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.