The Disadvantaged Elite: Upper-Class Men and Feminism in The Age of Innocence
Feminism, in its early stages, was perceived as a form of activism reserved for women. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the suffrage movements of the 1860s, and the conception of Planned Parenthood in 1916 all revolved around and relied on female participation. However, Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence features a male character, Newland Archer, exploring and supporting feminist ideas. Throughout the novel, Archer struggles to maintain his newfound feminist ideologies as he deals with social pressures telling him to view women as prized objects. Newland’s conflict regarding his burgeoning feminist ideas illustrates that even elite men are disadvantaged when it comes to defying social norms in a social setting.
Social customs involving women are among the major concepts examined in The Age of Innocence. In the upper classes of society in 1870s New York, there were many standards and customs that were treated as law. One of the most rigid social conventions was the rejection of divorce. Divorce was seen as a sacrilegious and unorthodox process, and women were expected to remain with their husbands regardless of the circumstances. However, there were few who dared to break from the system and divorce their husbands, including Count Ellen Olenska. Count Olenska expresses her desire to leave her husband, but her family members and others in her social circle reject her desire to do, with the exception of one person – Newland Archer. In Chapter Five, Newland emphatically disdains the way women are treated in marriage, exclaiming that he is “sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman…if her husband prefers to live with harlots” (Wharton 19) when discussing Count Ellen Olenska and her situation with her cheating husband. To this, a fellow elite by the name of Mr. Sillerton Jackson responded by “emitt[ing] a sardonic whistle”, showing how despite being a man of status, Newland Archer is ridiculed for attempting to challenge a social norm and support a woman against her husband. (19). Jackson simply dismisses Newland’s point as a misguided opinion or a preposterous proposition. In this society, it does not matter how poorly the husband treats his wife. While Newland expresses concern for the female condition and his desire for change in the patriarchy, his status and gender do not get him anywhere due to the nature of his opinion, and he is therefore dismissed by his peers. With the concept of divorce being taboo in this society, this feminist cause is dismissed even when the one presenting the cause is an elite male in the society.
Another feminist ideology that Newland supports is that women deserve sexual freedom. Newland knows that it is easy for men to get away with having multiple sexual partners in his society, even when they are married. However, women showing any level of promiscuity are condemned, which shows a marked disparity regarding society’s views on sexual freedom between men and women. Count Ellen Olenska does not subscribe to the set of accepted customs that dictate how women should behave in this society, and chooses to live a sexually liberated lifestyle. Regarding promiscuity, Newland notes that “‘when such things happen’ it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman” (44). Contrary to almost everyone else in his social circle, Newland Archer believes that “women ought to be free – as free as [men] are”, showing that he believes men and women should be afforded equal treatment in this matter(19). In response to this, Mr. Jackson notes that he has “never heard of [Count Olenski] having lifted a finger to get his wife back”, with the reasoning for this being his extramarital affairs described in various parts of the novel (19). However, Mr. Jackson says showing that he is not bothered by this fact at all and simply accepts it as something men do. It is evident that Mr. Jackson would be bothered like the rest of his peers if Ellen were to do the same thing as her husband. Throughout the novel, many of his peers are bothered by not only the infidelities of women but also by unmarried women engaging in sexual activity as seen through the comments of characters like Janey Archer throughout the novel. While Newland’s status establishes him as a powerful member of New York’s upper class, his advocacy of sexual freedom for women fell upon deaf ears among the elite individuals in his social circles.
Alongside the previous aspects of society, the tradition of husbands treating their wives as possessions to show their success and status is endemic in the novel’s society. While Newland takes this sense of possession for granted early in the novel, he changes his mindset as the plot progresses. At the beginning of the novel, Newland “contemplated [May’s] absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity”, showing his enthrallment with the idea having power over a person and feeling superiority (4). However, he becomes disillusioned with the idea of possessing a woman as time goes on, and he realizes that the sense of superiority he had previously enjoyed was nothing more than an illusion. He realizes that “there was no use trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”, showing that when he started to accept feminist ideologies and decided to stop treating his wife like a possession, it was pointless because his wife had never thought of herself as Newland’s possession (87). May’s feelings stem from the way Newland treated her initially; this was the only way she had ever known since this dynamic was society and period-typical. His desire to “emancipate” his wife is complicated by the fact that it is “less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives” (87). Social pressures and traditions not only condone the treatment of women as possessions but encourage it. In this case, Newland’s support for feminism was not only rejected directly by other men in his society but also indirectly by the women whose internalized misogyny prevents them from seeking agency.
Early Feminism was a complex ideology as it diverged radically from the social norms of the late 1800s. While it was relatively rare to see women fighting for their rights and for their liberation from a patriarchal system that disadvantaged them, it was even more uncommon to see men rallying alongside them. Newland Archer’s character in The Age of Innocence has a progressive slant regarding feminism, compared to his peers in the upper-class of New York in the 1870s. However, despite his power as one of New York’s elites, his opinions on gender equality cannot gain any traction due to the traditions that entrench his society. The Age of Innocence shows that even for the most privileged individuals, supporting progressive ideologies will always be an uphill battle against generations of traditions and years of established mindsets.
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