The Age of Innocence: Essay Q&A
1. Was Wharton really writing about an age of innocence in The Age of Innocence?
Wharton's novel is set in the 1870s, at a time when society was dominated by 'old money' families living off inherited wealth, like Wharton's own parents. But she wrote it after World War I (it was published in 1920), at an uncertain time when the old systems were breaking down.
We see the beginning of this process in the novel, with brash new incomers like Beaufort and Ellen challenging the beliefs and customs of the old society of which Archer's and May's families are members. On one hand, the old society is innocent, in that it resolutely refuses to look at or admit to any of the "unpleasant" things of life: divorce, extra-marital affairs, or even new ideas brought in by artists, men and women of ideas, and "people who wrote". Its young women are deliberately brought up, like May, to know nothing of the world or of relationships. On the other hand, the unpleasant things do happen, but to be respectable, one has to pretend that they do not. This leads to hypocritical behavior, such as the adulterer Lefferts judging the morals of others, or society accepting the shady dealer Beaufort as long as he gives lavish parties and keeps his illicit activities out of public gossip. It leads also to sensitive and well-meaning people leading a double life (like Archer's real and fantasy worlds) or trying desperately to fit in and finally failing and being expelled (like Ellen). Everyone must adhere to a complex code of taste and morals to be accepted . Adherence is not easy, but it offers a form of certainty, where everyone knows their place.
The positive side of this 'innocent' age is its emphasis on duty to the family and the community. There is no doubt that by avoiding an affair, Archer and Ellen save May and the rest of their families much pain.
It is significant that the most conventionally innocent character, May, turns out not to be as naive as her husband imagines: in fact, she is a formidable opponent of Ellen for Archer's loyalties and wins the battle by deception. And Archer and Ellen, who in fact remain innocent of any adulterous liaison by exercising immense self-control, are believed by the entire New York society to be lovers. So what society judges as innocence is not always what it seems, and conversely, what it judges as guilt may not be. Appearance is all - hardly a condition in which true innocence can thrive. Adding to the layers of complexity, Ellen believes Archer to be naive in his belief that they will some day be together. Thus 'innocence' can be interpreted in many ways. Wharton's use of the term is frequently ironic, and at the very least, its meaning shifts according to one's viewpoint.
2. Who, or what, keeps Archer and Ellen from ending up together?
Archer has three major opportunities to be with Ellen. The first is at the end of Book One (Chapter 18), when he is at Ellen's house and tells her that, since he is still free and she can be if she divorces, they can be together. There are two elements that prevent this.
First, Archer has persuaded Ellen (while operating as a mouthpiece for the family) that gaining happiness at the expense of others - in this case, May - is wrong. Second, Archer's attempts to get May's family to bring the wedding forward finally prove successful, and Archer feels he cannot back out. In both cases, Archer's actions, rather than an impersonal fate or even society, are to blame, though he is acting under the strong influence of society.
The next opportunity comes in Chapter 33, after the dinner party that May and Archer host in honor of Ellen's departure. Archer is bored with May and feels stifled by their life together. He sees no reason why he should not follow Ellen to Europe. He begins to tell May that he intends to leave, but she reveals that she is pregnant. Archer would not abandon May and the baby. The responsibility for this event must again fall with Archer, who has pursued his married life with May sufficiently to start a family. Ellen's leaving so precipitately, however, is due to May. May told Ellen she was pregnant before she was sure, knowing that Ellen was an honorable woman who would not allow herself to be the reason why Archer left his wife and baby.
The final opportunity, when Archer arrives at Ellen's apartment but does not go in, has nothing at all to do with the expectations of society or family pressure. Society has moved on and no longer cares, and his eldest son is encouraging him to meet her again. But Archer turns away from her, preferring his dream to the reality. Society has played its part in keeping them apart, but Wharton shows us that society is constructed out of the minds of individuals like Archer, May and their families. Ultimately, they carry the prison with them. The individuals that make up 'society' are free to throw off old models and invent new ones, and this does happen within the timescale of the novel. But Archer has not caught up: he remains, as he says, 'old-fashioned'.
3. Why does Wharton include so much descriptive detail in the novel?
Wharton was born into a wealthy family and knew at first hand the minute social gradations of New York society and the material possessions that helped society define people as persons of taste and breeding, or as vulgar and common. She wrote books on the decoration of houses and the layout of gardens and took charge of both activities in the houses she lived in. So it comes as no surprise that The Age of Innocence is full of intricate descriptions of decor, dress and architectural details. The descriptions are not there for their own sake; they are a code which tells us about the people associated with them.
For example, May's bland innocence is conveyed by the white lilies-of-the-valley she always carries. That Archer sees her in this light is confirmed by the fact that he sends her a new bunch of these flowers each day. He reserves rich golden-yellow roses for Ellen, whom he sees as fiery and passionate.
The house that Archer and May live in, which suits the Wellands' taste but not Archer's, is built of a "ghastly" greenish-yellow stone and has a fake Pompeian vestibule. Archer fears that May will decorate it in the style of her parents' house. Wharton gives us a detailed account of the Wellands' decor, which symbolizes their concern with superficial appearances. There are gilt vitrines (gilt being a thin surface coating of gold, vitrines being glass-fronted display cabinets to show off one's china); sham Buhl tables (Buhl refers to surface inlays of such materials as tortoiseshell, ivory or metal, but these tables are not even the real thing); and garish trimmings. Archer's sanctuary is his library, which he decorates in his own taste and which comes to symbolize his secret inner life.
The Welland houses contrast starkly with Ellen's house, which is somewhat shabby but full of foreign art and exotic fragrances. Going there is like an adventure for Archer. Ellen's house reflects her bohemian nature and the wild and passionate possibilities that she represents for Archer.
It is significant that Wharton wrote the novel at a time when anthropology, which included the study of cultural artifacts, was becoming popular. Wharton observes the artifacts that defined New York society of the 1870s with the same detached air with which Ellen views the museum's primitive artifacts. Once so important to the users, they are now labeled "Use unknown". Thus Wharton suggests that the New York society that set itself up as the supreme arbiter of morals and taste is as transient and irrelevant as these objects. Thus, detailed description - used by most authors to convey realism - is used subversively by Wharton to draw attention to the essential unreality of society.
4. How does The Age of Innocence explore the role of women?
May Welland contrasts starkly with Ellen Olenska. May is a carefully finished product of old New York society, groomed for her role of demure wife and mother by the women of her family. Unimaginative and predictable, she is concerned always to do the right thing in the eyes of society and her family. She is skilled in smoothing over any "unpleasantness" that threatens to ruffle the surface of high society. However, Archer underestimates his wife's awareness of relationships, and her ability to calculate and manipulate. May knows all along of Archer's feelings for Ellen, and sympathizes with him; and she disposes of her rival by prematurely telling Ellen she is pregnant.
Ellen represents the opposite of May. Exotic, passionate and artistic, brought up by eccentrics and wanderers, she has carved out her own destiny in a variety of cultures with little reference to the expectations of others. However, she comes to see her 'old' life as selfish, and under Archer's influence, grows determined not to buy her happiness at the expense of others. Despite her attempts to fit into New York society, she finds herself offending the accepted mores at every turn. But because she acts with integrity, and because her 'offences' are often prompted by kindness (such as when she calls on the disgraced Regina Beaufort), she engages our sympathy. It is no coincidence that Ellen most resembles Wharton herself, who divorced her husband and spent much time in Europe. Thus through Ellen, Wharton calls into question society's expectations of women.
Society makes assumptions about women like May and women like Ellen - and gets it wrong on both counts. May is thought to be pure and innocent, but knows and manipulates more than she is given credit for. Ellen is assumed to be having an affair with Archer, when she is not. To some extent, then, both women are imprisoned in their roles.
Through these two characters, the traditional May and the progressive Ellen, Wharton shows that women are slowly becoming freer. However, she makes it clear through Ellen's story that women are still subject to double standards. In Chapter 7, Archer says that women should be as free as men are, for example, to pursue fulfillment beyond a failed marriage. But Wharton adds, " 'Nice' women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore - in the heat of the argument - the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them." No one in society mentions Archer's past affair with a married women, but Ellen's family cannot forgive her for refusing to return to her husband, and the episode mars her social standing for as long as she remains in New York.
5. Newland Archer is an enthusiastic member of society yet wants to escape its conventions. Is he a hypocrite?
At the opening of the novel, Newland is both an insider and an outsider in New York society. As a wealthy, intelligent an d charming young man, he is well placed to enjoy the best things that society has to offer, including opera, art, literature and a beautiful wife. He knows the conventions and follows them, but he also regards them with an attitude that ranges from tolerant irony to rage. The barometer is his feeling at any one time towards the two women in his life, the conventional May and the unconventional Ellen. For most of the novel, he is torn between the two, a fact that Ellen recognizes when she asks him to be her interpreter between herself and society, to tell her how to behave in order to be accepted.
In spite of his conviction that women should be as free as men, he allows himself to be used as a mouthpiece to persuade Ellen not to pursue her divorce. Later, he allows himself to be used by Riviere to persuade her not to go back to her husband and to persuade the family to support her in this. He has three major opportunities to be with Ellen, but he lacks the decisiveness to follow through - a quality that May does possess. When May foils the second of these opportunities by revealing her pregnancy, Archer commits himself to his family life, becoming a devoted family man and responsible civic figure. There is a large part of him that is contented with the sort of life he has with May; if this were not so, he would long ago have become an outsider, like Ned Winsett. He finally relegates his passion for Ellen to a fond memory that he cherishes like the image of an imaginary beloved in a picture.
The word 'hypocrite' derives from the Greek for an actor, someone who plays a part. It could be argued that Archer is playing a part, because he never feels fully 'inside' the life he has chosen in society. But this could also apply to the other characters, with the possible exception of Ellen, who tries to play the part of a New York society woman but finally admits defeat and goes back to Europe. Certainly, Archer is a divided man. He has his fantasy yet 'real' life with Ellen, but cannot allow it to become reality, seemingly because he never quite believes in it enough to sacrifice the comforts of his life as a society insider.