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The Age of Innocence


The Age of Innocence and The Awakening: Interpreting Internal Social Conflicts

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

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.

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Mythological Archetypes of May and Ellen in The Age of Innocence

May 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

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

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

April 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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Ellen Olenska: Commodified Innocence

March 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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The Influence of the Tripartite Psyche: Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

February 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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Finding Reality in Age of Innocence

January 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Newland Archer is not only a well-read intellect, but an introspective thinker who deeply considers his own life. One concept that Newland consistently struggles with is his understanding of “reality”, and a major journey exposed through Wharton’s narrative is Newland’s changing relationship with what he perceives as real and tangible versus imagined fantasy. Newland begins his journey believing that the esteemed New York Society in which he has been raised is fake and materialistic, and that his true “reality” lies somewhere else beyond the constraints of his small community. He lives a predictable life marked by spasmodic glimpses into the “real” life he dreams of. These daydreams, however, consistently end with startling instances of Newland being reminded of the society that surrounds him. The pivotal shift in Archer’s mentality occurs at Ellen Olenska’s parting dinner, when he finally realizes that his “unreal” New York “clan” is actually his reality, and any life beyond it is merely an unattainable fantasy. This moment marks the figurative “death” of Newland’s fantasies, Wharton’s way of delivering the message that realism trumps romanticism.

From the opening scene of Age of Innocence, Wharton paints a fake, appearance-driven clique of socialites, with Newland Archer presented as the “real” one who notes its falseness. The story opens at the opera, a place where actors display unreal emotions and passion on a stage, mirroring the rehearsed, inorganic, and unreal actions of the members of Archer’s society. Newland observes the first “scandal” of the narrative, noticing his fiancee May’s cousin, “poor Ellen Olenska” being accepted into the Mingott family opera box. He “entirely approve[s] of the family solidarity, and one of the qualities he most admire[s] in the Mingotts [is] their resolute championship of the few black sheep that their blameless stock had produced.”. Newland is not the type to shun a “black sheep,” or disgrace, from society because of rumors, and he believes it would be “false prudery,” or a supercilious aversion towards Ellen by avoiding her and the messy reality of her situation (9).

He further emphasizes his distaste for the way his society ignores reality by commenting on “Mrs. Welland’s request to be spared whatever [is] ‘unpleasant’ in her history,” and “wince[s] at the thought that it [is] perhaps this attitude of mind which [keeps] the New York air so pure” (61). Newland’s idea of “real life” is full of unpleasantness, and the way in which New York elite pretends that this discomfort does not exist makes Newland “reconcile his instinctive disgust at human vileness with his equally instinctive pity for human frailty” (61). He is bothered to a point of “disgust” by this artificial ignorance of reality, describing it as part “vileness,” or wickedness, and part “frailty,” or weakness. He condemns his society and family for being so ignorant, and when his sister accuses him of calling their mother an “old Maid,” Archer “[feels] like shouting back, ‘Yes she is, and so are the van der Luydens, and so we all are, when it comes to being brushed by the wing-tip of Reality’” (55). He strongly feels that the life the upper-class New Yorkers live is contrived, and by using the pronoun “we,” he is referring to himself as well, implying that he needs to break out of the unreality he lives in. Archer comments on an unreal artificiality in the way people communicate as well. As he sits at a dinner table enveloped in shallow, appearance-driven comments such as “What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?” (26), he characterizes New York society as a “kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” (29). Communication between members of his community is discreet and non-verbal, leading to misinterpretation, “the real thing” rarely understood fully or correctly.

Newland has a building trepidation for the future that society has laid out before him; he will marry May Welland, maintain a respectable and “pleasant” reputation, and stay at the top of New York’s “small and slippery pyramid” (64) of societal hierarchy. He thinks his society lacks “realness” in the sense of love and passion– with a “shiver of foreboding” Newland sees his marriage becoming “what most of the other marriages around him [are]: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other” (29). The “ignorance” he thinks of is the wife’s duty to ignore the reality that her husband has affairs with other women, and the “hypocrisy” is the husband’s way of allowing himself to have mistresses. Newland worries that a life as May Welland’s husband will lead him down this path of insincere “association,” and poignantly considers, “once he was married, what would become of this narrow margin of life in which his real experiences were lived?” (80). He believes that marrying May, a symbolic commitment to preserving his fragile society of elites, means sacrificing “real experiences,” implying that life within his clan is not reality. He worries that he will ultimately become trapped in this unreal, guarded routine of resisting reality, and increasingly feels “as if he [is] being buried alive under his future” (87).

What Newland seeks is a reality outside the bounds of his insular, “unreal” community, and to him, the epitome of this reality is the mysterious, unconventional Ellen Olenska. Contrary to the “dull association” he predicts with May, Newland feels real passion and attraction to Ellen: “her lightest touch… thrilled him like a caress” (42). She is a refreshing sense of reality, frequently revealing the entire (often distasteful) truth. When describing her shabby “bohemian neighborhood,” for instance, she says,“at any rate it’s less gloomy than the Van der Luydens.” This candid quip gives Newland “an electric shock, for few were the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy” (47). To Newland, Ellen is honest and real, and is attracted to her ability to confront the facts. She is also able to handle the “unpleasant,” showing her capability for reality when she mentions her husband Count Olenski “as if no sinister associations were connected.” Her nonchalant way of addressing the tainted relationship with her husband shocks Archer, and he “[looks] at her perplexedly, wondering if it were lightness or dissimulation that enabled her to touch so easily on the past” (68). It is unusual for a woman in Archer’s society to deal with the “unpleasant” as Ellen can, and to Newland this is attractive.

Wharton presents an irony in depicting Newland as someone who denounces the petty, “unreal” ways of those around him, because in fact, he is a romantic; the least realistic of them all. He constantly drifts into fantasies about a nonexistent life full of “real” love and “real” passion, leaving him disconnected from the actual world in front of him. Newland can first be defined as a romantic by the literature he reads and the way he interprets it. The reader often witnesses Newland envisioning himself in idyllic love scenes portrayed by romantic poets like Dante, Petrarch, and Tennyson. Wharton describes Newland picturing “to himself what it would have been to live in the intimacy of drawing rooms dominated by the talk of Mérimée… but such things were inconceivable in New York” (65). He dreams of scenes that do not fit into New York, and longs for the “intimacy” of another world. At the end of chapter fifteen, Newland comes across a copy of Rossetti’s “The House of Life,” and feeds his romantic yearning by envisioning Ellen Olenska as the poet’s idealized lover: “He [takes] it up, and [finds] himself plunged in an atmosphere unlike any he [has] ever breathed in books; so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender that it [gives] a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary of human passions. All through the night he [pursues] through the enchanted pages the vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska” (87). Newland’s life-like vision embodies his confusion between reality and fantasy, and his inability to distinguish the two. By describing the intimate “atmosphere” to which reading transports him as “new,” he implies that real “haunting beauty” is a sensation he has yet to feel in his actual life with May.

As the narrative progresses, Newland exhibits an uncontrollable obsession with Ellen. His daydreams of her are lifelike, representing more of a reality to him than his actual life with May. During a trip to Newport with May and her family, he is sent to look for the Countess, and spots her standing at the end of a pier. As soon as he sees her, the internal contemplation begins: “But now it was the Welland house, and the life he was expected to lead in it, that had become unreal and irrelevant, and the brief scene on the shore, when he had stood irresolute, halfway down the bank, was as close to him as the blood in his veins” (133). The real life he lives with May is now not only fake in the artificial sense, but it is “unreal and irrelevant,” lacking real feeling or sensation to Archer. Ellen becomes the epitome of all that is real to Archer, and as it gets more difficult for him to see her, he becomes more attached. In Boston, he says longingly to Olenska, “you gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one” (148). The “real life” he refers to is the authentic, true love he thinks he shares with Ellen, and the “sham one” is the relationship he seems to be stuck in with May. The “real life” he finds in Ellen even exists internally, when she is nowhere near: He had built up within himself, a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life…Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there” (159). Newland has reached a point of feeling closer to Ellen, even in unreachable fantasies, than he does to May, who is the reality of his “actual life.” His internal fantasy has become the “scene of his real life,” demonstrating his warped sense of where reality lies. In his actual life he “blunders” as an “absent-minded man,” imagery that suggests a wandering corpse, inattentive and death-like. This is a fitting description for Newland as he approaches his figurative death.

As Newland’s fantasies become increasingly frequent, similarities can be found in the way they all end. His daydreams are continually shut down by startling reminders that jolt him back to the “fake and insincere” high-society life he knows. When he visits the van der Luyden house in Skuytercliff, he “[imagines Ellen], almost [hears] her, stealing up behind him to throw her light arms about his neck.” Just when he reaches a heightened sense of reality in his daydream, “soul and body throbbing with the miracle to come,” Archer’s “eyes mechanically [receive] the image of a heavily-coated man with his fur collar turned up…The man was Julius Beaufort” (84). Beaufort acts as a painful reminder of many things; he is married to a woman from a prominent family yet is rumored to repeatedly have other affairs, one of these being with Ellen. This makes Beaufort both a vision of the kind of man inauthentic Newland fears he will become, and an obstacle preventing Newland from pursuing a relationship with the woman he associates with “real” love. The way Archers eyes “ mechanically receive the image” of Beaufort demonstrates that he is still merely going through the motions of actual life, still believing that his reality lies somewhere else. Newland abruptly snaps out of a fantasy again when he visits Newport with his newlywed May for a party. He strolls into a garden, Ellen occupying his thoughts, and spots a pink parasol which he is convinced is Ellen’s. “The parasol drew him like a magnet: he was sure it was hers… Archer lifted the handle to his lips. He heard a rustle of skirts against the box, and sat motionless, leaning on the parasol handle with clasped hands, and letting the rustle come nearer without lifting his eyes. He had always known that this must happen… “Oh, Mr. Archer!” exclaimed a loud young voice; and looking up he saw before him the youngest and largest of the Blenker girls, blonde and blowsy, in bedraggled muslin”(137). Newland is startled to find that owner of the parasol and the approaching “rustle of skirts” is not Ellen, but a “blowsy and bedraggled” young girl. Newland is beginning to realize that his lifelike glimpses into what he feels is “reality,” are not always correct– in this case he foolishly kisses the handle of the parasol, only to find out that it isn’t even Ellen’s. In this way Wharton exposes the ridiculousness of Archer’s romanticism, and his embarrassment in realizing so.

Archer achieves a pivotal change in his understanding of reality during his wife’s dinner party honoring Ellen Olenska’s final departure to Europe. As Newland sits unengaged in the conversation, “[floating] somewhere between the chandelier and the ceiling,” he realizes with a start, “in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers…He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears” Newland now realizes that the clan is smarter than he thought; all along they have been observing and understanding his covert longing for Ellen. It also dawns on him that May’s motives for the dinner party are not so innocent: “the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and now the whole tribe rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.” May’s party appears to be an innocent farewell to Ellen, but it is really a celebratory ridding of Ellen, a threat to rigid New York social code. The party is May’s way of recognizing her triumph as “wife,” the woman who gets to stay with Newland. Newland sees this passive competitiveness as the “old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood.’” May is just as sharp and ruthless as Ellen or Newland, but the way she achieves her goals and “wins” is secretive and seemingly painless. When Newland realizes this, he knows that he has been outwitted by May and the rest of society. They have “taken life” from Newland, culminating in his figurative death. Suddenly “Archer [feels] like a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp.” His wife and friends turn from proper socialites to “captors,” and “a deathly sense of the superiority… closed in on him like the doors of the family vault” (200). Newland has fully realized what Ellen understood years ago: his fantasies will never be fully “real” or attainable; New York society has been his reality all along. By accepting that the artificial empire of New York is actually his reality, the “being buried alive under his future” that Newland feared at the beginning of the narrative has been achieved. Because his fantasies have died with his new understanding of true reality, Newland himself has figuratively died, suffocated by the “doors of the family vault.”

Newland proves that his understanding of true reality endures twenty-five years into the future when he visits Europe with his son. Wharton demonstrates the absent-minded blur of Newland’s married life with May by abruptly skipping past the twenty-five years in which Newland and May have children, establish a home, and become further involved in society. Newland is now fifty-seven, his wife May has died of pneumonia, and he is amazed by the social liberty and acceptance that characterizes his children’s generation. He visits Paris with his son, who tells him that they are to visit “the woman you’d have chucked everything for” (214), Ellen Olenska. Standing at the base of Ellen’s Paris apartment, Newland is as close to his dream life with her as he has ever been; May is not alive to stop him, he is distant from the strict New York clan, and Ellen does not have a husband. Yet he decides not to go up to the apartment and pursue what was once his life-like fantasy. He tells his son, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up” (217). Newland is wiser now, exemplifying his understanding that people must live in a world of reality rather than a world of dreams. This final resolution reflects Newland’s shifted reality from his romantic imagination to the actual society that surrounds him. Actual life trumps ideal life, making Wharton’s novel distinctly realist.

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Mortality and Immortality

January 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

New York Society, in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920), is paradoxically immortal and mortal. Like the Olympic pantheon of mythological Greek antiquity, New York Society cavorts and carouses, bickers and condemns while it feasts on ambrosia and canvas-backs. Newland Archer’s sister is the gossipy Cassandra; his wife is the huntress Diana. And he, by all instances of the society around him, should be Diana’s archer twin: Apollo. He, too, should be “immortal,” that is, “like a god”, “a deity”, “never aging”, “perfect”, “alive although dead”, “icy”, “condemning” and “aloof.” Surprisingly for Newland and the expectations of his society, after meeting Ellen Olenska he recognizes through the contrast between her and New York that he, like her, is different from the others in New York’s pantheon. He, too, is “mortal,” that is, “human”, “aging”, “imperfect”, “feeling”, “compassionate” and “warm”. Once Catherine, the great matriarch of the pantheon, is able to fall from immortality and become a mortal, there is a possibility for Archer to leave the pantheon and live a mortal existence himself. But despite his realization of this possibility, Newland never leaves the pantheon to take on a mortal existence. His inability to freely act on his desires casts the “icy perfection” of immortality in a new light: immortality becomes a form of paralysis. He, ironically, is trapped in his immortality like a soul in a statue. Through the dichotomous metaphor of immortality and mortality, Wharton is able to cast New York and her hero (or perhaps, more precisely, anti-hero) Newland Archer as paradoxically “god-like” yet paralyzed.When Wharton first describes the characters of New York society, they are always conceived of as immortal in some way. Beginning with Catherine Mingott, her “immense accretion of flesh” rewarded her by “presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh.” So, Catherine, despite her very old age, manages to escape wrinkles. She is not alone in escape aging, a sign of her immortality. For example, Mrs. van der Luyden’s “portrait by Huntington” is still “a perfect likeness though twenty years had elapsed since its execution.” Wharton further emphasizes this point: “Indeed, Mrs. Van der Luyden . . . might have been the twin sister of the fair and still youngish woman drooping against a gilt armchair [in the painting] . . .” In fact, Mrs. van der Luyden’s youth is so eerie that, “She always, indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.” Her husband, Mr. van der Luyden, also has the same quality of being alive but dead. His home is like a place for the living dead: “As Archer rang the bell, the long tinker seemed to echo through a mausoleum; and the surprise of the butler who at length responded to the call was as great as though he had been summoned from his final sleep.” Indeed, van der Luyden’s home always, “looms up grimly, even in the summer.” In his grim state of being alive but dead he is a sort of immortal. His immortality is made even clearer when, later, Mr. van der Luyden is described as Ellen’s “protecting deity.” Everything about this ruling family of New York society seems to insist upon their life-in-death nature, or their immortality.Another member of the pantheon, May Welland, is also described as an immortal. When she first enters the Beaufort’s ballroom, “in her dress of white and silver with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, she looked like a Diana just alighting from the chase.” When Newland visits May in St. Augustine, May, “walks beside Archer with her long swinging gait; her face wears the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete.” In both instances, May is described as an immortal, something beyond human. She is described as being “superhuman” in Newland’s mind for pledging to give him up if he truly loves someone else. Newland later tries to understand what makes her seem so immortal. He guesses that “perhaps the faculty of unawareness was what gave her Š 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.” May is, in some sense, the most immortal of the immortals, since even on her honeymoon she is as icy and frozen as ever: “She looked handsomer and more Diana-like than ever Š The inner glow of happiness shined through like a light under ice.” Later, when May suggests that Ellen would be happier with her husband than in New York, Newland condemns her suggestion saying, “Watching the contortions of the damned is supposed to be a favorite sport of the angels; but I believe even they don’t think people happier in hell.” Here he suggests that May is like an angel watching Ellen suffer. The archery tournament is the most vivid example of May’s godliness. When she comes out of the tent to the tournament, “She has the same Diana-like aloofness as when she had entered the Beaufort ballroom on the night of her engagement.” Her “nymph-like ease” makes her stand out from the other participants. Also, she, like Mrs. van der Luyden is able to defy the aging process: “In the interval not a thought seemed to have passed behind her eyes or a feeling through her heart; and though her husband knew that she had the capacity for both he marveled afresh at the way in which experience dropped away from her.” As another attribute of her godliness, May never shows pain; her only wounds are imaginary: “[Archer thinks] if May had spoken out her grievances (he suspected her of many) he might have laughed them away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds under a Spartan smile.” May is always young; she is always innocent and without visible pain. As final testimony to her ability to defy age, she dies quickly and mysteriously of pneumonia after she weans her second child. Ellen’s mortality stands out in stark contrast to May’s immortality. Ellen ages, cries and feels. Early in the novel, “It was generally agreed that Ellen had lost her looks.” Even Archer agrees that her “early radiance is gone. The red cheeks have paled; she is thin, worn, a little older-looking than her age, which must have been nearly thirty.” Her mortality is emphasized by the fact that she ages; and it is made even more apparent when compared to the cast of gods who never age. Further, Ellen is the only character (besides Newland) who cries . Her first sadness is revealed when she explains to Newland her frustration of “the real loneliness,” which is “living among all these kind people who ask one to pretend.” Her humanism and sympathy for others is also quite exceptional in her society of gods. Ned Winsett points out that Ellen bandaged and rescued his little boy: “My little boy fell down chasing his kitten, and gave himself a nasty cut. She rushed in bareheaded, carrying him in her arms, with his knee all beautifully bandaged, and was so sympathetic and beautiful that my wife was too dazzled to ask her name.” Ned, a mortal, is the first to recognize Ellen’s beauty. No one among the pantheon recognizes her beauty except Newland , of course, and Catherine after her stroke. Ellen’s aging, sympathy and humanism cast her as a mortal against the backdrop of immortal New York.Catherine is the only one among the gods of New York that seems to “fall” from immortality. In the beginning of the novel, she seems as immortal as the rest with her vast flesh keeping her skin smooth and pink and wrinkle-free, despite her old age. As if conscious of her position in the pantheon, Catherine has a grand mural of the Olympiad painted on her summer home. She also speaks like a god, condemning Ellen to her fate: “‘And now it’s too late; her life is finished.’ She spoke with the cold-blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the grave of young hopes.” Her ability to judge, condemn and bury alive is seen in her treatment of Ellen and then later Mrs. Beaufort. But soon after her abandonment of Mrs. Beaufort, Catherine suffers a stroke. Unlike Mr. Welland whose sickness is a sham induced to protect the reputation of his bad doctor, Catherine is the first character in the novel to really become ill and almost die; in this sense, she is the first of the “immortals” to fall from godliness. Her body, which once never aged, now shows physical signs of deterioration. She “looked paler with darker shadows in the folds and recesses of her obesity.” Also, her temperament has changed from being the cold, callous goddess to a more understanding “mortal” woman. Wharton describes the change in Catherine: “The growing remoteness of old age, though it had not diminished her curiosity about her neighbors, had blunted her never very lively compassion for their troubles; but, for the first time, she became absorbed in her own symptoms and began to take a sentimental interest in certain members of her family to whom she had hitherto been contemptuously indifferent.” After her change, Catherine’s first impulse is to bring Ellen back home. Her focus has changed from purely “godly” concerns to human concerns.Although previously she had been the first to condemn her, to cut her off from her allowance when she refused to divorce, she suddenly identifies and sympathizes with Ellen’s plight. Something has changed in Catherine; she is now mortal. She invites Archer to her home, specifically denying May the invitation. Archer tells Catherine that she is handsome, but Catherine immediately uses the complement as a segue to champion her granddaughter. She says, “Ah, but not as handsome as Ellen.” She is the first of the gods of New York Society to see beauty in Ellen. She also resolutely decides that Ellen must stay with her and receive her allowance: “The minute I laid eyes on her, I said: ŒYou sweet bird, you! Shut you up in that cage again? Never!'” A clearer indication of this change in her mortality is her own recognition of the change. Catherine says, “She hadn’t been here five minutes before I’d have gone down on my knees to keep her ­ if only, for the last twenty years, I’d been able to see where the floor was!” This statement is highly ironic because, of course, literally she has not been able to see the floor because of her extreme obesity. But on another level, she admits to being off the floor, not leveled in reality, on the ground and in a mortal existence. Through Catherine we realize that it is possible for someone to relinquish his place among the gods and choose a mortal existence. Despite the fact that Newland recognizes the possibility to shift from an immortal existence to a mortal existence, he remains in the pantheon. In the pantheon, Newland plays the role of Apollo. In Greek mythology Diana (called Artemis by the Greeks) and Apollo are the “archer” pair. Artemis and Apollo are the great twin archers in mythology; May makes clear, particularly to Ellen that she and Newland are “the same in all feelings” cementing the analogy between the mythological archers and the New York Archers. Janey, Newland’s sister, is referred to as “Cassandra-like.” In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the gossipy lover of Apollo, thus, once again securing the analogy between Newland and Apollo. Apart from the godlike similarities , Newland also behaves as an immortal in other ways. For example, he, like the van der Luydens, often senses that he is alive but dead. In conversation with May, he thinks to himself, “I’ve caught my death already! I am dead. I’ve been dead for months and months.” In another scene, Wharton describes Newland as “absent from life,” as though her were dead. By being godlike like May and simultaneously alive-in-death like the van der Luydens, Archer is an immortal and fits in well in New York’s pantheon.Despite his “immortal” characteristics, his mortality is starkly visible, particularly when he visits Ellen. Early on, Newland sees evidence of his mortality first in the literature that he reads. He first begins to feel trapped in his role when May and Mrs. Welland insists he go from family to family announcing his engagement. He feels like he is a “wild animal cunningly trapped”. He supposes that his readings from anthropology are forcing him to take such a coarse view. Further evidence of his mortality is in his agreement with Ellen. On their first meeting in her home, she tries to explain away the van der Luyden’s place in the pantheon. She suggests that they remain powerful and exclusive because they “receive so seldomly”; thus, she debases their immortality. Newland, “laughed and sacrificed them.” Newland is able, like Catherine, to become mortal and sacrifice his gods. But, he lacks the boldness to do it outside of Ellen’s company. With Ellen he is able to view New York “as through the wrong end of a telescope.” But once he steps outside her company, “New York once again becomes vast and imminent and May the loveliest woman in it.” Newland’s mortality is addressed more directly by the Marchioness Manson: in jest, she says while referring to Dr. Carver, “How merciless he is to us weak mortals, Mr. Archer!” Although the expression is clearly just humor, there is also the question of Archer’s mortality that is distinctly articulated. Not only does Newland recognize his mortality in the conversations he has with others, but he also sees it reflected in his studies of relics and of future inventions. Through a comparison with his readings, Newland comes to understand his society as a “hieroglyphic world”. Hieroglyphs are obscure symbols, but they are also very ancient. In this comparison, Newland shows an understanding that all the codes of his “modern society” will someday be as obscure and meaningless as hieroglyphs. He compares the simulated reluctance of May’s acceptance of the engagement as similar to “the books of Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, where the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parent’s tent.” In comparing the rituals of the “immortal society” in which he lives with the barbaric and ancient traditions of the past, he understands that his society, too, will one day be gone. This acceptance is extremely “mortal”; the recognition of the near possible end to his pantheon shows that he is, at heart, not an immortal. The final meeting between Ellen and Newland in the museum highlights this sense of impending mortality that Ellen and Newland share but that the other immortals can not seem to grasp. Newland and Ellen begin their final conversation while staring at a relic from a society that may once have been as powerful and “immortal” as New York society. Ellen says, “After a while nothing matters Š any more than these little things that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: ŒUse unknown.'” Ellen and Newland both realize that all the rules and regulations that have forbidden their happiness will soon become relics just like the museum exhibit. In an earlier scene, the same sense of mortality is found by looking into the future rather than the past. Ellen and Newland speak lightly about the future of the telephone and the fantastic predictions of Jules Verne and Edgar Poe. They speak of the future and speak of the past, placing themselves in a transient age, and naming themselves as mortals that are born, grow old and die.Although he clearly possesses the characteristics of the mortals and immortals, Newland is unable to “fall from immortality” as Catherine did; he is unable to vocally champion and publicly love Ellen as Catherine is able to. Unlike Catherine, Newland never chooses to act against the rules of the immortal society. Instead he lives a life of pretend, upholding the rules of “immortals” while suffering as a mortal. His life of façade is so convincing that people begin to call him “a good citizen”. He allows his true love, the only other mortal who had been included in the pantheon, to live alone, exiled. Meanwhile, his lack of boldness makes him “miss the flower of life,” the freedom that he, ironically, had always pictured himself as possessing. He can never freely choose the life he wishes to live. And, in this sense, his “immortal” life is more paralyzing than liberating. Ironically, it is the mortals who are free to live where they want to live and be who they want to be. The juxtaposition of mortality and immortality in Age of Innocence is the most informative tool that Wharton could have used to relate the true nature of the last pantheon in American history. Newland, in his struggle to confront his own mortality and then in his cowardice to deny it, is the most befitting narrator for a tale of such a society. He is simultaneously in the circle of gods, while also a mortal, rejecting and criticizing the lives that the others lead. His decision not to cheat on May and not to abandon his unborn child is simultaneously a tribute to his understanding of immortality and mortality. He stays with her, partially because he is sheltered, protected and empowered by the pantheon. At the same time, he and Ellen agree that a life of infidelity would make him “just like the others.” A life of cavorting and carousing, like that of Larry Lefferts, would be a life of the cold “immortals.” So, in his decision to be forever faithful, his life is a tribute to the compassion of human mortality. In this sense, Wharton leaves the question of whether Newland is a mortal or an immortal open. He never seems to grow old, or age just as the immortals. At the same time, his compassion and fidelity are so unlike the characteristics of the others that he seems entirely distinct from them. Perhaps Wharton places Newland in the paradox position between mortality and immortality intentionally. After all, Newland, in his position of flux, has the gift of an insider perspective while maintaining a critical eye. Simultaneously, he lacks the power to change and reconstruct his society in order to allow us, readers, to observe his entrapment in the marble mausoleum of New York society.

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