of May’s victory. She plays on Olenska’s conscience by revealing her pregnancy which persuades her to leave Newland with his wife and child. Here there is further suggestion that it is not only female culture which is marginalized but also male culture, as just as the women are expected to act as perfect and submissive wives, the men are expected to choose one of these women rather than a more appealing but unconventional woman.
The Color Purple and The Age of Innocence portray nineteenth and twentieth century American culture as being predominantly male only on the surface. Both novels continuously suggest that an extensive female culture exists that is almost as present as its male counterpart. Although this culture does appear to operate underground, with many women participating in the façade of American patriarchy, the unconventional females of Shug and Countess Olenska serve as conduits for the emergence of this culture in a transition from secrecy to open legitimacy. The marginalization of these women seems to occur not because they separate themselves from male culture, but because they do so openly rather than in secret. However, The Color Purple in particular sees this openness of the unconventional woman being passed on to other women as this sense of self-expression and recognition grows amongst the female population of America. In this sense, both novels seem to prefigure the emergence of modern gender equality.
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