Bakalářská práce Brno 2008 Zuzana Polišenská Masaryk University Brno


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Masarykova univerzita v Brně

Pedagogická fakulta

Katedra Pedagogiky

Bakalářská práce
Brno 2008

Zuzana Polišenská
Masaryk University Brno

Faculty of Education

Department of English Language and Literature

Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence

Bachelor Thesis

Brno 2008

Supervisor: Author:

Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D. Zuzana Polišenská
POLIŠENSKÁ, Zuzana. Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence: Bachelor Thesis. Brno: Masaryk University, Fakulty of Education, Department of English Language and Literature, 2008. 48 pp. Supervisor: Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D.


Bachelor thesis deals with the main theme of society and individual in Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence. The main aim of the paper is to focus on New York society of 1870s as it is depicted by Wharton and to find out its influence on individual.

The thesis uses three main characters, Ellen Olenska, May Welland and Newland Archer to present the theme of society versus individual and woman's and man's role within the society. It also describes the ambiguous features of their characters. The main motives of The Age of Innocence are analysed and thesis is divided into chapters according to the main themes.

New York society, individual, woman's role, man's role, symbols


POLIŠENSKÁ, Zuzana. Věk nevinnosti Edith Whartonové: bakalářská práce. Brno: Masarykova Univerzita, Pedagogická fakulta, Katedra anglického jazyka a literatury, 2008. 48 stran. Vedoucí bakalářské práce: Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D.


Bakalářská práce se zabývá hlavním tématem společnosti a jednotlivce v díle Edith Whartonové Věk nevinnosti. Hlavním cílem této práce je zaměření se na newyorskou společnost sedmdesátých let devatenáctého století, jak je Whartonovou vylíčena a zjištění jejího vlivu na jednotlivce.

Práce využívá tři hlavní postavy, Ellen Olenskou, May Wellandovou a Newlanda Archera k představení tématu společnost versus jednotlivec a postavení ženy a muže ve společnosti. Dále popisuje dvojznačné rysy postav. Hlavní motivy Věku nevinnosti jsou analyzovány a práce je rozdělena do kapitol podle hlavních témat.

Klíčová slova:
newyorská společnost, jednotlivec, postavení ženy, postavení muže, symboly


I hereby declare that I wrote the bachelor thesis on my own and all the literary sources used in the bachelor thesis are stated in the Bibliography.

Kroměříž, 20 November 2008 Zuzana Polišenská

I would love to thank my supervisor Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D. and take the opportunity to express my sincere gratitude for her valuable guidance and her kind help.

Zuzana Polišenská

Introduction ……………………………………............... .….. 8
1 Edith Wharton – Her Life and Work

Reflected in The Age of Innocence….. 10

2 The Age of Innocence ………………………………...........14

2.1 Symbolism …………………………………………...16

2.1.1 Nature and Death …………………………………19

3 Society ………………………………………………………...22

3.1 Old New York Society …………………………………….22

3.2 Woman's Role – Ellen and May …………………………..28

3.3 Man's Role – Newland …………………………………….31

4 Escapism …………………..…………………………………..35
Conclusion ……………………………………………………...37

Resume ………………………………………………………….39

Bibliography ……………………………………………………40

Appendices ……………………………………………………..42

Appendix 1 ……………………………………………………..42

Appendix 2 ……………………………………………………..43

Appendix 3 ……………………………………………………..44

Appendix 4 ……………………………………………………..45

Appendix 5 ……………………………………………………..46


"Edith wharton's lovely figurines

Still speak to me today

From their mantlepiece in time

Where they wrestle and they play

With passions and with prudences

Finances and fears

Her face and what its worth to her

In the passing of the years

See the portrait come to life

See the vanity behind

Cause in the struggle for survival

Love is never blind"

Suzanne Vega
The aim of this thesis is to analyze Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence with a focus on the relationship between society and individual in 1870s in New York. The main themes are analysed with references to Edith Wharton's own life experience and her opinions on the subject of individual within society as recorded in her biography. This novel deals with the motives of a woman's role as well as man's at that time.

I have decided to choose Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence because the themes she deals with in the novel can be considered contemporary problems even in our society of the twenty-first century.

In the thesis I would like to find out how Wharton views the society of her childhood and how it influences, forms and curtails people's lives. I would like to concentrate on the differences between woman's and man's circumstances, especially focused on main characters; Ellen Olenska, May Welland and Newland Archer with analysis of the dual aspects of their nature.

Finally, the thesis will ascertain the ways of escape from the state of main characters' affairs.

1 Edith Wharton – her life and work reflected in The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton is considered to be one of the greatest American writers of the 1920s. Her novel The Age of Innocence (1920) was a brilliant success. It introduces American and European values and traditions typical of the upper-class society and its unwritten, established rules.

Edith Newbold Jones was born on 24 January in 1862 in New York City. Her parents belonged to the most aristocratic families in New York society. By virtue of inherited income of Edith's father, who was never obliged to work, they lived very conveniently (Wolff 1977: 3). As a child she spent some time in Europe, travelling throughout Italy, Spain, Germany and France. When young Edith came back to New York, she continued her private education studying literature, philosophy, science, and art (Social Realism). In old New York aristocratic families, where Wharton was brought up girls never attended school and they "were not supposed to train their intelligence" (Salmi 1991: 108) and becoming a writer was not accepted (Salmi 1991: 108). Although "she got very little encouragement and support to read and none at all to write" (Salmi 1991: 21), she started to write short stories and poetry. Her parents ignored her talent, discouraged her writing and she had to act conventionally and get married as it was expected. She was obliged to be in a traditional role of a woman.

When she was twenty-three she married banker Edward "Teddy" Robins Wharton and they lived very comfortably on the income of their combined inheritances. Their relationship was not happy: "… Teddy was not a literary man. Like Edith's father, he was a man with no vocation …" (Salmi 1991: 23). They divorced in 1913. In Paris she met journalist Morton Fullerton, who became a close friend and later an affair of hers. She met plenty of famous people and Henry James became one of them. Edith Wharton died of a stroke on 11 August 1937 (Social Realism).

In her autobiography Wharton describes her family's attitude to her creative work:

I have often wondered … whether or not it is a good thing for the creative artist to grow up in an atmosphere where the arts are simply nonexistent … was it helpful or the reverse to have every aspiration ignored, or looked at askance? ... But as regards a case like my own, where a development no doubt naturally slow was certainly retarded by the indifference of everyone about me … that I had to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference, if not a tacit disapproval … (A Backward Glance qtd. in Salmi 1991: 21)

In 1924 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence (Procházka 2002: 156). In his biography Lewis calls her "one of the most intelligent American women who ever lived" (Salmi 1991: 20), and Wolff ranks Wharton as "one of the half-dozen greatest novelists that America has produced" (Salmi 20).

In 1990s Wharton features as a feminist writer in her novels however her literate style and pervasive analysis of various social environments make her "the most sophisticated and stimulating woman author of the early twentieth century" (Procházka 2002: 158). She deals with women situation from the view of social, economic, cultural and psychological relationships (Procházka 2002: 158). "Alert at first hand to the special disadvantages to which her society subjected women, above all brilliant women, still Wharton was only partly a feminist. Social class was even more important to her than sexual equality" (Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century qtd. in Salmi 1991: 31).

In terms of her personal development, the intimacy of the affair with Fullerton enabled her to begin to explore her passional and sexual self. Her discoveries appear in the novel The Age of Innocence (also referred as AI) that deals primarily with passion (Wolff 1977: 161). The Age of Innocence is dramatic evocation of heat, sexual passion, passion for experience and love (Wolff 1977: 192).

Wharton passed through dreadful life moments which influenced her life and work like "the early death of her beloved father; the coldness of her domineering mother; disappointments with lovers; the war; her husband's mental illness; the divorce" (Salmi 1991: 16).

Wharton found her ways of escape by means of frequent journeys to Europe and writing at the first place. Writing freed her, strengthened her and made her more self-confident and self-sufficient. Thus her relationship to her family, parents and especially her mother, country and society are reflected in her fiction. The themes are determined by her experience (Salmi 1991: 16).

Wharton was a rebel at her times; she broke the bonds of family, class and marriage and went for her own career, and she did it in opposition on her family. In one of her letters showing her bitter mood from the wasted years of silence and her fighting spirit, she says:

If by could I have done differently you mean where your father was concerned – no one who knows you could dream of thinking so. If you mean where you were concerned – alas, I should like to get up on the house-top & cry to all who come after us: Take your own life, every one of you! (Lewis qtd. in Salmi 1991: 134)
She criticised the social conventions typical of the time of her life, all the taboos related, the women's position when earning their own living, social roles and power of money (Procházka 2002: 155).

Wharton records the past for future generations in her work. She criticizes society she was born into and brought up in for its "hypocrisy, smugness, double standards, the status of women, the inertia of men, the cold cultural atmosphere, the rigid code of life, and the victimization of individuals" (Salmi 1991: 67); and those who differ they are segregated. Wharton disagrees with the passive role of young women. In case young ladies do not get married to advantage they do not have any survival skills in realities of life and hereinafter do not receive any education related to sex (Salmi 1991: 132). She contrasts Old New York society with its cold and stiff lifestyle with more freed and disengaged European atmosphere.

At the same time she sympathizes with the old order and the upstarts. She appreciated their drive to climb the social ladder, as it required a lot of energy and effort (Salmi 1991: 67).

Coolidge in Salmi comments on Wharton's attitude to the society: "Critical she might be of the society into which she had been born; yet she admired it, appreciating its standards of personal integrity, conduct, or manners. For the wealthy newcomers to New York of her own generation, she felt nothing but outright loathing and contempt." (132).

2 The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence is a historical society novel with a critical tone set in New York City in the 1870s, when the structure of the upper class changes based upon the influence of nouveaux riches from the West (Procházka 2002: 156). The Age of Innocence deals with aristocracy of 1870s, the time of Wharton's childhood and it is a nostalgic evocation of that time. Wharton went "back in her mind to the times and places of her childhood" (Salmi 1991: 48) after war experience in France.

The story of The Age of Innocence is set mainly in New York City. It shows love relationship ruined by social conditions. Actually the lovers seem to be not willing to make any radical decisions, which would separate them from the upper class (Procházka 2002: 156).

The novel The Age of Innocence takes place in the Old New York aristocracy, "called the Four Hundred" (Procházka 2002: 157). Wharton "gently ridicules the deadly serious attitude of the aristocracy towards old customs and observances" (Salmi 1991: 49). The novel begins with the return to America of Ellen Olenska, who is thinking of divorcing "her husband, a corrupt Polish count" (Strout 1990: 64). She finds out that it is quite difficult and almost impossible to be accepted in the very conventional society of the American East. Edith Wharton "created a complex female character" (Strout 1990: 64) in Ellen Olenska, describing position of women in 1870s. The other significant character in the novel is Newland Archer, a young lawyer who is on the verge of a decent marriage with May Welland when his relationship with Ellen begins. Ellen respects the stability of May's and Newland's life and she refuses to get in an affair with him (Strout 1990: 64).

The characters in The Age of Innocence are New York aristocrats. Each of them is presented in a different role and social status. Ellen Olenska comes and thrills the balance of Old New York aristocratic circles. May has one of the circles; the whole family on her side to keep her husband Newland Archer a man of high moral ethics. He tries to break his chains for a short moment, but in the end, he admits the fact that he is trapped by his destiny (Salmi 1991: 81). The balance of all characters is shown with a man torn between two women; one is self-conscious product of old New York society and the other is an elusive outsider (Wolff 1977: 220).

Secondary characters in the novel build a social network and provide the background to the main characters. They can be found in their homes, in their country houses, weddings, dinners, balls and theatre performances.

Although old New York gave little encouragement to its most promising individuals it gave Wharton precious gifts like "the beautiful instrument of her language and a set of traditions that informed her thoughts with meaning" (Wolff 1977: 310). It gave her order. When she portraits Newland Archer who finally comprehends life to be made up of many things "of renunciation as well as satisfaction, of traditions as well as experiments, of dying as much as of living" (Wolff 1977: 310). The story slowly introduces degrees of a "love that can bear the stress of life" (Wolff 1977: 310) where sexual intensities are not ignored and the limits of old New York are deplored with humour. Wharton drags readers into a storyline depicting vividly numerous past details like buildings, gardens, interiors, clothes, parties and menus.

In the epilogue of The Age of Innocence it is shown that with the next generation a change of the rigid code of social conventions appears. Several new technical inventions took place by the time she was writing the novel. Intermarriages between aristocrats and nouveaux riches became a reality. Even Archer's son is getting married with "the daughter of Beaufort and his former mistress; nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance the world had travelled, Archer muses" (AI qtd. in Salmi 1991: 66). The new generation "had swept away all the old landmarks, and with them the sign-post and the danger-signal" and looked at fate "not as a master but as an equal" (Salmi 1991: 66). Their parents' life seems to be quite incomprehensible to the next generation and it is shown with Archer's son saying to his father:

you never did ask each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! Well, I back your generation for knowing more about each other's private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own. – I say, Dad. (AI 1943: 359-360)
The old generation represented by Archer and May did not ever show their real feelings, disappointments and wishes to each other. After May dies Archer's son Dallas tells his father what May had thought about his love feelings for Ellen (Salmi 1991: 67):
Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone – you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted. (AI 1943: 359)

2.1 Symbolism

Wharton uses a double-heroine, a pair of women in The Age of Innocence: May Welland and Ellen Olenska. The ladies are not fair and dark heroines as it is said in Wolff (67). They cannot be seen as one-sided characters however each of them is ambiguous and dialectic. They represent different life choices for Newland Archer who is poised between them. Symbolism of colours and flowers is used to emphasize the sharp differences between the double heroine (Salmi 1991: 12) as described below.

Wharton uses the "double heroine structure to describe the eternal conflict in a man's mind between Madonna and mistress" (Salmi 1991: 82). In accordance with Salmi, May represents innocence and purity, an ingénue. But Archer is emotionally more attracted to Ellen representing enigmatic woman, a true femme fatale. Wharton uses apposite pure symbolism describing their looks. May is dressed in white; colour of innocence and purity and of cold as well. Ellen features as someone unusual and provocative and she is dressed twice in red, the colour symbolizing of passion and sensuality. Other symbols used to define the double heroine are the flowers Archer sends. May receives lilies-of-the-valley, symbols of virginity and Ellen receives roses, symbols of passion (Salmi 1991: 82).

Ellen's gestures and behaviour touches Archer more and more impressively every time they meet. When Archer visits Ellen for the first time, she is depicted "with her arms raised and folded behind her head" (Salmi 1991: 83) which is a pose typical for showing sexual availability in art. This pose can be found in works of great painters as Titian, Picasso or Munch (Salmi 1991: 83) (see the Appendices 3, 4, 5).

Archer sees Ellen as a very attractive and tempting woman. What makes her even more alluring in his mind is the fact that she does not allow him to be with her alone often. There is always someone with them, either relatives or visitors. They are allowed some privacy for only a few moments. When Ellen explains van der Luydens, who influence the New York society she refers to herself as well: "Isn't that perhaps the reason? … For their influence; that they make themselves so rare" (AI 1943: 73).

Ellen makes herself rare to Archer as well and she is very different a woman in his eyes, a woman with unexpected opinions. She moves to an unfashionable quarter in New York. The way she furnishes her house is also extraordinary and every meeting her makes Archer see her as even more mysterious and romantic.

May represents the entrapment in the sameness, because everything she says or she does is expected of her. She does not surprise her husband with anything she does. Archer realizes that and he wants to free himself:

His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young man in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make – even to the point of calling him original. Original! We're all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We're like patterns stencilled on the wall. Can't you and I strike out for ourselves, May?" (AI 1943: 81)
Another symbolical parallel appears when May is wearing her immaculate wedding gown to a party after she has been married for some time. In old New York it was the custom for brides to appear in their wedding dress during the first year or two of marriage. When May and Archer get off the carriage her gown is "torn and mud-stained" (Salmi 1991: 84). It is a parallel to their marriage, which is torn and muddy, because of Archer's love of Ellen. It also refers to the dishonesty dominating their relationship. The symbol of their faintly burning flame of love is the lamp with its "sulky flame" (Salmi 1991: 84) in their library. Archer is frustrated about their marriage as he is irritated about the non functioning lamp (Salmi 1991: 84): "This lamp is smoking again; I should think the servants might see that it's kept properly trimmed" (AI 1943: 268).

2.1.1 Nature and Death

Wharton finds a great influence for her creative work in nature. A new popular style at the turn of the twentieth century coming from Europe was l'art nouveau, another inspiration for Wharton's writing. The spirit of l'art nouveau is a man in connection with nature. It is characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, highly-stylized.

One of the main meanings of l'art nouveau was to unite man and nature narrowly. Nature has always served as one of the main sources of imagination and has defined all kinds of characters. Looks and behaviour have been depicted by flowers, plants and animals. It is feminine beauty which most of the nature images are applied on (Salmi 1991: 119). For instance Archer perceives in Ellen's looks of "the cleverly planted heron wing in her fur cup, and the way a dark curl lay like a flattened vine spiral on each cheek above the ear" (AI 1943: 312); and May is described: "It was the weather to call out May's radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost" (AI 1943: 79).

Other motif pervading Wharton's work is the motif of death. In The Age of Innocence it is depicted in the love affair between Ellen and Archer which dies before it even started. When Archer notices Ellen's love feelings for him he thinks of his own feelings:

Good God ... the silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart. (AI 1943: 170)
After being married for more than one year Archer is sitting in their library with his wife and the room seems to be stifling to him and he wants some air, hence he opens the window and leans out into the icy night and thinks:
The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses, roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and made it easier to breathe. (AI 1943: 298)
May asks him to close the window arguing: "You'll catch your death" (AI 1943: 298) and he replies at the moment showing him a chance; a chance given to set him free:
'Catch my death!'...and he felt like adding: 'But I've caught it already. I am dead - I've been dead for months and months'…And suddenly the play of words 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! (AI 1943: 298 - 299)

Another setting implying death is the Metropolitan Museum where a secret rendezvous of Archer and Ellen takes place: "they had wandered down a passage to the room where the 'Cesnola antiquities' mouldered in unvisited loneliness" (AI 1943: 312). They are surrounded by mummies, sarcophagi and antiquities (Salmi 1991: 101). These are typical attributes in connection with death.

The last of these death images appearing in Archer's life is the farewell dinner. After he survives, he does not become bitter, but he accepts his destiny (Salmi 1991: 101), because:

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. (AI 1943: 350)

3 Society
The background for the characters is one of the aspects formed by the society. Wharton's characters are entrapped in their social roles, their marriages, moral obligations and other circumstances. Those who do not follow the rules of society those are criticised by it. The solution to their inconvenient situation is usually an attempt to escape.

Edith Wharton was one of those who were born to society of 1860s and she had to fight the tyranny to become a writer, because "people who wrote" (Wolff 1977: 161) were considered "odd" (Wolff 1977: 161). They were not many and were seen as outsiders of the society. Ned Winsett belongs to this group. Ned is a bohemian journalist, a friend of Archer who says "born in a world that had no need of letters", "I've got only one ware to produce, and there's no market for it here" and "God! If I could emigrate…" (Wharton 1908). Wharton compares the characters that differ with ones who are accepted by the society. She shows the strong ones breaking their bonds and the weak ones surrender to the "tyrant" (Wolff 1977: 161).

3.1 Old New York Society

Wharton lived in a time of great social change when members of the new class were gently infiltrating into American aristocracy. The process was happening either through intermarriages or with a help of the great possession they had (Salmi 191: 131). In her work Wharton ridicules old conventions and she visualized New York society of the 1870s as a pyramid,

in which, as yet, hardly a fissure had been made or a foothold gained. At its base was a firm foundation of what Mrs Archer called 'plain people'; an honourable but obscure majority of respectable families who (…) had been raised above their level by marriage with one of the ruling clans. (…) Firmly narrowing upward from the wealthy but inconspicuous substratum was the compact and dominant group which Mingotts, Newlands, Chiverses and Mansons so actively represented. Most people imagined them to be the very apex of the pyramid; but they themselves ( … ) were aware that, (…), only a still smaller number of families could lay claim to that eminence…the van the Luydens, who stood above all of them. (AI 1943: 46)

Further in the novel the van der Luydens are described as "morbidly sensitive to any criticism of their secluded existence. They were the arbiters of fashion, the Court of last Appeal, and they knew it, and bowed to their fate" (AI 1943: 53). Although Wharton "gently ridicules the deadly serious attitude of the aristocracy towards old customs and observances" (Salmi 1991: 49), she is aware of the significance of that latest style at that time.

At the beginning of the novel, when the prima donna Madame Nilsson is singing Faust in the old Academy of Music in New York, it is said: "As Madame Nilsson's 'M'ama!' thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song)" (AI 1943: 3). This picture shows that people used to go to the public places as opera and theatre to socialize, to see people and to be seen especially. It was not important to arrive early, for instance, when "Archer arrives at the opera when the performance has already begun…". And "... if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima donna's state manager he could not have entered the Academy at a more significant moment than just as she was singing 'He loves me – he loves me not – he loves me!" (AI 1943: 2). It is depicted in the paragraph below that not all the audience was expected to arrive in a theatre in time:

New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was 'not the thing' to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not 'the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago. (AI 1943: 2)
There is another scene showing the New York society's strict attitude to people who differ. When Ellen first appears in public after leaving her European husband, she attracts attention of other people and also Archer Newland who "for a moment … could not identify the lady in the Empire dress, nor imagine why her presence created such excitement among the initiated" (AI 1943: 9). She was not even expected to be exposed in a public because the Zone of Interior in a family circle was the only place acceptable for people like Ellen (Salmi 1991: 101). To show her in a public was something odd, because she had such an odd life and for people it meant to have something little else to talk about since unusual Ellen has entered their usual habitual routine:
but to receive Countess Olenska in the family circle was a different thing from producing her in a public, at the opera of all places, and in the very box with the young girl whose engagement to him, Newland Archer, was to be announced within a few weeks … he did not think the Mingotts would have tried it on! (AI 1943: 10)

The society is driven by unwritten agreement of rules and rituals. It establishes strictly what is acceptable, appropriate and convenient. Newland and May respect conventions and traditions. Their marriage is convenient and advisable and their future is determined. Although a beautiful and attractive countess Olenska is not acceptable and unbridled with conventions, she can offer a different and more independent world. But Ellen's and Archer's loving and passionate relationship is not to be appreciated. They would have to pay a very high price, destroying everything sacred to their society (Salmi 1991: 101).

Old New Yorkers adhere to their old-fashioned manners and their rigid rules so as to protect themselves from the outside influence and changes coming from Europe. Ellen Olenska who spent all her adult life in Europe represents the outward world (Salmi 1991: 65). Compared to Europe the passiveness is expected of women in New York society. But Ellen representing European manners behaves differently. In Europe she used to behave "as a social peer of men" (AI Salmi 65). When Ellen meets Archer and May at Mrs. Mingott's, she says to Archer: "Good-bye; come and see me some day"(AI 1943: 29), which he finds improper and thinks that:

'she ought to know that a man who's just engaged doesn't spend his time calling on married woman. But I daresay in the set she's lived in they do – they never do anything else'. And, in spite of the cosmopolitan views on which he prided himself, he thanked heaven that he was a New Yorker, and about to ally himself with one of his own kind. (AI 1943: 29)
A similar situation showing Ellen's attitude happens at a party when Ellen, after sitting next to the Duke of St. Austrey, gets up, walks the room and sits down next to Archer:
It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; … (AI 1943: 60-61)

Ellen is frank and unconventional and expresses free manners and says what she thinks. This behaviour is viewed as something unusual by Archer and Old New York society:

She had grown tired of what people called 'society'; New York was kind, it was almost oppressively hospitable; she should never forget the way in which it had welcomed her back; but after the first flush of novelty she had found herself, as she phrased it, too 'different' to care for the things it cared about – (AI 1943: 241)
Later she continues openly saying her witty opinion about America society, which makes Archer change his colour:

It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country….Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys? (AI 1943: 242)

The novel The Age of Innocence gives a vivid picture of the aristocratic lifestyle in Old New York at the turn of the century. The Old New York Society was "called the Four Hundred, as it was thought to consist of that number of people" (Salmi 1991: 31). Their roots go "back to the old Dutch and English families of the 1600s" (Salmi 1991: 31). Their inherited property was a part of the limited area coming from Washington Square along Fifth Avenue to Fortieth Street (Salmi 1991: 32).

Two of Wharton's characters in The Age of Innocence live outside of this area. It is Mrs. Manson Mingott living in University Square and her granddaughter, Ellen Olenska, who hires a house "far down West Twenty-third Street, …It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and 'people who wrote' were her nearest neighbours" (AI 1943: 65).

The novel includes criticism of the passivity of upper class men. They are shown as those who are too bound by their conventions. The social code of the upper class consists of a number of arbitrary signs, omissions, and implications. These are familiar only to those initiated. People have to pretend that everything is in order, because the main rule is to ignore the unpleasant. This behaviour keeps the New York atmosphere so "crystal-clear" (Salmi 1991: 58). For instance Ellen cannot share her wish to get divorced with any relatives of hers. This topic is forbidden among them. It is Archer who says to her: "Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce – our social customs don't" (AI 1943: 38). Ellen as a divorced upper class woman was excluded. She is ignored, as if she did not exist. She is cut off the society and "the cut is an outward sign of ostracism" (Salmi 1991: 59). Ellen is segregated, because she has broken the rules of society and left her husband. Only members of her clan associate with her. When she comes back from Europe and is taken to the opera and exposed in public in this way, it is viewed as something scandalous as it is shown in the first scene in Opera:

As she leaned forward, a little more shoulder and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing, at least in ladies who had reasons for wishing to pass unnoticed…the way her dress sloped away from her thin shoulders shocked and troubled him [Archer]. He hated to think of May Welland's being exposed to the influence of a young woman so careless of the dictates of Taste…. (AI 1943: 12)
Even the welcome party organized by her family in order to find her place in society again is declined by 'those who count'. Afterwards it is her family themselves, who segregate her when she refuses to return to her husband (Salmi 1991: 59).

3.2 Women's Role - Ellen and May
Young ladies were kept 'pure' for their future husbands and this purity was a kind of their ignorance. They were told nothing before their marriage. There were things never said in front of an unmarried girl. It is shown in Archer's sister Janey. The girls growing from childhood into womanhood did not receive any acknowledgment of the changes happening in their bodies, any help dealing with their confusions and doubts. The code of 'niceness' was expected from every young girl together with no feelings. If they did have some feelings, they were not considered 'nice' anymore. They were not supposed to know anything; 'nice' girls do not know anything. Wharton remembers in one of her letters:

Life, real Life, was singing in my ears, humming in my blood, flushing my cheeks and waving in my hair – sending me messages and signals from every beautiful face and musical voice, and running over me in vague tremors when I rode my poney, or swam through the short bright ripples of the bay, or raced and danced and tumbled with 'the boys'. And I didn't know – and if, by any chance, I came across the shadow of reality, and asked my mother 'What does it mean?' I was always told 'You're too little to understand,' or else 'It's not nice to ask about such things.' (Life and I Wolff 1977: 36)

Wharton experienced her adolescence as painful under the cruel, repressive society attitudes towards young girls (Wolff 1977: 37). Emotional life of young girls during the Victorian era suffered from discouragement. Some of the girls were more curious and less ignorant or virginal than it was expected. We can see it when May Welland is discussing with Newland Archer his previous affair with Mrs. Rushworth before getting engaged to May:
You mustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices – one has one's feelings and idea….I've wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should – should go against public opinion. (AI 1943: 147-148)

This extract interprets May as a woman who knows about other circumstances in life, although she would always keep her behaviour. To confront the emotional storms of adolescence always brings its difficulties. In the society where emotions are considered dangerous, wrong or 'not nice' young ladies tend to escape from the passions signifying sexual maturity. Instead of expressing feminine feelings Wharton hid them (Wolff 1977: 38).

Wharton criticises the lack of knowledge about sex of young girls. They "were not supposed to know anything about the facts of life" (Salmi 1991: 63) until they got married. Newland is proud of his fiancée's innocence and purity and as Salmi says, "even ignorance" (63). His man's privilege is to teach her everything. But he changes his opinion, because of May's comparison with Ellen, who is a mature woman. Archer knows that when he teaches May the facts of life, removing a bandage from her eyes, her eyes will not be the same anymore (Salmi 1991: 63).

May Welland is "the true product of her class" (Wolff 1977: 296) and follows its rules in any case. Ellen is the 'different' character, who has already adopted the freer European lifestyle and separated from her husband, which is seen as a scandal in the eyes of the New York society (Wolff 1977: 296). Behaviour of young women is expected to be innocent, "but man's premarital experience with women is not forbidden, they are viewed as a 'matter of course' " (Salmi 1991: 119). Archer compares his and May's situation:
He could not deplore (…) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (…) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself. (AI 1943: 43-44)
There is a personal experience of Wharton's revealed on this issue. Before she got married, she summoned up courage and came to her mother (brought up in a strict Victorian way as well) and asked her what marriage was really like. Their conversation is described in her Biography:

"Her handsome face at once took on the look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded. 'I never heard such a ridiculous question!' she said impatiently; and I felt at once how vulgar she thought me. But in the extremity of my need I persisted. 'I'm afraid Mamma – I want to know what will happen to me.' The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment; then she said with an effort: 'You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life. Haven't you noticed that men are…made differently from women?' 'Yes,' I faltered blankly. 'Well, then -?' I was silent, from sheer inability to follow, and she brought out sharply: 'Then for heaven's sake don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend.' The dreadful moment was over, and the only result was that I had been convicted of stupidity for not knowing what I had been expressly forbidden to ask about, or even to think of!" (Life and I Wolff 1977: 40)

This conversation shows one of the main reasons for the trauma of the young women after they got married. The lack of knowledge of sex was bequeathed by their mothers in the same way as it happened to them. Moreover, Edith Wharton did not find out where babies came from until a few weeks after her marriage (Wolff 1977: 40).

3. 3 Man's Role – Newland

At the beginning of the novel The Age of Innocence Newland Archer is a settled man who is up to marrying young and innocent May Welland. When Ellen, May's cousin comes back to America after leaving her husband, she enters and thrills Archer's balanced emotional world. It makes Archer feel trapped by the conventions of the society. When he visits relatives of his fiancée, he feels "he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped" (AI 1943: 68).

Newland Archer, a lawyer, who is quite a passive person, reflects on the varieties of social life. He consents to marry his rich and conventional fiancée May Welland, instead of keeping a truly emotional and intellectual relationship with Ellen Olenska. Ellen is a Europeanized American. She is independent and courageous to live on the margin of society. Her foreign ways upset the balance of the established order. At the end of the novel Archer is not bold enough to visit Ellen in Paris even after his wife's death. He just keeps an ideal image of her. He seems to prefer an illusion instead of a real experience of an emotional relationship (Procházka 2002: 158). When Archer is sitting down on the bench gazing at the awninged balcony of Ellen's flat he pictures Ellen's look after all that time they have not seen each other and he thinks: "It's more real to me here than if I went up, …; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other" (AI 1943: 364-365).

Wharton appeals to the question of the independence of women and men love relationship and "the role of illusions in emotional and erotic relationships" (Procházka 2002: 158).

The New York society does not condemn Newland, however it allows him to have an affair with a married woman before his marriage. His fiancée is a delicate, innocent, young woman, a perfect product of her class, and her sincerity and innocence seems to him as:

only an artificial product ... so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow. (Strout 1990: 66)
Because of the importance of the values of the society he has to pay for his choice. "He is…critical of the society in which he lives…The tone is full of benevolent derision towards the solemn reverence of old conventions, yet spiced with Wharton's sharp ironic wit" (Salmi 1991: 49). Newland is not critical of the society in which he lives at the beginning of the novel. It is a gradual process of his mind.

"The hero of the novel is always more progressive than those around him" (Salmi 1991: 54). Newland Archer is seen as an anti-hero. He is proud of his cosmopolitan views regarding equality of men and women, claiming that women should be as free as men. But he never puts his ideas into practice, he rather follows the rules of the social system he is a part of. He is "unable to protect or save the woman in distress" (Salmi 1991: 54). He seems to be in some respect a weak man, weaker than Ellen, his female opposite. He tries to fight and change his destiny but he makes a compromise in the end.

Newland Archer is an ambiguous character, who conforms to the social order, because it supports his existence of a well based man. Contrariwise he can also notice the absurdities of the old system and it makes him to fight it, but he cannot manage, he is not strong enough or he does not want to and he decides to choose other way. He is in a constant conflict with himself and at the same time he is a loyal gentleman.

The Age of Innocence was of a great importance to Edith Wharton. It draws on old New York seen almost always through Archer's eyes. Newland Archer has some choices. He searches for them, but he does so entirely internally. He is not able to escape from the provincial old New York so that he has to learn to convert it into something of value. He finds himself as alienated from his own world. He learns from his "ordeal by love" (Wolff 1977: 315) to accept the reality.

At the beginning of the novel Newland suffers from the deficiency of available passion and his habit of 'correct' behaviour. Yet there is a possibility of change in his life. His character has been shaped by his background traditions but it has been formed again along the novel's storyline. The times before his marriage meant times for experiments and intellectual curiousness and time after the marriage means commitment and affirmation of his society. It is in evidence that Newland is not prepared for this and he accomplishes that with "the case of the Countess Olenska" (Wolff 1977: 316).

Ellen causes Newland's self-confrontation. All his deepest emotional fantasies he has ever had he can try to fulfil with Ellen Olenska. She "quickens his dormant emotional life" (Wolff 1977: 318) and he can be that man he fancies he might become. He longs for a life moving beyond the familiar, a life of high emotional intensity and moral and intellectual complexity. It is a life he forefeels and it is available to only a few (Wolff 1977: 318). His usual life has changed: "The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future" (AI 1943: 138).

When Archer talks to Ellen about his marriage, he says: "What's the use? You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring - that's all" (AI 1943: 244).

Every life is about compromises, relinquished hopes and sacrifices. Ellen represents the embodiment of everything lacking in Newland's life. She has the:

mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience. She had hardly ever said a word to him to produce this impression, but it was a part of her, either a projection of her mysterious and outlandish background or of something inherently dramatic, passionate and unusual in herself (The Collected Short Stories qtd. in Wolff 1977: 319)
There are two links of Archer's life and these are life before and life after meeting Ellen. When Ellen enters his life, she reverses his values and his way of looking at social realities changes. Rituals connected with Old New York seem ridiculous to him. But at the end of the novel Archer's view of life changes one more time when he gives up Ellen and conforms and accepts the rules of his society again (Salmi 1991: 52).

4 Escapism
The characters in The Age of Innocence are entrapped by society, marriage and moral code. Archer is entrapped by the double heroine in marriage with May, however he desires and longs for Ellen.

Wharton wants to show difficulties of human nature in all the characters. Innocent May also wants to protect her marriage and she tells Ellen about her pregnancy even when she is not certain about it: "I wasn't sure then – but I told her I was" (AI 1943: 303) and telling this to Archer her eyes are "wet with victory" (AI 1943: 303). Archer was resolved to leave May, but the situation has changed with May telling him about their child. This new situation means an absolute entrapment by his 'moral obligation' and a loss of his effort to free himself (Salmi 1991: 85).

Not only the entrapment by his 'moral obligation' it is. When they meet on her return from Washington, she astounds him asking:

Is it your idea, then, I should live with you as your mistress – since I can't be your wife? ...The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one of that woman 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 recognized place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. (AI 1943: 292-293)

Newland reacts unrealistically saying: "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; and nothing else on earth will matter" (AI 293). However, Ellen, more realistic and experienced with intolerable traditions answers with a deep sigh: "Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?" (AI 1943: 293) and she laughs.

Archer doubts the strength of Ellen's feeling for him. He has always felt uncertain about Ellen and this feeling stays with him until the end of the story. When he is in Paris with his son thirty years after his last encounter with Ellen, he does not go to visit her there. He sends his son as a younger copy of himself instead (Salmi 1991: 95).

In an earlier version of The Age of Innocence Wharton sends Archer and Ellen to Florida after him having broken the engagement with May, but their relationship is not happy there anymore. Wharton then decided to change the ending and it proves her preference in Archer pursuing "a dream that would always preserve its beauty because it was unattainable" (Salmi 1991: 86).


This bachelor thesis is intended to research on Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence by investigating the themes of society and individual, women's role as well as man's role.

In this paper I wanted to find out how Wharton views the old New York society of 1870s with the focus on the differences between woman's and man's roles, especially Ellen Olenska, May Welland and Newland Archer. There is an ambiguity in every character.

Wharton shows that not only women were repressed by society but men were as well. Newland Archer as a character in The Age of Innocence affirms the hypothesis that the society was restrictive for both women and men. At the beginning Archer uses his snobbery attitude as a defence mechanism. Later, he accepts his life circumstances and he faces up to these and reconciles himself to his state of affairs. Archer is trapped in his life situation and he has to face major moral issues. He is confused and he wants to find answers for his questions. He tries to escape but he fails and conforms to his destiny. His choices are related not only to his passivity, but it is his loyalty and dignity.

According to my analysis the clear interpretation of Ellen as an unconventional woman and May as a conform and staid young lady cannot be viewed definitely. May has to act as a naive and ingenuous young lady to conform the society. Her attitude can be seen as her politics. She behaves the way men appreciate her and she is marketable and adorable then. She is not innocent only; she is being pushed to her role when she is not expected to show any feelings. These are her weapons. However she uses her intuition of understanding.

Lastly, Ellen made a sin when she left her husband. She is aware of the rules and moral codes of her society. But she does not respect them and she does not accept them. The society does not accept her then. It might be her independency that makes her act like this, although she wants to feel safe and cared for and as she is asked to pretend she feels even lonelier.

To sum up, Wharton depicts the old New York society versus individual in a way which is attractive for her readers. Her writing is engrossing, pleasant, with her typical sense of humour. As Wharton concludes:

There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there's only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time. (The Last Asset, 1904)

This work analyses a novel written by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence. The main aim of the thesis is to focus on Wharton’s views of New York society of 1870s and to find out how it influences individual and woman's and man's role within the society.

The thesis depicts the theme of society and individual in three main characters, Ellen Olenska, May Welland and Newland Archer and the ambiguous features of their characters. The main motives of The Age of Innocence are analysed and the thesis is divided into chapters according to the main themes.

Tato práce analyzuje román Edith Whartonové, Věk nevinnosti. Hlavním cílem této práce je zaměřit se na pohled Whartonové na newyorskou společnost sedmdesátých let devatenáctého století a zjistit, jak tato ovlivňuje jednotlivce a postavení žen a mužů.

Práce popisuje téma společnosti a jednotlivce na třech hlavních postavách, Ellen Olenské, May Wellandové a Newlandu Archerovi a dvojznačných rysech jejich povahy. Hlavní motivy Věku nevinnosti jsou analyzovány zvláštˇ a práce je rozdělena do kapitol podle jednotlivých hlavních témat.

'Works cited':
Procházka, Martin, et al. Lectures on American Literature. Prague: Karolinum, 2002. 145-158
Salmi, Anja. Andromeda and Pegasus: Treatment of the Themes of Entrapment and Escape in Edith Wharton's Novels. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1991.

Social Realism. American passages: A Literary Survey. Annenberg Media. 1997-2006. 1st November 2007.

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Strout, Cushing. Making American Tradition: Visions and Revisions from Ben Franklin to Alice Walker. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 52-71
Suzanne Vega. Edith Wharton's Figurine. Blue Note, 2007. 11th November 2008.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: The Modern Library, 1943.
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. L'art nouveau. 2008. 11th November 2008.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

'Works consulted':
Lewis, R. W. B., and Lewis, N. The Letters of Edith Wharton. London, 1988.
Wharton, E. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner's, 1964.
Wharton, E. Letter to Sara Norton. Wharton Archives. November 18, 1908.
Wharton Edith. The Last Assets. Quotations by Author. 1904. 5th December 2008.

Klein, Leonard S. (ed.), Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. New York: 1984.

Lewis, R. W. B. (ed.). The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner's, 1968.

Nevius, B. Edith Wharton, A Study of her Fiction. Berkeley, 1953.

Appendix 1: Edith Wharton's portrait.


Appendix 2: Edith Wharton's portrait.


Appendix 3: Titian: Venus Dormida


Appendix 4: Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon


Appendix 5: Edvard Munch: Ashes


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