Analysis of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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By the time the bloody chaos of the First World War finally came to an end on November 11, 1918, the American novelist Edith Wharton had already been living as an expatriate in Paris for five years. During that time, she had essentially ceased to write fiction and had turned her energies instead to the Allied effort by providing war relief for soldiers and refugees. Her devotion and enthusiasm for her work was, in fact, enough to win her the French Legion of Honor. By the end of the war, however, Wharton found herself disturbed by what she saw as the profound social disruptions that had been brought on by the war. In the months after the armistice, she again picked up her pen to write what many critics consider to be her war novel.
One would be hard pressed, however, to find any elements within The Age of Innocence that even remotely address the disruption and the bloodshed of the First World War. Set in 1870's New York, Wharton's novel depicts a society that is in many ways the antithesis of war-devastated Europe. Old New York, Wharton's term to describe this wealthy and elite class at the top of the developing city's social hierarchy, was a society utterly intent on maintaining its own rigid stability. To Wharton, Old New York imposed on its members set rules and expectations for practically everything: manners, fashions, behaviors, and even conversations. Those who breached the social code were punished, with exquisite politeness, by the other members.
The differences between the fractured society following the First World War and the Old New York of The Age of Innocence are without a doubt dramatic. However, there is more of a connection between them than may first appear. Edith Wharton herself was born into the claustrophobic world of Old New York. When she began, at the age of fifty-seven, to write what would become her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, she had already witnessed an astounding amount of social change. Both horrified and fascinated by the chaos and the freedom of the new century as it headed towards modernism and war, Wharton was prompted to compare this new age with that of her own past. The Age of Innocence, then, stands as both a personal recollection of the culture of Wharton's youth and an historical study of an old-fashioned world on the brink of profound and permanent change.
It is believed that the expression "keeping up with the Joneses" once specifically referred to Edith Jones Wharton's parents, who were known throughout New York for their lavish social gatherings. Born into such an atmosphere of opulence, Wharton had access to all the privileges of an upper- class upbringing: education, travel, and the assurance of a good marriage. Yet for all the luxury of her youth, Wharton felt her individuality continually stifled by the rigid expectations and narrow perspectives of her class. Not surprisingly, these sentiments become central themes in The Age of Innocence. Unhappily married at an early age to a man thirteen years her senior, Wharton faced, like Ellen Olenska, the temptations of adultery and the censure of divorce. As a writer, too, Wharton faced the criticisms of her class, who disdained and feared what they called the bohemian life of artists and writers.
Post-war Paris was a far cry from this stifling environment, and Wharton was interested in tracing the differences between her past and present not only on a personal level, but also a historico-anthropological level. By the end of the War, rigid Old New York appeared as a lost world, a defunct civilization that bore little similarity to the present era. Like many authors of her time, Wharton was interested in evolutionary theories and the newly developing field of anthropology. To a great extent, it is this interest in the sociology of Old New York that gives the novel its keen sense of detached irony. While post-Civil War New York saw itself as the pinnacle of civilization, Wharton undercuts this picture by comparing its unbending societal customs to those of the most primitive tribes.
Newland Archer couldn't be more pleased with his recent engagement to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However, his world is thrown upside down by the sensational arrival of May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Recently returned to America after separating from her husband, a philandering Polish count, Countess Olenska shocks the staid New York aristocracy with her revealing clothes, carefree manners, and rumors of adultery. Because the Countess's family, headed by the powerful Mrs. Manson Mingott, have chosen to reintroduce her into good society, Archer and May feel it necessary to befriend her.
As Archer comes to better know the Countess, he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society. Meanwhile, Archer becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fianceé, May. He begins to see her as the manufactured product of her class: polite, innocent, and utterly devoid of personal opinion and sense of self.
The Countess Olenska soon announces her intention of divorcing her husband. While Archer supports her desire for freedom, he feels compelled to act on behalf of the Mingott family and persuade Ellen to remain married. At a friend's cottage near Hudson, Archer realizes that he is in love with Ellen. He abruptly leaves the next day for Florida, where he is reunited with May and her parents, who are there on vacation. There, he presses May to shorten their engagement. May becomes suspicious and asks him if his hurry to get married is prompted by the fear that he is marrying the wrong person. Archer reassures May that he is in love with her. Back in New York, Archer calls on Ellen, and Archer admits that he is in love with her. Just then, a telegram arrives from May, announcing that her parents have pushed forward the wedding date.
After their wedding and honeymoon in Europe, Archer and May settle down to married life in New York. Over time, Archer's memory of Ellen fades to a wistful image. But on vacation in Newport, he is reunited with her, and Ellen promises not to return to Europe as long as she and Newland do not act upon their love for each other. Back in New York, Archer learns that Count Olenski wants his wife to return to him and that Ellen has refused. After the stroke of her grandmother, Ellen returns to New York to care for her. She and Archer agree to consummate their affair. But suddenly, Ellen announces her intention to return to Europe. May throws a farewell party for Ellen, and after the guests leave, May announces to Archer that she is pregnant and that she told Ellen her news two weeks earlier.
Twenty-five years pass. In that time, the Archers have had three children and May has died from pneumonia. Now Archer's son convinces him to travel to France. There, they arrange to visit the Countess Olenska at her Paris apartment. However, at the last minute Archer sends his son alone to visit her, content instead to live with his memories of the past.
Newland Archer - The novel's protagonist. Archer is a wealthy young lawyer married to the beautiful debutante May Welland. He is in love, however, with May's cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who represents to him the freedom missing from the suffocating environment of the New York aristocracy. Archer is torn between his duty to May and to his family, and his passion for Ellen. In the end, he remains faithful to his wife and comes to be known in society as a philanthropist and civic figure.
Countess Ellen Olenska - May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. Ellen was educated and raised in Europe. There, she married a Polish count, who cheated on her and prompted her to leave him. Upon her return to New York family, she hopes to be reintegrated to American life, but she finds only judgmentality and stifling mores. Her behavior is deemed too unorthodox for her to fit in to Old New York. To Archer, however, she is free and truly alive, her own person.
May Welland - The dewy-eyed and artless young thing who marries Archer. May appears to be unassailably innocent. Over time, Archer comes to see her as the living embodiment of New York society: incapable of thinking on her own, conditioned to act as she is expected. Despite her apparent innocence, May is not as naïve as Newland thinks. However, she remains a loyal wife even after she suspects that Newland is having an affair with Countess Olenska.
Mrs. Manson Mingott - Grandmother to May and Ellen, Mrs. Mingott is a fat and fiery old aristocratic lady who wields great influence over the New York clan. While her moral standards are irreproachable, she has some unorthodox social views. She insists on family solidarity and remains confident in Ellen, supporting her financially when she leaves New York to return to Europe.
Henry and Louisa van der Luyden - The descendants of pre-Revolutionary Dutch aristocracy, this elderly couple is the last word in social authority. They are last in a long line of powerful social leaders. Very quiet and non-adventurous people, they are rarely seen in public and only rarely invite guests to their solemn Madison Avenue mansion.
Julius Beaufort - Little is known about this British banker's past, but it is widely rumored that he left Europe after some shady business deals. With his elaborate annual balls, Beaufort is one of the most important and lavish hosts of New York entertainment. Following a scandalous business failure, he is swiftly exiled from good society.
Mrs. Archer and Janey Archer - Mother and sister of Archer, these two women act almost like sisters. Somewhat socially timid, they love to gossip, grow ferns, and make lace. While they are devoted to Archer, they are nonetheless frequently shocked by his social views.
Lawrence Lefferts - Widely considered to be the arbiter of good taste and moral values, Lefferts is also a huge gossip and an unfaithful husband. There are suspicions that he courted Countess Olenska soon after her arrival and was soundly rejected.
Sillerton Jackson - An elderly gentleman and good friend of the Archer family. Jackson is the unofficial archivist of all New York gossip and family history.
Medora Manson - The eccentric old aunt of Ellen's, Medora raised her after the deaths of Ellen's parents. A penniless itinerant, she is repeatedly widowed, and is tolerated by society only because of her family connections.
Ned Winsett - The bohemian journalist friend of Archer. Ned Winsett is one of the few people with whom Archer can really converse. He sees him as both an emblem of social freedom and its immense costs.
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers- Although as heir to a shoe polish fortune Mrs. Struthers is considered common, she becomes a popular hostess known for her artistic gatherings.
The novel opens in the new opera house, where all of New York's high society has assembled in its expensive box seats to see and to be seen. Newland Archer, the protagonist, has just arrived fashionably late and joins his friends in time for the climax of the opera. As he glances across the filled theater, he spots May Welland, his new fianceé, seated in the box of her aristocratic old grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott. Archer, struck anew by her pure and innocent beauty, dreams of blissful married life with May.
His reverie is abruptly interrupted by his acquaintance Larry Lefferts, who notices a stranger entering the Mingott box. A slim young woman wearing a theatrical and low-cut dress takes a seat in the box, seemingly unconscious of all the attention she attracts. With shock, Archer realizes that this woman is no other than the Countess Ellen Olenska, cousin to May Welland, who has returned to New York after having lived abroad for many years. Lefferts, considered to be the authority on "form," or style and fashion, and Sillerton Jackson, the unofficial archivist of all family histories and scandals within the upper class, are both shocked that the Countess would appear in good society with the rest of her family. We learn through their gossip that it is rumored that she had left her unfaithful husband, a Polish count.
Newland admires the fiery and somewhat unorthodox determination of Mrs. Manson Mingott to support this 'black sheep' of her family by not only hosting her indefinitely in her home, but also by allowing her to appear publicly in the family box at the Opera. Yet at the same time he is bothered that all of New York society will see such a scandalous figure sitting next to his innocent young fiancee. As the men continue to gossip, Archer feel compelled to take decisive action. As the fiancé of May Welland, he decides that he has the responsibility to defend the Mingott clan.
During intermission, he hurries over to the Mingott box. Although no words are exchanged between May and himself as to the reason for his sudden appearance, she shows her understanding of the situation and her gratitude to Archer with her smile. Both she and Archer are aware that by appearing in the Mingott box with the Countess Olenska, Archer is demonstrating his connection to that family and his support of their decision to include the Countess in their social activities. Archer is introduced to Olenska, who was one of his childhood playmates. He is struck by her flippant, friendly manners and finds her descriptions of New York society rather disrespectful.
After the opera, many of the wealthy New York families attend the annual ball at the Beaufort residence. Julius Beaufort, we learn, is a handsome, charming, and disreputable Englishman with a shady financial history and a strong tendency toward infidelity; his wife Regina is a pretty but dull woman of reputable family background. Although many consider the Beauforts to be "common," no one would ever pass their elaborate and ostentatious balls, which provide a cornerstone for New York social activities.
At the ball, Archer and May officially announce their engagement. In a moment alone together in the conservatory, they express their happiness. May suddenly asks Archer to announce their engagement to her cousin Ellen Olenska. Ellen, to the relief of her family, did not attend the Beauforts' ball.
In the opening chapter of The Age of Innocence, Wharton immediately evokes a specific time, a place, and a society. Her panoramic description of the opera is highly effective as an introductory setting, for it not only acclimates the reader to the fashions and entertainment preferences of Old New York, but it also presents the members of this society as if they were an assembly, a closely-knit collection of individuals and families. The fact that everyone in good society attends the opera demonstrates immediately their similar tastes in art and entertainment. Yet the opera does not serve merely as a bonding activity for the very rich. Indeed, the members of the audience scrutinize each other far more than the opera itself, singling out in particular the fashions and manners of their peers. One goes to the opera to see and to be seen, to judge and to be judged.
This may explain why Wharton is quick to introduce two characters who are otherwise minor to the plot. She singles Larry Lefferts out of the crowd as "the foremost authority on form." Form, or a code that indicates the acceptable tastes in fashion and manners, is extremely important to this society, which is so concerned with appearances. And an unusual dress or a flippant attitude may, in fact, signify more than just a lack of taste but also a lack of proper moral values. Such a potential wantonness threatens to destabilize the delicate existing code and is therefore judged harshly. In addition to Lefferts, Wharton pauses over the character of Sillerton Jackson, the unofficial archivist of family histories. Not only does Jackson know every blood and marital relationship within the tight clan of Old New York, he also knows each family's scandals, whether real or rumored. Thanks to Jackson, one's private history does not remain a secret for long.
Here and throughout the novel, Wharton employs certain imagery by which to portray Old New York society. She describes the evening at the opera as an extremely predictable event: one arrives there fashionably late, every family has a carriage waiting for them at the entrance, and even the ball at Beauforts' that follows is an annual tradition. On a basic level, Wharton's language indicates how boring such a world can be; no one acts differently from anyone else and there is no variation in the course of events from year to year. In the following chapters, Archer will become more and more frustrated with the monotony of this stultifying environment. On a more symbolic level, Wharton ironically compares the traditional behaviors and codes of cultured Old New York with those of primitive or ancient cultures. Both are obsessed with ritual events and behaviors, she indicates, and Archer's concern with acceptable behavior is no different from the "totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago."
It is, of course, the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska that brings tension to this perfectly ordered scene. Thanks to the good memory and loose tongue of Sillerton Jackson, Ellen's appearance is preceded by her reputation. It is important to note Jackson's exclamation upon seeing Ellen in her family's opera box: "I didn't think the Mingott's would have tried it on." With this statement is the implication that the actions of an individual reflect upon the family. Jackson is shocked not only because a woman of somewhat ill repute is seen amongst good society, but also because her family is choosing to support such a black sheep.
Newland Archer is aware of the crucial importance of the Mingott family's sense of solidarity. When he sees how his friends negatively respond to the appearance of Ellen, he rushes over to the Mingott family box. Since May is a member of this family and Archer soon will be, it is his duty to defend their decision to include Ellen. Simply by appearing in the Mingott box, Archer is sending a clear non-verbal signal to the rest of the New York clan. This gesture, just like May's grateful glance at Archer, is a subtle but unequivocal form of communication. Throughout the novel, Wharton must interpret these actions for her readers, for often the spoken words of her characters do not contain as much meaning as (and in some cases relate the opposite meaning of) the gesture.
In the third chapter, the character of Julius Beaufort provides a clear example of the discrepancy of appearance versus reality. His personal history is spotty at best, and he is notorious for his womanizing. But because of his immaculate dress and public display of manners and hospitality, he is accepted by the New York clan. As long as Beaufort-or anyone, for that matter-can hide the unpleasantness of his past, he will be welcomed into good society.
As is expected of all newly engaged couples, Archer and May begin a series of betrothal visits to their friends and relatives. The first is to Mrs. Manson Mingott, who lives by herself in a grand and unorthodox mansion near Central Park. Because of her tremendous obesity, she is confined to her house; but because of her social influence, she is not isolated from the rest of society.
Mrs. Mingott happily receives the couple and instructs May on wedding preparations. As they are about to take their leave, Ellen Olenska returns home from shopping with Julius Beaufort. Archer notices that Mrs. Mingott greets them both cordially; she does not seem to consider it improper, as he does, that a married man should be seen in daylight with a recently-separated woman. As Archer leaves, he speaks briefly to the Countess about his engagement to May. She is very pleased and asks Archer to call on her soon. As Archer leaves, he inwardly remarks that the Countess's behavior with Beaufort is most likely acceptable in Europe. All the same, he is glad he is marrying a member of his own New York clan.
The next evening Sillerton Jackson dines with Archer and Archer's mother and sister at their home. Jackson and the two women are eager to gossip about the arrival of the Countess Olenska. When the conversation inevitably drifts to discussing her appearance in public with Beaufort, Archer shocks his family by claiming that she has the right to go where she chooses and that he hopes the Countess will get a divorce from her brutish husband, even if such things are seldom done. He remarks that he is tired of a double standard for the affairs of men and women and that it is time for women to be as free as men.
Alone in his study after dinner, Archer contemplates his approaching marriage to May. Regarding her picture, he wonders to what extent she is the product of her society. Recalling his assertion at dinner that women should have the same freedoms as men, he now concludes that the nice women of his class were brought up to never desire freedom. Archer suddenly realizes that although he wants his future wife to be free and to form her own thoughts, she has been carefully trained by her family not to possess such traits. To him, May is innocent because she is ignorant. While he remains unwavering in his decision to marry her, he begins to feel that his marriage will not be entirely what he had previously expected. A few days later, the Mingott family is in great distress. After having sent out invitations for a formal dinner to be held in honor of the Countess Olenska, they have received refusals from practically all of the invites. It is clear that New York has decided to scorn the Countess Olenska by not attending her welcoming dinner. In protest, Archer appeals to his mother to talk with Henry and Louisa van der Luyden. The van der Luydens, a frail old couple who are seldom seen in public and receive only their most intimate friends at home, are regarded as the most powerful and most elite figures in New York society. Archer hopes that their influence can atone for the slight that has been dealt to the Countess and her family.
Chapter 4 opens with one of the most humorous character sketches in the novel. The immensely large Mrs. Manson Mingott is an intriguing character to Archer because of her slightly unorthodox living arrangement and her candid way of speaking. Because of her impeccable moral character and high societal status, her free style of conversation does not scandalize others or disrupt the given social standards. As such, she can easily get away with making some perceptive and occasionally critical insights into the society of Old New York. When Beaufort arrives with Countess Olenska at Mrs. Mingott's home, she asks him if he will be inviting Mrs. Lemuel Struthers and remarks that New York is in need of "new blood and new money." While Old New York is intensely close-knit and hostile to nouveau-riche outsiders, it is also in risk of isolating itself completely from the rest of the world, to the detriment of its own health. The character of Newland Archer also takes on several nuances in these chapters. In the opening Opera scene, Archer appears to be as preoccupied with correct appearances as his friends. At Mrs. Mingott's house, Wharton demonstrates how Archer's thoughts on form depart from the norm. He admires Mrs. Mingott's strong personality and the slight sense of impropriety in the arrangement of her house. Yet Archer is relieved when he discovers that Ellen is out for the day, for he fears the controversy associated with her. His acceptance of unconventionality, then, is limited. Mrs. Mingott's harmless banter is not nearly as destabilizing as Ellen's behavior in walking in public with Beaufort, which threatens the social code to which Archer is accustomed. In chapters five and six, we also get a glimpse into Archer's thoughts on women. At dinner with his family and Sillerton Jackson, Archer attempts to defend Ellen's right to have an affair following the infidelities of her husbands by proclaiming that women should be as free as men when it came to their personal relationships. Yet Archer's attempts at gender equality are belied by many of his other comments. Later that evening, he remarks to Jackson that he is "sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots." While he does here defend Ellen's right to manage her own affairs, he labels other women who have made similar choices as 'harlots.' Archer also shows his unequal treatment of women in regards to his own past. In the novel's elliptical allusions to his former mistress, Archer is always inclined to judge her actions harshly. Archer is also led to wonder about the usefulness of asserting such rights for women. Although he loves and admires May, he sees that she has been brought up to be a nice woman, one who would never request the right to have an affair. With this revelation, Archer begins to realize just how circumscribed the lives of May and other women in New York society really are. They have been brought up never to question inequalities or double standards. In fact, it is as if they are not even aware that such inequalities exist. They exist in a state of perpetual innocence, untroubled by what they do not know. With this revelation, Archer becomes further disillusioned with the strict codes of Old New York.
At the van der Luyden's formal and ostentatious Madison Avenue home, Archer and his mother relate the slight given to the Countess Olenska. The van der Luydens decide to stand by the Countess on principle: if her family has already decided to support her admittance into society, the rest of society must support their decision. To make amends, the van der Luydens decide to include the Countess at their reception for the Duke of St. Austrey.
In the course of the next week, before attending the reception for the Duke, Archer learns much about the past of the Countess Olenska. After the early deaths of her itinerant parents, Ellen was left under the guardianship of her aunt Medora Manson, an eccentric and frequently widowed woman. After the death of Medora's most recent husband, she packed up and left with Ellen in tow. For years nothing was heard of them, until news reached New York that Ellen had married the extremely wealthy Polish Count Olenski. A few years later, the marriage ended in disaster, and Ellen decided to return to her New York family to recuperate.
After learning of Ellen's history, Archer is curious to see how-if at all-she will adapt to New York society. At the Duke's reception, the Countess raises eyebrows by appearing late and somewhat disheveled. After dinner, she leaves the side of the Duke (with whom she is expected to converse) in order to talk with Archer. They discuss, primarily, his engagement to May. The Countess reveals her ignorance of New York social customs by asking Archer if the marriage was arranged. When Archer corrects her, she embarrassedly admits that she often forgets that what is bad in European culture is good, by contrast, in American culture. As the conversation is interrupted by the other guests, Countess Olenska bids Archer to call on her at her new home the next day.
Archer arrives late at the Countess's shabby, slightly bohemian flat that following day, only to find her away. He decides to wait in her living room until she returns. While he waits, he examines the room, which is artfully decorated with European bric-a-brac and exotic works of art. To Archer, who is used to the standardized Italian art appreciated by those in his class, the Countess's furnishings are novel and intriguing. Suddenly, from the window he sees the Countess descend from Beaufort's cab.
Inside the flat, Archer is interested by the Countess's novel, if slightly shocking, opinions on the fashions and the families of Old New York. She, in turn, looks to Archer for advice about fitting in to the New York clan. When he explains how misleading appearances are in New York, Ellen responds by bursting into tears. She remarks to Archer that the most lonely aspect of living in New York is that she is required to live around well-meaning people who insist that she pretend to be someone she is not in order to spare them any unpleasantness.
Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of the Duke and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers. Archer leaves, somewhat relieved to be spared any more upsetting emotion. As he stops by the florist to send May her daily bouquet of lilies-of- the-valley, he decides impulsively to send a bouquet of yellow roses to Countess Olenska.
Wharton commences Chapter 7 with a detailed account of the nature of the power structure and chain of command within the tight-knit high society of New York. As the sole descendants of one of the most wealthy and aristocratic families in the city, Henry and Louisa van der Luyden serve as legislatures, executives, and judges in regards to certain social problems. It is they who determine the laws of family solidarity. Because Ellen's family supports her, everyone outside the family must honor their decision and treat her as one of them. It is also they who judge the severity of the offense against Ellen Olenska; Wharton describes them as the "Court of last appeals." And finally, it is they who decide that action must be taken to amend for the insult. By inviting the Countess to their formal reception for the Duke, the van der Luydens send an unmistakable message to those who have previously slighted Ellen.
Wharton makes her depiction of the van der Luydens ironic by several different means. First of all, she shows the inconsistencies between the van der Luydens as individuals and as leaders. For all the stuffy splendor of their house and the formal quality of their interview with the Archers, Henry and Louisa are shy and retiring people who don't much like to entertain. They seldom leave their home, due both to health problems and a genuine fear of venturing out in public.
Secondly, Wharton describes them in anthropological terms. The van der Luydens are "mouth pieces of some remote ancestral authority which fate compelled them to wield." Wharton subtly hints that there is something primitive about the van der Luydens' influence over society and that their power is due more to wealth and bloodline than to their capability and temperament. For a society that prides itself on its high culture, such a hierarchy of power seems rather crude and primeval.
And finally, Wharton's physical description of this harmless old couple involves a large amount of death imagery. Louisa looks like she was "rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence." This is not unlike the way Wharton sees Mrs. Mingott as a "doomed city" trapped under her own weight in Chapter 4. In both these cases, Wharton's juxtaposition of authority figures with death imagery indicates the ineffectual nature of their power. Ruled by such archaic individuals, Old New York potentially faces a waning of power itself, or even extinction.
In Chapters 8 and 9, we begin to get a better grasp of Ellen's personality. Up until this point, we have seen Ellen primarily through the eyes of others: through the gossip at the opera and through Archer's opinions based on their brief encounters. Now the picture of Ellen becomes more complete through the recounting of her personal history, the descriptions of her exotically furnished apartment, and through her own conversations with Archer. The very nature of their discussion proves to Archer Ellen's foreignness and her lack of traditional manners. Unlike May and the rest of New York who communicate indirectly through glances and euphemistic speech, Ellen is quite candid in her opinions. She directly criticizes the faults she sees in society; namely, that her family would rather have her hide her personal unhappiness than voice it and make them uncomfortable.
It is important also to notice that Ellen is not overly grateful to the van der Luydens for inviting her to their reception. Archer is shocked that she mentions the evening as though it were merely a tea party, for to his mind, such an event is coded with great meaning. But Ellen, as a foreigner, is not used to the specific signals of Old New York. Nor is she particularly desirous of being forgiven for any of her supposed indiscretions. While Ellen is certainly eager to fit into society, she does not see herself as needing to apologize or to act humble. To Old New York, however, her refusal to play the part of compromised woman is only a further indication of her unscrupulous nature.
The next day, while walking with May in the Park, Archer tries to persuade May to shorten their engagement. As he listens to her protests, he thinks to himself that she is merely repeating what has always been told to her; that she has not begun to think and act for herself. He suggests that they elope, an idea that to May can only seem ridiculously funny. Archer begins to suspect that May will never be able to think for herself, that she has been so thoroughly conditioned by her elders that if she were given freedom she would still be unable to act on her own. Back in his study the next afternoon, Archer finds himself out of spirits. He feels discontent with the routine of his life. He is tired of going to the gentleman's club to which he belongs, for the conversations there are repetitious and predictable. While he is musing, his sister Janey bursts into the study to inform him of the latest scandal. It appears that the Countess Olenska was seen along with the Duke at the house of Mrs. Lemuel Struthers the previous night. Mrs. Struthers, as the widow of a wealthy shoe polish magnate, is seen as a slightly vulgar social climber, and her parties are reputed to be bohemian. As Archer argues with his family as to the impropriety of Olenska's actions, Mr. Henry van der Luyden is announced. He has just called on Countess Olenska to tactfully warn her about following the Duke to certain common parties. A few weeks later, Archer is confronted at his law office by the head of the firm, Mr. Letterblair. The older man informs Archer that the Mingott family wished to consult with Mr. Letterblair regarding the Countess Olenska's interest in suing her husband for divorce. The lawyer wishes to hear Archer's opinion, as he is closely connected with the family. Archer is uneasy with this proposition, but agrees to look over the papers concerning the settlement. In reading the letters, Archer comes across a letter written by Count Olenski that he feels would be damaging to the Countess's reputation were it exposed. Wharton implies indirectly that this letter indicates that the Countess has had an illicit affair.
He now feels pity for Ellen Olenska and decides that it is necessary for him to protect her from further damaging her own reputation, which would be devastated if it were revealed that she had been unfaithful to her husband. That evening, Archer meets with Letterblair, who asks him to advise the Countess not to sue for divorce, as it would generate a lot of unpleasant talk for the family. Archer hesitates, responding that he won't commit until he speaks with her. After dinner he pays a call on Countess Olenska and is irritated to find Beaufort already at her flat, engaged with Ellen in a discussion over the role of artists in the high society of New York. As Europeans, both the Countess and Beaufort find artistic life in New York to be virtually nonexistent. Ellen ends the discussion, however, by declaring that despite her interest in the arts, she is now willing to cast aside her old life in order to fully belong to New York life.
After Beaufort leaves, Ellen and Archer discuss the divorce settlement. She wants to erase the past, to finally free herself from her husband's control. Archer warns her about the unpleasant accusations contained in the letter from her husband. Ellen dismisses these, but Archer cautions her that New York is a very old-fashioned city, and any hint of scandal could affect her entire family. Olenska then tells Archer that she will do as he sees best.
The opening scene of Chapter 10, in which Archer tries to persuade May to marry him early, reveals some of the faults in May's character as Archer sees them. As Archer ponders May's innocent nature and her inability to speak for herself, he decides that it is up to him as her husband to take the bandages from her eyes and let her see the world as it is. Yet upon reflection, Archer begins to wonder if May will ever be truly able to think for herself, even once the bandages are lifted. He then proceeds to compare her to a species of cave-fish. After living in darkness for so many generations, this fish has lost the use of its eyes, which would be useless to it in the darkness. Such a metaphor is not unusual for Wharton's era, for Darwinian notions of evolution and natural selection were very much the rage. With this metaphor, Wharton both puts humans on the same plane as the rest of the animal kingdom and also confounds the popular notion of evolution as progress. ld New York society, rather than advancing, produces individuals who are in fact primitive. In this same chapter, we also see a few more contradictions in Archer's own character. While he does want May to think for herself, he also feels a certain sense of possessorship over May. He sees her, at best, as his pupil; he feels that it is his duty to educate May and to make her a truly enlightened individual. We also get a sense of Archer's impulsive nature. Eager to be different from the rest of high society, he wants May to elope with him. Yet Archer's attempts to break the mold are not practical. And in fact, it is May who reasons with him, who explains that given their circumstances, they "can't just run away."
A more complex portrait of Ellen also emerges in Chapters 11 and 12. She proves to Archer that she can navigate the strict code of manners with her charms. Although she scandalizes the van der Luydens by appearing at the home of the common Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, Ellen amends the situation by impressing Mr. van der Luyden with her graciousness. However, Ellen has not completely adapted to all of the aspects of American life. She still naïvely believes that in New York she can cast off her old life and "become just like everybody else here." She fails to realize that high society is highly judgmental and that it never forgets the personal pasts of its members or look kindly upon any violation of its code of manners.
It is important to note, however, that Archer himself forms a fairly judgmental view of Ellen. After reading the letter of Count Olenski, which accuses Ellen of adultery, all of Archer's admiration for Ellen's independence turns to condescension. She suddenly appears to him as an "exposed and pitiful figure" whom he must protect and defend. In this newly formed opinion of Ellen, he actually oversteps his mark. He presumes from the Count's letter and from his conversation with Ellen that she had committed adultery. He assumes that Ellen's quick dismissal of the accusation indicates her guilt. In Book Two of the novel, Archer will come to question whether Ellen's silence was an admission of guilt or just an unwillingness to discuss a false rumor.
Wharton also adds nuances to her depiction of Old New York by describing exactly what this society is not. Above all, New York fears anything that it considers unusual or unpleasant, anything that could upset its careful balance of rules and morals. On a general level, two of its chief bogies are Europeans and artists. To Old New York, Europeans do not have many moral scruples. They have relaxed manners, daring fashions, and attend parties where there is singing and dancing and drinking. Artists, often called "bohemians" by Wharton's characters, are similarly unscrupulous. But unlike the Europeans, the bohemians do not have aristocratic blood; they are common. In Chapter 10, Archer's mother disapproves of Mrs. Struthers's party because it was an informal party that included artists.
A few nights later, Archer is at the theater watching a popular play. There is a scene that particularly moves him, in which two lovers part. The actress, turning her back to her wooer, does not see him steal over to kiss the velvet ribbon hanging down her back before he leaves the room for good. For reasons he cannot explain, this scene reminds Archer of the last time he left the Countess's flat. He concludes that it is perhaps Countess Olenska's mysterious ability to suggest a sense of tragedy that inspires him to compare her to the actress.
Archer had left Ellen's flat convinced that Count Olenski's accusation of Ellen's affair was not unfounded. It had been painful for him to have to make her see that New York would not look favorably upon this lapse in morals. But now as he sees the Countess at the theater, she appears glad to have followed his advice not to sue for divorce. Archer is relieved that at least he is advising Ellen as May wished him to.
As Archer leaves the theater he is greeted by his friend Ned Winsett, a bright and shabbily dressed young man. While as a journalist and failed author, Ned is certainly not wealthy or distinguished enough to be a part of Old New York society, his outlook on the world makes Archer reconsider the narrow values of his own life. On occasion, Ned has teased Archer that Old New York was going extinct and that it needs new blood and more active. Ned now inquires after Countess Olenska, who, it turns out, is his neighbor, and had kindly befriended his young son.
Returning to his office the next morning, Archer is again struck by the monotony and futility of his job. As one of the few fields available to men of his class, the legal profession is still seen more as a gentlemanly pursuit than as a career. In a spare moment, Archer sends a note to Ellen asking if he may call on her. After three days, she responds. She writes that she has "run away" for the week to Skuytercliff, the Hudson mansion belonging to the van der Luydens. On a whim, Archer decides to accept the weekend invitation of his friends living along the Hudson, where he will be sure to run into the Countess.
A day after arriving at his friends', Archer sets out for Skuytercliff, meeting Ellen along the way. As they walk, he asks her why she left New York so abruptly. She evades his questions temporarily by directing him towards the old van der Luyden cottage built by the family's first ancestors three hundred years earlier. Inside, Archer again questions her. As he waits, back turned, for her to respond, he imagines her coming toward him and throwing her arms around his neck. Before she can answer his question, Beaufort unexpectedly appears at the door. Ellen, visibly dismayed, bids him to enter, and Archer can see that it was Beaufort she was attempting to avoid.
A few days later, Ellen sends Archer a note asking to see him so she can explain the events at Skuytercliff. Instead of responding, he packs his bags and leaves for St. Augustine, Florida, where May has been vacationing with her parents for the past week.
The scene at the theater between the actress and her lover, in which he kisses the ribbons on the back of her dress without her knowing, is part of a motif that occurs throughoutThe Age of Innocence. While watching the scene, Archer feels that it has a certain personal symbolic meaning for him, but he is unable to articulate exactly what it means. Because he does not consider Ellen as a lover, he concludes that the scene must have reminded him of Ellen's dramatic and vivacious personality. It is not until late in the book that we (and perhaps Archer) come to realize that this scene is part of a larger pattern. At Newport, Archer sees Ellen standing near the shore with her back turned, yet leaves without her noticing. At the very end of the novel, Archer stands on the street below her Paris apartment, but leaves without seeing her. This theme of missed communication, or a failure to connect, serves to emphasize the fact that an affair between Archer and Ellen is fraught with difficulties, if it is not outrightly impossible.
In addition to giving these scenes a poignant symbolism, Wharton also gives her characters symbolic meanings. In chapter 14, we meet Archer's friend Ned Winsett. While Ned is an interesting conversationalist and an insightful social critic, he is not a part of Archer's elite class. In fact, he is in many ways a failure; he was unable to make a career for himself as a man of letters (a creative freelance writer) and now he works as a journalist. Archer values Ned's opinions on Old New York, yet he also finds Ned's life to be equally narrow and confining. Thus Ned serves as a reminder to Archer that there is no perfect alternative to the rigid social structure of high society. Ned symbolizes both the freedom from social confines and the tremendous costs of living outside the system.
Setting also takes on increasing importance in these chapters. In rapidly changing the scene from New York to Skuytercliff to St. Augustine, Wharton indicates a change in her characters attitudes or temperaments. For Ellen, spending the weekend at Skuytercliff allows her to temporarily escape the dreary and confining realities of New York. She explains to Archer in her letter that she is "running away." Archer leaves New York for Hudson on a whim, with very little explanation, in order to see Ellen. Unsatisfied with their meeting, during which he both realizes his love for Ellen and the barriers to such a potential relationship, he abruptly departs for St. Augustine. There, he instead seeks to be reunited with May and affirm his own feelings for her.
It is also significant that Archer's feelings for Ellen become explicit at Skuytercliff and not New York. In fact, many of the key interactions between them occur outside of New York. In this way, Archer connects his love for Ellen with an escape from the confines of New York. In Book Two he will express a wish to run away to the Far East with Ellen, or to at least go to a place where labels like "mistress" or "adultery" don't exist. To Archer, a voyage away from New York represents the ultimate freedom.
In St. Augustine, Archer is at first blissfully happy to see May. But as he listens to her prattle on about her simple daily activities, he finds his mind wandering. With the rest of the Welland family, the subject of conversation again returns to Ellen Olenska. May's mother blames the Countess's unconventionality on her eccentric European upbringing, and she thanks Archer for convincing Ellen not to sue for divorce. Archer is secretly annoyed, feeling that by not allowing her to divorce, the Mingott clan is ensuring that Ellen will eventually become the mistress of Beaufort rather than the lawful wife of some upstanding man.
Alone with May, Archer again presses her to shorten the length of their engagement. May surprises him by asking why he wants a short engagement. She wonders if it because he is not quite certain that he wants to marry her. She admits to Archer that since the announcement of their engagement he has acted differently toward her, and she is afraid that this is because he is still in love with his mistress of years past. May feels that if Archer is still in love, his passions for his mistress should come before his social obligations to May. Newland, caught off guard, fumbles in his speech, but manages to reassure May that is she that he loves. As soon as May is reassured, she returns to her usual complacency, and Archer is left wondering how she could act so assertively for the sake of others while remaining so passive in her own personality.
Upon returning to New York, Newland calls on Mrs. Mingott at her home. As they banter, Ellen appears and joins the conversation. As Archer leaves, he asks if he can visit her the next evening. When Archer arrives the next evening, he finds Ned Winsett, Medora Manson, and Medora's gentleman friend assembled in Countess Olenska's living room. After Ned leaves, Medora eagerly thanks Archer for persuading Ellen not to leave her husband. Medora relates that the Count Olenski wishes her to convince Ellen to return to him. Archer is horrified and vows that he would rather see Ellen dead than have her return to her husband. Medora, pointing to a bouquet obviously sent to Ellen by a hopeful suitor, asks Archer if he would prefer for Ellen to enter such illicit relationships.
At that moment, Ellen enters the room. She is instantly angered by the sight of the flowers and asks them to be given away. After Medora leaves, they discuss Olenski's request, which Ellen dismisses. They also discuss Archer's engagement to May and May's fears that there is another woman. Archer confesses that May is correct and that it is Ellen he would marry if it were possible for either of them. Ellen responds that it is Archer that has made a marriage between them impossible, for she had nothing to fear from Count Olenski's letter, and she decided not to sue for divorce only because Archer himself told her she should.
Archer is astonished. For a moment, he tries to convince Ellen that there is still time and that he can break from his engagement and she can divorce. She refuses, responding that it was Archer himself who taught her that one's personal happiness should never come at the expense of pain for others. Just then, a telegram arrives from May, stating that the Wellands have consented to push forward the wedding date.
In St. Augustine, Archer is once again disillusioned with May's naïveté and her rote opinions. Archer is afraid that May will, like her mother before her, be doomed to a life of "invincible innocence," in which she will stubbornly ignore that which is upsetting or unpleasant in order to maintain the same world outlook she has been trained to have. For a moment, Archer is shocked that May knows about his former mistress and that she wants him to reconsider their engagement. However, his disappointment soon returns, for he interprets her bold encounter as a selfless act designed to defend his former mistress and his own feelings. He comes to the conclusion that May is only capable of impassioned action when she is defending other individuals or the principles she has been trained to follow.
An argument could be made that Archer is underestimating May's capabilities. The very fact that she knows about his old affair is an indication that she is not as ignorant as Archer suspects. May also has some very perceptive ideas as to why Archer wishes to marry her so soon. Archer explains that is he were in love with another woman he would not be in such a hurry to marry May. May responds insightfully that this would be one way to settle the question: if Archer was indecisive, he might feel that an important action like marriage would decide the question for him. While May sincerely does not want her happiness to come at an expense to Archer's former mistress, she also has personal motivations for finding out if her fiancé is emotionally or physically tied to another woman.
Medora Manson, who makes her appearance in Chapter 17, is an interesting character not only because of her eccentricities, but also because of her tenuous relationship to Old New York. As a Manson, she is connected by blood to some of the most influential families. However, she is considered a hopeless cause because of her odd, faddish ideas and her multitudinous husbands. Medora, then, is forced to remain on the edges of good society, where her eccentricities can be more easily ignored. But for all of her own questionable qualities, she has the practical understanding of Ellen's marital problems that Archer lacks. After Archer proclaims dramatically that he would rather see Ellen dead than return to her husband, Medora forces him to reflect upon the difficult options Ellen faces. Either she can return to a boorish husband, remain married and separated in New York where she will be courted by men looking for a mistress, or she can divorce and cause great amounts of gossip.
Ellen, too, must force Archer to look at the practical side of things. After he expresses his love for her, he impetuously declares the only logical thing for him to now is to break his engagement with May. Ellen replies, "You say that because it's the easiest thing to say at this moment-not because it's true." She further deflates Archer's bubble by remarking that it was he who taught her to sacrifice her own wishes if they caused pain to anyone else. That following his advice means that they can never be together is a great irony, but Ellen pushes Archer to both acknowledge and accept this irony.
Wharton also demonstrates her gift for irony by the way she constructs the narrative at the end of Book One. The Age of Innocence begins in the style of a novel of manners, in which a young unmarried protagonist must encounter all the tribulations involved with falling in love and getting married. The novel of manners usually ends with the happy marriage and settling down of the protagonist. By placing this marriage in the middle of the novel instead of the end, and by describing such a marriage as imprisoning, Wharton radically alters the plot structure of the novel of manners and gives the idea of a happily-ever-after ending a sense of bitter irony.
Book Two Chapters 19-21
Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day. The predictably ritualistic ceremony passes before Archer as a complete blur, and amidst the marriage vows he thinks hazily of Ellen. After the wedding, May and Archer set out by train for their bridal suite in the country. On the train, May is all cheerfulness and bright chatter. Newland is again impressed by her naïveté and complete lack of imagination. When she mentions Ellen's name, Archer finds himself flustered. Arriving at their destination, they find that their bridal suite is unavailable and that the van der Luydens have instead arranged for them to spend the night in their little ancestral cottage where Newland met with Ellen that previous winter.
After their stay in the cottage, the Archers travel to Europe for their honeymoon. May is concerned that she will be required to visit Archer's foreign acquaintances. Her anxiety, we learn, is typical of the Old New York crowd, whose fear of Europeans causes them to travel abroad in a state of isolation. Archer, meanwhile, abandons his attempts to educate May; for "there was no use in trying to educate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free." He reconciles himself to the fact that his married life will still allow him an active intellectual life outside of the home. As for his own feelings towards European culture, he decides that it is too different from his own way of life to capture his imagination for very long.
Archer does convince May to attend a dinner party hosted by some family friends in London. At the dinner, he meets a young Frenchman who serves as the family's tutor. Archer is intrigued by the man's vivid conversation and his conviction that being intellectually free is worth living in poverty. After dinner, he mentions to May that he would like to invite the Frenchman to dinner. May dismisses this idea with laughter, and Archer sees that this is how disagreements between them will be solved in the future.
After their three-month honeymoon, the Archers rejoin Old New York society in Newport for the annual archery competition. By now, married life has become predictable but placid for Archer. Ellen has been relegated to the back of his memory, remaining there only as a "plaintive ghost" of his past. At the archery competition, May wins first prize, and the Archers visit Mrs. Mingott at her near-by summer home to show her May's prize. At Mrs. Mingott's, they learn that Ellen, who has since moved from New York to Washington, is currently visiting Newport with Medora. Mrs. Mingott sends Archer to find her. He sees her near the shore but decides he will not approach her unless she turns around. She doesn't, and he returns alone.
In the transition from Book One to Book Two of The Age of Innocence, Wharton dramatically breaks the flow of the novel's narrative. At the end of Book One, we leave Archer just as he has heard from May that their wedding date will be pushed forward. Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day, as he waits for his bride's carriage to arrive at the church. There is little connection between these two scenes; nothing is mentioned about the preparation for the wedding or Archer's jitters as he prepares to marry a woman he feels is unsuited for him. Because of this jerky transition, the reader feels slightly bewildered by the rush of all the wedding events. We can empathize with Archer, who suddenly finds himself helpless in the midst of this life-changing experience. Because Archer feels so unable to stop or control his own wedding, he feels that it is inevitable.
In addition to portraying the wedding as an unstoppable force, Wharton also compares it to a primitive ritual. Each small act involved with the marriage follows a certain code or tradition. For example, Wharton describes the act of keeping secret the location of a new couple's first night together as a long- held custom, remarking that it is "one of the most sacred taboos of the prehistoric ritual." In this way, Wharton mocks the beloved traditions of New York society as silly and almost superstitious. She also wryly comments on the fact that an argument over the displaying of wedding gifts causes May's mother to burst into tears of indignation. Archer is amazed that "grown-up people should work themselves into a state of agitation over such trifles."
Archer's esteem of May continues to lessen after the wedding ceremony. In the past, he had consoled himself by noting that May's beauty and innocence compensated for her lack of interest in intellectual ideas. Nor Archer cannot even see her beauty as a redeeming quality. He notes that with her serene expression, May looks like "a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess." It is significant that Archer sees her as a representation and not an individual person. Like a statue of "Civic Virtue," May is the creation of her society, a representation of many of Old New York's values. Unfortunately, she appears to be little more than that. Archer worries that May's innocence is "a curtain dropped before an emptiness." He fears that behind May's sweet demeanor and correct manners, she is an essentially hollow person.
In London, Archer is introduced to a person who is the very opposite of May. The French tutor he meets at a dinner party is neither fashionable nor aristocratic. But despite his common-looking exterior, he proves to be a vivid and insightful conversationalist. At dinner, he speaks to Archer about the vital importance of maintaining one's own ideas and opinions. For the tutor, preserving one's right to think freely is worth the price of living in poverty. Archer, filled with envy and admiration, wishes to invite the tutor to dinner for further conversation. But May convinces Archer not to invite him. In this way, she not only refuses to consider ideas outside her normal experiences, she seems bent on depriving Archer of such intellectual discussions as well.
At the end of Chapter 21, Wharton presents a variation on a symbol we have seen earlier in the novel. After Archer sets off to fetch Ellen on her grandmother's orders, he finds her at the shore with her back turned. The image instantly reminds Archer of the scene at the theater in which the two lovers part. This scene now takes on a more personal meaning for him. As Archer turns to leave without saying a word, we are left with a sense of finality. Archer has failed to take advantage of this rare opportunity to speak alone with Ellen. Although no goodbye has been said, it is as if, with Archer's actions, he has decided not to pursue the relationship further.
Archer soon finds life in Newport to be predictably dull, and he is forced to find trivial ways to fill up his long and unemployed days. He successfully avoids one of many ubiquitous social obligations by driving out into the country to find a new horse for his carriage. Unsuccessful in his search, he finds himself with the remainder of his day free. He has had a vague longing to simply see where Ellen has been staying and find out how she has been spending her days, and so he decides to visit the house where she has been staying.
No one is home when he arrives at the house. In the summer house, he spies a pink parasol that he instantly assumes belongs to Ellen. As he bends to kiss it, he is suddenly interrupted by the daughter of the house. Embarrassed by his foolishness, he inquires as to the whereabouts of Ellen. The girl informs him that she was unexpectedly called away to Boston the day before. Back at the Wellands', he announces to May that he will leave for Boston the following day on business. In Boston, Archer spies Ellen sitting in the Common. Surprised to see him, she relates that she is there on business. Her husband is willing to pay a considerable price to have her return to him, and she has until that evening to decide how to respond to his offer.
Archer convinces Ellen to spend the day with him. She asks him why he didn't fetch her at the shore that day in Newport. When he answers that it was because she didn't turn around, she responds that she didn't turn around on purpose. She confesses that she had gone to the beach to get as far away from Archer as she could. Later that afternoon, at lunch in a private dining room, Ellen explains herself further. She had grown tired of New York society and felt that by moving to Washington, she would be able to find a wider variety of people and opinions. Archer asks why she does not return to Europe, and she replies that it is because of him.
They discuss Archer's marriage, and Ellen claims that she is glad that at least May is happy. Archer responds bitterly that Ellen gave him his first taste of real life at the same time that she asked him to continue a sham life with May. Ellen bursts into tears, confirming that she too has been miserable with their separation. Archer suddenly feels desperate with the thought that he might not be able to see her again. Ellen promises that she will not return to her husband or to Europe as long as she and Newland do not act upon their love for one another.
Back with the Wellands at their Newport home, Archer faces the monotony of his new married life. In Newport, there is very little to do besides attending sports competitions, visiting acquaintances, and running small errands. Ironically, May and her mother have a deep fear of wasting their days, and so they spend them occupied with trivial events. With this constant rush of silly activities to keep them busy, the Wellands do not have to confront any existential questions. Their activities are meaningless and repetitious, but to them this is preferable to confronting larger questions about self-identity or goals in life.
May's insistence on living on the very surface of life actually helps Archer on one level. When he decides to visit Ellen in Boston, he knows that May will not question his actions. Whether or not she is aware of her husband's feelings for her cousin, she does not wish to consider the upsetting thought that Archer might be unfaithful. As Archer gives May his justification for traveling, he is surprised to find how easy it is to make excuses. Wharton
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