Edith Wharton’s classic novel, The Age of Innocence, discloses the habits and customs of New York’s high society in the late 1870’s. In this novel, Wharton examines the social and moral insecurities of a tribe of people, unflinching in their adherence to ‘the norm’.
Wharton wrote her novel in the 1920’s, looking back through time and training her spyglass on a society threatened with extinction. Throughout the book, she casts an acerbic eye over the tight band of 19th century socialites, unpeeling the layers of convention that make up their precariously balanced world.
The protagonist, Newland Archer, is a literary dilettante and fancies himself apart from his family and friends. He recognises for instance the hypocrisy of characters like Lawrence Lefferts, an odious womaniser and self-professed expert on ‘form’. Occasionally, Newland challenges the long-held assumptions of his circle. Yet his life is carefully planned and laid out. He is secure in his engagement to May Welland, the daughter of a leading New York family, who he thinks of as charming and innocent.
The spanner in the works is Countess Olenska, a bohemian and free spirit, who is at odds with Archer and the rest of her American peers. Olenska, a cousin of May Welland, is socially and sexually liberated. She fraternises openly with the dubious Julius Beaufort, lives among artists and writers, and in general represents a menace to Newland Archer’s carefully constructed universe. Yet, she remains innocent of the severity of her impact on society, though conscious of her affect on Newland. Through his association with freedom-loving Ellen, Newland gradually perceives his stagnant society marriage as a trap from which there is little hope of escape.
Both Ellen and Newland are out tragically ahead of their time, belonging to a more modern, less constricted world. Despite this, they are confined within the customs and conventions of the period.
In a singular passage, Wharton uses the telephone to express this sense of imprisonment. When, during their walk in the snow, Archer, Beaufort and Olenska marvel over the concept of wireless communication, (telephone), we perceive the characters helplessly frozen in time. Try as they might, they cannot escape the suffocating reality of the present, where truth is rarely revealed. At the same time, they ponder the distant possibility of a life without barriers, symbolised by the telephone.
“If only this new dodge for talking along a wire had been a little bit nearer perfection I might have told you all this from town, and been toasting my toes before the club fire at this minute, instead of tramping after you through the snow,” he grumbled, disguising a real irritation under the pretence of it; and at this opening Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other from street to street, or even—incredible dream!—from one town to another. This struck from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne, and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the most intelligent when they are talking against time, and dealing with a new invention in which it would seem ingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of the telephone carried them safely back to the big house.
Wharton’s novel is a critique of the society she grew up in, but it is also a nostalgic evocation of that society. In the rarefied atmosphere of Newland Archer’s world – a world where a gentleman protects the honour of a lady friend, and sends her bunches of yellow roses to express his admiration – tribal loyalties co-mingle with cultural inflexibility. When Ellen Olenska – considered an outcast – is viciously snubbed by her peers, the prestigious van der Luydens step in to ‘teach New York a lesson’. They host a rare dinner in Ellen’s honour, Ellen being a distant cousin. Later, they feel wounded when she defies convention by attending an inappropriate evening of entertainment. Throughout these passages, the reader senses Wharton’s sneaking admiration for such orderly devotion to form.
Wharton’s mixed attitude towards 1870’s New York, and its stubborn social conventions is perhaps best reflected in the fate of Archer and Olenska. In the beginning of the novel, liberated Ellen Olenska lives according to her own light. She seeks divorce from her husband, a decadent Polish Count. Persuaded by Archer, who spells out the impact on her reputation should she go ahead with the divorce, Olenska changes her mind for fear of creating more scandal for her family. She therefore tacitly approves Archer’s world, which she regards as preferable to the corrupt world she left behind in Europe. Similarly, Archer, who is rapidly falling in love with Ellen, defies his own passion in urging her to remain married to the Count. Both characters stifle their desires on the altar of duty.
The consequence of their sacrifice is made clear later on;
“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.
“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”
He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and he remembered the phrase she had used a little while before.
“Yes, the Gorgon has dried your tears,” he said.
“Well, she opened my eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people. What she does is just the contrary—she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in the blessed darkness. Isn’t there a Chinese torture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believe me, it’s a miserable little country!”
When finally expelled by her circle, (to protect Archer’s floundering marriage) Ellen Olenska does not encourage Newland Archer to follow her to Europe. Instead, she silently indicates that she wishes him to remain married to May, now pregnant with Archer’s child. Olenska, therefore, is reconciled to the uncompromising standards of her tribe. This represents a moral denouement to her divided character.
Similarly, Archer goes on to live a life of quiet desperation, fulfilling his family duties despite his enduring love for Olenska. Only when May dies, does the opportunity open for Archer to consummate his love for Ellen, and Wharton’s handling of the finale is subtly suggestive of her 19th century attitude. Both characters can be seen to have acted decently, even innocently in the end.