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Friday, June 13, 2003

The Age of Innocence

Whoever accused Edith Wharton of writing The Age of Innocence without a “strong male character” is not entirely right. To be sure, the main character, Newland Archer, is not one of them, however, there are a few men in the story that I view as particularly arrogant and self-assured. While most of the strong characters in this story are female, Wharton does manage to allow a few men to shake their fists at convention.
Julius Beaufort is a disgraceful philanderer who chases Ellen Olenska openly and relentlessly. He apparently shows no remorse for his unconventional behavior and his offspring appear to marry well in spite of him. The financial scandals connected with his name do nothing to keep his heirs from society. He is a man who lives what he feels and is perhaps the strongest male in this book. He rules his household with an iron fist and his wife had “the most distinguished house in New York”. After his wife dies, he marries his former mistress, Miss Fanny Ring. Beaufort does not have great social power like Henry van der Luyden, who sets conventions instead of following them. Actually, Henry is the safe-keeper of the old standards while having the power to change them.
Lawrence Lefferts, The "model of form" in Newland Archer’s narrow little world, is stronger than Archer, though he outwardly practices “Form,” all the while he is flaunting the rules and cheating on his wife. It is of note that the stronger men in this story cheat on their wives while the weaker men, such as Archer, do not manage the act. It makes me wonder if that is what Wharton intended us to discover. The freedom from restraint that is part and parcel of adultery has been attached to Wharton’s own name; This makes me suspect that either she wanted to cheat on her husband or that he cheated on her.
If Archer were a strong character, he would set the social pace, not follow it. I do not think it was weak of Archer to become annoyed at the attention his fiancé was receiving in the opera box; it is natural that he would not want any hint of a scandal connected to his future bride.
Where he does show weakness is in his early announcement of their engagement. Wanting to protect his fiancé is one thing; to rearrange his life to suit convention is another. It is an ironic situation, for the book opens with an explanation of how he loves to mull over coming delights. Yet, in this situation, he robs himself of that pleasure and announces his betrothal on the same day that May Welland accepts his offer.
Newland is not able to tell the truth to May at the Beaufort’s ball, instead of solidifying their upcoming union by trusting her with his inner thoughts about Madame Olenska, he chooses to protect her and perpetuate the ongoing myth that May is an innocent.
In chapter five Archer suddenly feels sympathetic towards Ellen and insists that she and all women should be free. However, he does not follow this statement up with any real action. He is merely testing his sticky wings a bit in the relative comfort of his own environs. At home, anything he says is likely accepted because he is the power in that environment, however, out in public he shrinks from such rash thoughts and actions.
When Newland begins to doubt his upcoming marriage to May, it is a moment of weakness; it does not make him weak character. It is a merely a psychological mountain that many newly engaged young men must ascend. He reminds me of a leaf caught on the surface of a stream; he is carried wherever the main flow takes him. Every time the scene changes, Newland undergoes a brief transformation into yet another character, sometimes inflexible, like his peers and sometimes liberated, like Madame Olenska. This is what makes him a weak character.
He does not fixate on certain objectives and ideals; rather he mirrors the company that he keeps. This is his most critical flaw. From time to time, he fights against the predictability of his life, but he has no strength to stand up to May and rescind his marriage offer, or pursue Ellen after he learns that May is Pregnant. He is at the mercy of the women in his life, they present him with situations, and when he does have freedom of choice, he never chooses for himself but instead lets “fate” determine his life.
The women in this story share very strong characteristics. May boldly questions Archer about their upcoming nuptials and whether or not he still in love with Mrs. Rushworth, his former mistress. She manages to make Ellen Olensky leave the country by lying about her state of pregnancy, and her persistence of will manages to sooth Archer’s rough edges during the first six months of their marriage. She may play the innocent, but we recognize her for what she is, a clever young woman who will not lose her husband to her cousin. She forms an alliance with the strong women in her family to keep Archer out of the information loop.
Ellen is strong enough to leave her husband and his fortune. Her happiness is more important to her than convention. At the Van der Luyden reception for the Duke, Ellen follows her coda of acting against common practice by leaving the Duke’s side. We do not know if this is a deliberate act, though we guess it might be because she calls the Duke “Boring”, or if Ellen is simply unaware of the customs. After all, she has been away for quite some time and was raised by an eccentric aunt. She is a woman who speaks her mind and does not hide behind the double talk that everyone else in New York uses.
One would think, however, that she would know that it is inappropriate for her to repeatedly invite Newland to her home without his family and fiancé, yet she does it anyway. She issues a clear invitation to Newland at the theatre one night, “What do you do while May is away?” She knows whom she wants and is unafraid of getting him initially.
Ellen captivates Newland; she manages to make him feel that the notions of his society are backward. She easily changes his mind whenever they encounter one another and he becomes obsessed with her.
Mrs. Archer displays some strength in going to see Louisa van der Luyden. She is ready to risk appearing foolish and takes an active role in making the cousin of her son’s fiancé more acceptable to their society. She does not act on her own, but after “a painful period of inward resistance and outward temporizing”. She is not a very strong woman like Mrs. Manson Mingott, the grandmother of Ellen and May, whom is the most socially powerful woman in the book besides Louisa van der Luyden. She willfully built her home away from the rest of society, yet they still troop to her dinners even though the food is dismal. She directs her family’s lives, as matriarchs tend to do and her granddaughters are her supplicants; they seek her approval and monetary support. She is the hand behind many of the decisions in Ellen’s life. While she is the epitome of convention, she is also the one who “tried it on”, regarding allowing Ellen to come back into the family fold. Her and Beaufort were known for their “shortcuts through the conventions”.
The Van der Luydens, the Archers, and the Mingotts represent the kind of society that is scared of change, they have become stodgy and old fashioned. The critical “Form” that people like the Leffertses and the Wellands follow is their way of hiding behind silly conventions because they are too scared to venture out and enjoy themselves. They need someone else to take the risk first as in the case of the Van der Luydens who made Ellen welcome and in the case of Ellen being one of the first New York women to frequent the salon of Mrs. Struthers.
Perhaps Archer does not go to visit Ellen in the final chapter because of Dallas’ revelation that May knew of his passion for Ellen. Once again, it is May controlling Archer, even from the grave. The whole idea of Ellen was that she was free, from the conventions of society and completely unlike any of the boring aspects of Archer’s duty- filled life. To have his feelings validated by dead wife, only makes them less of what they were. Because they meet with approval, his feelings are no longer exciting or important. “Newland Archer, looking out of his hotel window at the stately gaiety of the Paris streets, felt his heart beating with the confusion and eagerness of youth.” May’s insidious stamp of approval is all Archer needs to put out that fire. Archer is also now afraid of Ellen, after all she has had half a lifetime of experiences that he had not and he doesn’t even feel like his attempts at conversation will do. She is an insurmountable idea, now that life with May has “softened” all of Newland’s “sharp edges”.
Many of Wharton’s novels appear to favor strong females such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Zenobia Frome in Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence is no exception. Wharton manages to portray a variety of strong women in this story. They control the life of Archer, without him realizing it. “Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family council”. Since men barely receive mention in relation to the women in this family, they are all dead and buried; the women make the decisions. “Mrs. Manson Mingott’s influence is great throughout her family.” At one point, Archer realizes that his power within the family is dead, because he no longer shares the “tribal” view, and that May has kept information from him and her conscience had not “protested.” The women in this book conduct the lives of their men and offspring with no guilt, they assume that they are the best judge of character and deportment and leave nothing to chance or “fate”.


Sources:

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, and Auckland: Bantam Books, 1996

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