Society in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton Essay
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Society in The Age of Innocence The Age of Innocence, written by Edith Wharton, is about the upper-class society of New York City in the 1870’s. The novel follows the life of an upper-class lawyer named Newland Archer. He is going to wed May Welland, who comes from another upper-class family. As the novel progresses Newland starts to become intrigued with May’s cousin, the poor Ellen Olenska. Ellen is called “poor” because she is shameful in the eyes of the society that surrounds her. Ellen left her husband and moved back to New York City to be with her family. Divorce is not acceptable in the 1870’s high society like it is today. Newland tries at first to protect Ellen from the bad reputation that she will perceive if she divorces…show more content…
Society in The Age of Innocence The Age of Innocence, written by Edith Wharton, is about the upper-class society of New York City in the 1870’s. The novel follows the life of an upper-class lawyer named Newland Archer. He is going to wed May Welland, who comes from another upper-class family. As the novel progresses Newland starts to become intrigued with May’s cousin, the poor Ellen Olenska. Ellen is called “poor” because she is shameful in the eyes of the society that surrounds her. Ellen left her husband and moved back to New York City to be with her family. Divorce is not acceptable in the 1870’s high society like it is today. Newland tries at first to protect Ellen from the bad reputation that she will perceive if she divorces her husband. In the end he just wants her to be free and desires to be with her for the woman she became. There are still different levels of society in the world, but the lives of distinction are perhaps not as evident. On the eve of Newland and May’s engagement announcement, Newland meets Ellen for the first time. They were all attending the opera and Newland was noticing how the rest of his peers were talking and making slurs about poor Ellen. He did not like this because he thought it would look bad upon May. He wants May to be known socialite after they wed. Newland states that, “He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton.” (7) Even before the engagement he already thought by her timid ways
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Newland Archer’s Key to Life Newland Archer is known as a successful lawyer on the streets of New York and is also known to have come from one of the best families in New York. Being engaged to May Welland, his life is the standard of perfection to any citizen to have known who he was. To Newland, that’s exactly what his life is: standard. In The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, Newland Archer desires to redefine his life, but perhaps not in the wisest way. He falls in love with Madame Olenska, an exotic countess from overseas.
Newland, unsatisfied with his present life, must learn to deal with his feelings and emotions, through many trials and tribulations; through this journey, Newland earns the key to life: happiness. Wharton portrays Newland as vain: he considers himself smarter than his peers. He is quick to form his opinion on matters and he searches for a new meaning to the mundane life he lives. Archer had a great imagination. He would fantasize about something, but never take action and do something about his dreams. He was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him subtler satisfaction than its realization. ” (24-25) In private, Newland Archer would often contemplate what life would be like on the other side of the fence. In public, he would act “normal” by his family’s and friend’s strict social code. In the end, he does not act upon his imagination, but rather, he goes back to tradition and never breaks free of the conformities he is bounded by. Newland many times compares his life to a play he has seen or a book he has read.
One example is when May’s grandmother sent Archer down to fetch Madame Olenska at the pier. Newland finds her there, standing with her back to him, at the end of the pier. At this moment, he remembers the play, The Shaughraun, back in chapter 13. He particularly remembers the scene: “When her wooer turned from her she rested her arms against the mantel-shelf and bowed her face in her hands. On the threshold he paused to look at her; then he stole back, lifted one of the ends of velvet ribbon, kissed it, and left the room without her hearing him or changing her attitude. (132) Newland tells himself, “If she doesn’t turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I’ll go back. ” (234) Madame Olenska does not turn around so he returns to the house, and his life, without her. He is beginning to understand that he cannot have Ellen, and that it is not morally right for him to have an affair with her. Newland continues to dream about Ellen, but he knows deep in the back of his mind that it will never work out for the two of them to be together.
When Larry Lefferts sees Newland and Madame Olenska in front of Mrs. Mingott’s house talking, he discreetly snuck away across the street because he perceives them as secret lovers stealing a minute out of their day to be alone with each other. Newland sees how the situation looks and realizes why Larry had crossed the street: “It was the kind of masculine solidarity that he himself had practiced; now he sickened at their connivance. ” (324) The entire family, even May, believes that Newland and Madame Olenska are lovers. As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy… to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies. ” (350) And Newland’s family has a conversation during the dinner to send Ellen off, each member shares that with her leaving, the whole ordeal is finally over and their strict code of conduct is back to what it once was.
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Although Countess Olenska has returned back to her normal life, she has not left the mind of Newland. Newland never went after Ellen when she returned to Paris, but for nearly thirty years, she had remained in his mind “… abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. ” (362) Through all those years, he had remained a faithful husband to May. When she died, “He had honestly mourned her [death]. (362) He had found found happiness in his “duty”-to be a husband to his wife and father to his children. He had mostly silenced his thoughts of ever abandoning his wife to make Ellen Olenska his mistress. While traveling with his son, Dallas, he had the opportunity to go visit Countess Olenska. However, with the maturity he had gained over the years, he passed the opportunity up. Newland told his son what to say to Ellen: “Say I’m old-fashioned, that’s enough. ” (376) Newland Archer has overcome the temptation to see Madame Olenska and his lust after her. After many years, he had found the key to life: happiness.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Newland Archer’s Key to Life
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