A compact realm called Old New York
Lowe said they were, ‘… a socially secure family that could trace its ancestry back through English and Dutch patricians of New York - A compact realm called Old New York introduction. ‘ Although born at a time when New York provided a stifling environment, Wharton grew up refusing to conform to the society to which she belonged. Lowe said: ‘Edith Wharton in many ways was a rebel, even an outcast, and her many novels and tales passionately endorse the struggle to forge one’s identity outside accepted social boundaries. ‘ World War One came to an end in November 1918 and, almost as soon as the guns fell silent, Wharton began to draft The Age of Innocence.
Janet Beer said: ‘Wharton writes to commemorate a past which has been superseded by the cataclysmic social upheavals of the war years. ‘ Many presume Wharton’s ‘war novel’ was a salutation to the new age that beckoned and a memorial to the age departed. It epitomizes one’s struggle to forge an individual identity. The Age of Innocence is a classical piece of literature that is loved by critics and readers alike. However, it is not the flamboyant language or the highly stylised structure that engages the reader but the underlying subtext.
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In The Age of Innocence the unsaid is much more significant that what is said: ‘As he entered the box his eyes met Miss May Welland’s, and he saw that she had instantly understood his motive, though the family dignity which both considered so high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so. The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done'(chapter 2 pg 14)
However, the lack of communication did not in any way lessen the degree to which the standards of New York were adhered to, and, thereby, upheld as if they were carved in the same stone as the Ten Commandments. New York Society did not have much need for religion, other than for rites of passage; the rules of society were to them like rules of a religion. As a woman who was raised in this society, Edith Wharton was able to illustrate with great clarity the influence that the unsaid had when it came to knowing how one should behave if society was to look on them favourably.
The way in which Wharton writes The Age of Innocence is known as social realism which is writing that realistically depicts a certain segment of society. Her closest ally among the social realists was Henry James; in philosophy and literary style there were many similarities between the two. There is also a famous story about James giving Wharton significant and sound literary advice. When he read her novel, The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but also suggested that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. James wrote, “Do New York! The first-hand account is precious.
Although Edith Wharton describes a society that had disappeared in order to make way for the progress of a later age, she both criticizes and applauds the unrecoverable culture that helped to define New York City in the 1870s. Throughout The Age of Innocence, she uses the social interactions and attitudes of Newland Archer and his acquaintances as a means of weighing society itself. New land is the protagonist of the novel and his point of view governs the novels narration. From the beginning of the novel Archer is presented as both an insider ans an outsider of his social world.
He is completely aware of the social codes of New York and follows them unquestioningly but he also smiles at them and regards them with a certain amount of tolerant irony. Newland realizes the shallowness and stupidity of New Yorks social behaviours yet participates in them, ‘… unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding for English- speaking audiences.
This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions in which his life was moulded. In the first chapters of the play Newlands contentment in his life is emphasized. He is perfectly happy with his choice for a wife. According to society May is perfect, she is beautiful, innocent, adores Archer and lets him lead her intellectually. In acquiring May as a wife Newland feels she can be compared to an exquisite piece of art that will show off his good taste, ‘… he contemp;ated hre absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. ‘
However Newland’s views change drastically after meeting Ellen Olenska and experiencing the freshness of her unconventional behaviour. Newland realizes the dullness of his social equals and dreads his inevitable fate of becoming just like them but most importantly he realizes the cruelty of their social condemnations and restrictions. Both Ellen and Newlands families think nothing of sacrificing her life for the purpose of maintaining their scandal-free existence. In witnessing how society treats one of its members Newland begins to see it for is flaws.
Newland sacrifices the love of his life to do the right thing which could give cause to class him a dinosaur just like the rest of his peers he abides by the social codes unwilling to risk being outcast from society. However his action is a truly heroic one which ultimately oly hurts himself saving his friends and family from shame and scandal. Years after the novel’s primary events, Wharton has Newland reflect upon the good of the lost elite, and despite obvious problems, “there was good in the old ways”.
At the end of the story, he has the opportunity to once again meet his former love, Ellen Olenska, but the fact that he would rather preserve untainted the memories of his youth shows how much he values the irreclaimable past. While Wharton frequently derides New York’s aristocracy, its reluctance to abandon the social standards and moral conventions of the period truly does make it a good society in Newland’s perception, and the author supports his conclusion through her depiction of the interaction between the New York elite. Janet Beer said: ‘The tribal structure of old New York is both exposed and validated by the age of innocence’
The activities of New York’s elite society create an atmosphere where the preservation of standards and conventions is of greatest importance for its participants, and communication or lack thereof plays a significant role in protecting the social norms. Wharton establishes the conflict that will unavoidably occur between the old and the new people of New York in chapter 1. The dinosaurs, that is the old New Yorkers, cherish the old opera house owing to its small size and inconvenience but ultimately for keeping out, ‘the new people whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to’. chapter 1 pg 3)
We are introduced to the Van Der Luyden’s in chapter 7. They epitomize the Old New Yorkers who find the thought of their codes and conventions being overlooked utterly daunting. Mrs Van Der Luyden, ‘Struck Newland Archer as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life in death. ‘ They only uncover their chandeliers and furniture to show off; they feel they have to preserve the rest of the time.
However, the subtext Wharton wishes us to understand the fact that although the Van Der Luydens can preserve it is inevitable that in time the furniture will disintegrate just like the social codes they live by. Every style, action or conversation has a purpose beyond its explicit meaning, and this form of expression permits the conservation of order and virtue in society. Through the events surrounding his marriage to May Welland, Newland experiences this communication first hand. For example, he decides to declare his engagement to May earlier than anticipated in order to support her family when Ellen arrives from Europe.
This action does not simply create an alliance between his family and May’s, but it helps to avert any disgrace that may have come upon the Mingott clan due to Ellen’s separation from her husband. This fact is never overtly stated, but it is the primary motive for his hurried pronouncement, and May and her mother understand without questioning Newland’s decision. The customs of aristocratic New York in the 1870s calls for the use of representative behaviour rather than simple openness or forthrightness, and Newland understands his position within this system.
While Newland is a product of the system that discourages disgrace through surreptitious action, Ellen presents another model to follow since she has adapted to the openness of European culture. Ellen brings an important perspective to the New York world. She arrives unaware of the rigid confines of behaviour in a society that tolerates no divergence from its strict rules of etiuette and social distance. Ellen finds New York society both charmingly safe and provincially rigid. She undergoes her own change. Before Ellen met Archer she lived her life in Europe according to European norms.
She married a fabulously rich Polish count and lived the life of exquisite pleasures. There, life was bohemian and free. Each person lived for their own pleasure regardless of the consequences.. However her husband abused her cruelly to suit his own selfish ourposes Ellen, much like her grandmother Mrs Manson Mingott, is attracted to the unconventions of society. Ellen’s dark hair and red clothing are often contrasted against May’s blonde hair and white dress; she refuses to abide by the strict codes of society.
Ellen could be compared to the character of Daisy Miller, a book written by Wharton’s friend and fellow writer, Henry James. Daisy, like Ellen, did not abide by the social rules of the society in which she lived; she had an uncultivated manner and was direct and honest in her language. When Winterborne accuses Daisy of being a flirt at Mrs Walker’s party, she agrees with him. This would be a label that the majority of women at the time would have been completely embarrassed at receiving. However, like Ellen, Daisy does not pretend and it is her refusal to keep up any sort of pretence that in the end causes her death.
The frankness that Ellen exhibits in the presence of everyone is appealing to Archer, and the conventions to which he is accustomed does not enchant him like the Countess does. Ellen represents a way of life he wishes he could lead but owing to society’s codes and conventions, he is forbidden to. She penetrates the facade of New York society and questions the need for the standards with which Newland is familiar, and during his time spent with her, he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his society’s way of life: “They like you and admire you—they want to help you. ” [… ]”Oh, I know—I know!
But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. [… ] Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend! ” In this conversation between Ellen and Newland, the two modes of life come into direct conflict with each other. According to Newland, the people around Ellen only “want to help,” but she comprehends that in doing so, they simply desire for her to “pretend” like they do. Compared with the society in which Ellen has lived for so long, his culture is artificial, and it makes her lonely when no one outwardly pursues the truth.
To her, they are concerned with preserving appearance rather than examining the foundation of a problem, and their unwillingness to authorise Ellen’s divorce is an example of this behaviour. It is extremely ironic that the ‘high priest of form’ Lawrence Lefferts is the character who obviously has no concept of fidelity and, therefore, makes us question why a society that is so concerned with propriety is so corrupt at its base and the people who do attempt to live by the truth are punished. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby there is further evidence of the characters who rebel against society being punished.
Set in 1920’s New York fifty years after the setting of The Age of Innocence it seems this irrevocable change that appeared on the horizon in The Age of Innocence has not yet occurred. The old New Yorkers still despised the new wealth represented by Gatsby who lived in the West Egg district of Long Island, New York, and to the dinosaurs of New York, people like Gatsby lacked established social connections and vulgarly flaunted their wealth. Gatsby moved to New York to pursue his love interest Daisy Buchanan and ends up having an affair. However, after Daisy finds out that Gatsby made his fortune immorally, she returns to her husband.
Gatsby’s eventful murder was set in train by Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband. Gatsby died, Daisy Miller died and Ellen returned to a lonely life in Europe. The fate of these unconventional characters seems doomed from the start and shows that change in society might not come as easily as people think. In The Age of innocence Archer is tempted by Ellen’s mode of living. He must choose between his own society and the possibilities presented by Countess Olenska but, in order to select the latter option and yield to his love, he would have to abandon the standards that his culture had created for him:
Wharton’s tragic heroes and heroines… are passionate or imaginative spirits, hungry for emotional and intellectual experience, who find themselves locked into a small closed system, and either destroy themselves by beating their heads against their prism or suffer a living death in resigning themselves to it. ‘(Lowe) Newland’s choice between Ellen Olenska and his New York upbringing is a choice between open communication which means the rejection of customs and hidden meanings and adherence to conventions.
When he resolves to depart with Ellen so that he may love her openly, he decides to break the bond he has with his own values and standards. At the farewell dinner for Ellen, May achieves the victory that permits social convention to be upheld, and it passes without the problem of her husband’s devotion to the Countess even being explicitly stated: “It was the old New York way of taking life without effusion of blood: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them”.
Everyone present at the meal knows of Newland’s feelings and understands May’s need to prevent his plans, but they never have to speak a word about either situation: ‘In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs. ‘(Janet Beer) The complex system of communication allows the truth to appear without any disgrace that may come with its outward revelation.
The elite culture discourages scandals and “scenes” that would disturb “decency” and virtue, and therefore it attempts to control Newland’s conduct by means that cause the least amount of shame for everyone involved. While it may seem that the avoidance of scandal is the primary motivation for society to act as it does, it comes with consequent benefits, and much of the goodness of Newland’s culture is that it allows him to continue to devote himself to previous obligations. When Newland himself cannot be a faithful husband, the social conventions of the time force him to be, and everyone can appreciate the outcome.
Without a word being spoken, a situation that would breed shame if it were to be exposed by Ellen’s system of openness, like her own separation from Count Olenski, do not result in scandal or disgrace. Everyone knows, but no one expresses the fact that they know, and therefore everyone participating succeeds in the end. Society avoids the stigma of an elopement involving two of its most prominent families, May retains her spouse, and even Newland remains faithful without ever having to tell his wife of his potential infidelity.
Newland also emerges with the belief that this last accomplishment was his own doing, but only decades later when his son Dallas reveals May’s contributions to the affair does he realize the full extent of the situation. His children, his marriage, and his later life as a model citizen would not have existed without the intervention of his society’s social standards, and “it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty”. In his youth, his preference is for Ellen, but when she departs, he still has the responsibility to support May in marriage.
Life with May might have been “dull” at times, but overall, staying with her allowed him to keep his dignity as a husband and father. As a result of his recognition that his culture had actually saved him from a scandal that would not have allowed the happiness of his later years, and that it was not from his own doing, he can truly say that there was good in the old ways. Newland sees that the old ways provided the means for his own personal scandal to be minimized at any cost, and he is grateful for the conventions that his society had in place.
For a time, he thinks that he can avoid the effects of an illicit love, but, ultimately, it is his culture that allows his marriage to survive and the happiness of his family to remain. He can proclaim the good of the former way of life because he knows how it prepared him to live a life of honesty and purity. Although Newland discovers that it is necessary to perform sacrifices, even to relinquish “the thing he most wanted”, to ensure this innocence, he ultimately benefits from the standard set for him and the circumstances that force him to follow it.
Wharton allows the reader to see the goodness of the lost past through the outcome of Newland’s life, and the fact that he was able to remain faithful shows the undeniable success of society’s ability to maintain its standards. Wharton through colourful language and a highly stylised structure reflects the ornate, conventional and conservative nature of the time but in doing this Wharton also ridicules society drawing our attention to the underlying corruption that is forever present in the lives of the dinosaurs of New York.
However, could it be this corruption along with the refusal to change traditional ways that saves people in the end? Newland’s life, to an extent, was corrupt owing to his lust for Ellen but his refusal to change his traditional ways meant that he had great happiness in his later years and even learned to love May. Could it be that the dinosaurs of New York who fear and rebuff change are saving society from a chaotic world of blatant promiscuity and scandal?