The Age of Innocence | Analysis


23 Mar 2015 08 May 2017

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The Age of Innocence is the novel of Edith Wharton's maturity in which she contemplates the New York of her youth, a society now extinct and even then under threat. She was born in 1862 into the exclusive, entrenched and apparently immutable world of wealthy New York families. It was a world of structured leisure, in which attendance at balls and dinners passed for occupation, in which the women devoted themselves to dress and to the maintenance of family and system and the men kept a watchful eye on the financial underpinning that made the whole process possible. It was a complacent and philistine world, but one with inflexible standards. These standards and any offences against it lies at the heart of The Age of Innocence; the sexual passion between Newland Archer, a married man, and Ellen Olenski, nonconformist and separated from her husband, threatens conventional mores and family security; the financial irregularities of Julius Beaufort require that he and his wife be ejected from society before they corrupt its most cherished integrities.

The form of the novel allows its author to examine, with the wisdom of hindsight, a world which was in the process of breaking up when she was a girl, and which she herself rejected in any case.

She wrote with the enclyclopedic knowledge of an insider with the accuracy and selective power of a fine novelist and the detachment of a highly intelligent social and historical observer.

From the opening pages of the Age of Innocence, when Newland Archer attends the opera at the Academy of music in New York, we see through his eyes the stage and the cast of the book. Her selection of points of view: of the two central figures, Newland and Ellen Olenski, with whom he falls fatally in love, only Newland is allowed a voice; Ellen is always seen through his eyes and those of others, and is thus given a detachment which makes her both slightly mysterious and strengthens her role as the novel's catalyst. Newland, on the other hand, by being given absolute definition of thought and action, is laid out for inspection and judgement; he has the vulnerability of exposure, while Ellen is left with privacy and silence. One is ultimately trapped by custom and circumstance, and the other a free spirit, harbinger of the future.

As the novel begins, Newland is about to announce his engagement to May Welland, a conventional alliance with a beautiful girl from a suitable family. He loves her, but sees her, even at this early stage, with a clarity that is prescient: "when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product". May, indeed, can be seen as embodying in her personality all the rigidity and implacable self-righteousness of the society itself - A KIND OF INNOCENCE, but a dangerous and eventually self-destructive innocence.

The novel falls naturally into two halves, before and after the marriage, and it is in the second half that we see the characters of the book Newland and May mature and conflict.

In the first part of the book, Newland is allowed to appear as somewhat innocent himself, more sophisticated of course than his financée because he is a man and has been permitted both emotional experiences (he has had a brief affair with a married woman) and an intellectual range not available at the time to a young woman, but nevertheless conditioned and relatively unquestioning. He views the New York of his birth and upbringing with a degree of affectionate impatience. He bows to the dictates of convention "silver-backed brushed with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair... never appearing in society without a flower... in his buttonhole" - and accepts a world in which people move in "an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies". But at the same time, he is capable of criticism and rebellion, and it is in the second half of the novel that we see this capacity fanned into active life by his feelings for Ellen Olenski and his assessment and understanding of her situation and what is that is being done to her by "the tribe".

Newland's TRAGEDY is that in the last resort he is unable to obey his own instincts: nurture triumphs over nature.

May is a more interesting character than she immediately appears; towards the end of the novel she appears to be anything but innocent. Ellen Olenski is her cousin, returned from Europe to the family fold after the collapse of a disasterous marriage to a philandering Polish count. May, initially, has been graciously kind to her and has encouraged Newland's friendly support and advice over Ellen's complex and precarious situation: should she divorce her husband? But in the months after the marriage the passion between Newland and Ellen has become apparent to May (even though they don't seem to meet very much in the novel). We never know quite how but must assume that May is more astute and observant than she has appeared. With stealthy adroitness, she moves to save her marriage and avert the threat to social tranquility - the outsider cannot be allowed to strike at the heart of all that is sacrosanct and must be ejected. The family - tacitly - close ranks around May, and Ellen is put under subtle pressure to return to Europe. In the final scenes, Newland realizes what is happening but he is mute and helpless because there is nothing he can do about it - because to protest would be to betray himself and Ellen, who is the challenge and the threat to the status quo. She fascinates the men and repels the women by her cosmopolitanism, her taste for literature and art, her cooly amused view (almost flippant attitude) of the world of her childhood: "I'm sure I'm dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven", she says to Newland at their first meeting, and from that moment he is doomed. From the start, it appears she has decided to have him, judging by her offhand and unconventional assumption that he will visit her. The whole situation is very ambiguous because we as the reader are not privy to her thoughts and true intentions.

Ellen's family stands behind her at first and as a last resort they solicit the help of the almost fossilized and "aristocratic" van der Leydens, to ensure her acceptance. But Ellen is fatally tainted: although Ellen is the one who is the innocent party in her failed marriage (her husband, the Count had "eyes with a lot of lashes" [to lash = discard - his eyes roamed] and "when he wasn't chasing the women he was collecting china [china plate = mates] and paying any price for both" [meaning he was a philanderer with both women and men and paid them handsomely as well], she is polluted - there are even unconfirmed rumors that she has consoled herself. The double standards on which that society functioned becomes most apparent here: a woman must be blameless but a blind eye is turned on male sexual indulgence. Initial sympathy eventually turns to suspicion and then to rejection as it is realized that she is not going to conform - that she is no longer one of them due to her freedom of mind and of spirit that is unacceptable in a woman. Ellen emerges as the victor, escaping to the freedom of a more expansive and imaginative society. The price she pays is her relationship with Newland Archer.

Newland, Ellen and May are products of their time; whatever their instincts and their inclinations, they are obliged to obey its dictation.

The author singles our Sillerton Jackson and Lawrence Lefferts, authorities respectively on "family" and on "form".

The unexpected ending is neither tragic nor happy. Archer has no hinders towards being with Ellen now, but chooses to keep her as a memory "like a relic in a small dim chapel". She is now significantly older and perhaps does not want to be confronted with reality. She is simply a regret of his youth. Wharton frustrates the reader with this ending, and even with Archer's and Ellen's frustrated love.

One of the central themes in The Age of Innocence is the struggle the individual has with his/her own desires and the dictates of the moral codes and manners of the group of which one belongs. Several times, both Archer and Ellen are expected to sacrifice their own desires for what "the family" and societal desires and expectations.

A profound sense of irony is experienced in reading The Age of Innocence. The hypocrisy demonstrated by so many characters in the book, not least by the character of society, leads one to believe that Wharton must have had a facetious undertone when giving the title of the book. Also, Wharton's style, with so many details that have meaning, such as the raised eyebrow or a meaningful glance, communicates that many details have crucial significance, which came well to pass in the filming of the novel as well.

The problems with making a film from an existing novel are many; films can use visual images to their advantage, whereas un-illustrated books cannot. The verbal nuances in the text get lost when being translated to film. A world of meaning in a glance, carefully analyzed by Wharton in the text, gets lost in its translation to film. Details of fashion in the text go unnoticed by modern readers. Scorsese dealt with this issue by having a voice-over narrator, telling us the details about things that were necessary to comprehend the story and the various scenes in it.

Summary of articles:

I read the introduction to the book and I think I saw it as a background to the story but did not summarize the introduction itself. I used the information, at the back of my mind, while reading the book and taking notes. Perhaps it would have been better not to read the introduction first, but only after reading the novel itself.

Pamela Knights

Forms of Disembodiment: The Social Subject in the Age of Innocence

There were many different subjects dealt with in this article, but the part of it which most appealed to me (and which I believe I have use for in other areas of study) was the overall psychological and anthropological analysis of the novel. The quote that sums it up:

"Any observation about an individual character - about his or her consciousness, emotions, body, history, or language - also entangles us in the collective experience of the group, expressed in the welter of trifles, the matrix of social knowledge, within and out of which Wharton's subjects are composed... where and how that entanglement extends is one of the novel's questions."

Nancy Bentley

"Hunting for the Real": Wharton and the Science of Manners

The quote that sums this article is:

"...The gap between reputation and reality here is provocative, for it hints at the complexity of Wharton's relation to her cultural context - and to the changing concept of culture itself, the subject at the heart of her fiction." And "the historical turn to primitivism".

This article is an analysis of Wharton's style and the author's relationship to her work and her use of symbolism.

Lawrence S. Friedman: The Cinema of Martin Scorsese

This article discusses the irony in the novel and Scorsese's interpretation of Wharton in two scenes and focuses on the frustration of unconsummated desire.

Brigitte Peucker

Scorsese's Age of Innocence: Adaptation and Intermediality

This article deals with film understood as a medium in which different representational systems - specifically those of painting and writing - both collide and replace one another, but are always supplemental to each other . This makes film a medium congenial to the artistic concerns of Wharton (who was not particularly positive to film), because her work is very visual and multi-layered - "both imaginistic and verbal". The adaptation of this work was particularly challenging because of the aspect of being multi-layered and it was difficult to translate one medium to another.


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