Characterization is a description of qualities or peculiarities. In “The Age of Innocence” Edith Wharton uses characterization over plot to emphasize the ways in which a death of innocence is taking place in society. Throughout the novel, various characters emerge who challenge the strict order of society and while they face a great deal of opposition, they often are far more complex and, more interesting than the characters who are a part of the old order. The most obvious is Countess Ellen Olenska. She is known for her exotic tastes, her worldliness, and her sophistication.
Another character is Countess Olenska’s cousin, May Welland. May is the innocent girl, the “perfect wife” and truly a wise woman. The final character is May Welland’s fiancee and soon to be husband, Newland Archer. He is at first, dilettante and also contempt, but throughout the book he becomes much more dissatisfied. Throughout the book, Countess Ellen Olenska displays many character traits which the people of old New York are not quite used to. Archer described that “what he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known. (Wharton 59). Countess Ellen Olenska had very exotic tastes. After living much of her life in Europe, she is not used to the conformities of New York. Ellen’s worldliness does not allow her to think like society does. “I’ve never been in a city where there seems to be such a feeling against living in des quartiers excentriques. ”(Wharton 63). To Ellen’s surprise, living in a place where your neighbours were “People Who Wrote”(Wharton 57) was not acceptable in society, but because of her sense of worldliness, she can not understand why.
Ellen Olenska’s first appearance in “The Age Of Innocence” gives us a sense that she is a very sophisticated yet scandalous young woman. “The suggestion of a head-dress, which gave her what was then called a ‘Josephine Look’, was carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a large old-fashioned clasp. ”(Wharton 8). Although Ellen had a strange taste in clothing, she still carried herself in a very sophisticated manner. Society never got to Ellen. No matter what.
The opposite of Countess Ellen Olenska is her cousin, May Welland. May is the soon to be wife of Newland Archer. When we meet May Welland, we see her as a very innocent girl and sweet girl. She has been brought up this way so that she would conform to society. “And slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage-lovers”(Wharton 5). We see here, in the way newland describes May, that she is a very innocent, young looking woman. Her looks give off the impression that she is also very clueless.
Thanks to her sweet nature and innocent looks, May fits society’s idea for the “Perfect Wife”. Archer “delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace, and in her quickness at games;” all things that society applauded(Wharton 40). Like stated in the first point, every trait that May has , has been worked on in her up bringing. Everything she is, is exactly what society wants. Despite the fact that May is very innocent and sweet, she is not as clueless as society thinks. I’m sorry you didn’t find Ellen-I should have liked for you to see her again, -But perhaps she wouldn’t have cared-she seems so changed”(Wharton 185). She is able to manipulate matters in order to protect her marriage. She also knows he will not leave her once he realizes she is pregnant and that Ellen would not let him even consider doing such a thing. “That is, if the doctors let me go…but I’m afraid they wont. For you see, Newland. I’ve been sure since this morning of something I’ve been so longing and hoping for-“(Wharton 292).
A determination is revealed as she works to defend the things she loves. A dilettante is a person who claims an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. Newland Archer himself is a dilettante. Archer believes “In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number. ” (Wharton 8).
Unlike some characters in the novel who are very serious about their participation in New York society, Newland believes he is above it. After the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska, Newland was forced to re-evaluate his life. He begins to think differently about his soon to be wife. As Newland’s mind builds up fantasies about the Countess, he becomes dissatisfied with May and thinks “I am dead—I’ve been dead for months and months. And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild suggestion. What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! (290). Ellen gives Newland the sense of adventure that he has been longing for, this is causing him to become unhappy with May.
He believes that May is merely a creation of the New York society. At various points throughout the novel, Newland shows that he is very contempt, especially when it comes to Ellen Olenska. Newland set up a date with Ellen, and as he watched her leave “in a turmoil of contradictory feelings. It seemed to him that he had been speaking not to the woman he loved but to another, a woman he was indebted to for pleasures already wearied of…’She’ll come! he said to himself, almost contemptuously. ” Newland could not stand the fact the he was beginning to see Ellen as just a use for his own pleasures. The three characters I have described above challenge, but also follow the strict order of the New York society. These characters are what make “The Age Of Innocence” such a complex book. The characters Ellen Olenska, May Welland, and Newland Archer emphasize the way in which innocence is slowly dying in this New York society.