Finding Reality in Age of Innocence
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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