Analysis of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018
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
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