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In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton attempts to recapture the essence of Old New York, a moment in late 19th century American history when social interaction was dictated by rigid standards of propriety and style. As Wharton explores this milieu through her protagonist Newland Archer and the conventional and transgressive characters in his life, the issue of American identity becomes a prominent theme in the novel. Although staunchly committed to the society they have built and the customs they consider devastatingly important, the New Yorkers constantly compare America to the continent from which their ancestors came. Their views of the place, ranging from interest in Europe’s alluring, dramatic reputation to disapproval of its lax moral codes, actively reflect and inform their beliefs about American society. It is as if the Americans only know their own country through its relationship to Europe. While Wharton explores this issue of national identity in her novel, director Martin Scorsese, in his 1993 film adaptation of the tale, is less concerned with America’s quest for an independent understanding of itself. Where the novel is able to examine theoretical and abstract issues like how 19th century American social identity is understood through its relationship to Europe, Scorsese’s film loses this dimension of the story, choosing to focus on the effect of the strict American society on Newland’s relationships.
In Wharton’s novel, the geographical setting of America’s Old New York is equally important as the temporal setting of the late 19th century. During this period, a mere hundred years from the end of English rule over the colonies, American identity struggled to emerge as a unique entity. The country seemed inextricably tied to its relationship with Europe, feeling compelled to compare its society and customs to the paragon of Western civilization across the Atlantic. Throughout the novel, this sentiment is seen as Wharton’s New Yorkers define their nation in its relation to the Old Country, judging their own practices, fashions, values and ideas in comparison to those prevailing in Europe. Wharton introduces the pattern of assessing value based on European standards in the second sentence of the novel. She captures the spirit of competition between the continents through talks of a new opera house being built in New York that “should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals…” (3). From the start, Wharton illustrates America’s sense of competition with Europe, its desire to achieve and assert legitimacy in the shadow of the Old World. Wharton develops this feeling of inferiority and comparison through her characters’ diction as they describe Europe and America. Throughout the novel, the theoretical conflict between the supposed “brilliant” European society versus the admittedly “dull” American one becomes a recurring motif. While Archer is increasingly disillusioned by the rigid conventions of his homeland, his sister Janey defends her country. She says: “You mean, I suppose, that society here is not as brilliant? You’re right, I daresay; but we belong here, and people should respect our ways when they come among us. Ellen Olenska especially: she came back to get away from the kind of life people lead in brilliant societies” (71). Here Janey acknowledges the allure of Europe over America but ultimately demands respect for her country, casting it as a welcomed alternative to the dubious European lifestyle.
Like Janey, most New Yorkers concede that Europe is the more brilliant society, but all the same, make clear their preference for the entrenched American way of life. There seems to be a definite American inferiority complex that Wharton conveys, a need for the Americans to justify their way of life and dismiss Europe’s customs, especially when they encroach into respectable American circles. Ellen Olenska’s very appearance in New York, along with her various social indiscretions, brings the discussion of continental differences to the forefront. New York society considers Ellen’s abandoning her husband and attending English Sunday parties in the city scandalous and unacceptable behavior. Mr. van der Luyden, august arbiter of New York society, attributes Ellen’s behavior to continental differences. He implies that Europe’s grand aristocracy has no need for such strict social rules and that “…it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves about our little republican distinctions” (73). In this statement van der Luyden intimates that the essential difference between the continents is in their social and political structures. Europe has titled nobles and royalty to maintain its social hierarchy; people are secure in their positions and can therefore seek pleasures as they see fit (van der Luyden uses the Duke as an example). Because America is a republic and positions are not inherited through bloodline, van der Luyden implies that the democratic nation needs highly-structured social decorum, or their “little republican distinctions,” to maintain propriety, to justify their perceived social stature.
Still, at other points in the novel, the New Yorkers see Europe as a place of great fancy and mystery. Instead of disapproving of the lax morals and rules of Europe, the characters show interest and wonder for the Old Country. The unconventional layout of Mrs. Mingott’s house, for example, recalls fictional scenes from “wicked old societies” where illicit French lovers have their affairs (23). Newland’s romantic daydreams of his honeymoon with May take place on the banks of Italian lakes and in other “scene[s] of old European witchery” (6). While the New Yorkers often allude to Europe as a land rich with drama and fantasy, in doing so they create an alienating distance between the two continents, relegating Europe to the exotic and unknowable position of “the other.” Not only does Europe function as an actual standard that American society can measure itself against, it also functions as a fantasy, a vague place where imagined drama and intrigue play out. In this understanding, Europeans are not so much the human equals of Americans, as they are figures that represent everything that America is not. Newland adopts this line of thinking when he reflects on his time abroad after college. Although he spent his time there with “a band of queer Europeanised Americans” and not true European people, his reaction to their differences is still quite telling (161). Newland recalls “dancing all night with titled ladies in palaces, and gambling half the day with the rakes and dandies of the fashionable club; but it had all seemed to him, though the greatest fun in the world, as unreal as a carnival” (161). Here, Newland’s time in Europe is portrayed almost as a dream full of decadent activities that he would wholly abstain from in America. He admits that his European travel companions “…were too different from the people Archer had grown up among, too much like expensive and rather malodorous hot-house exotics, to detain his imagination long” (161). This is an extreme example of how Wharton’s Americans exoticize the differences between themselves and their European counterparts.
In telling the story of the struggles of American identity, the novel as an artistic form has certain advantages. The modes of communication that are available to the novel lend themselves more easily to exploring abstract ideas such as national identity. In the novel, character reflection and detailed descriptions in scene help express the idea of Europeans as “the other.” It is much more difficult to accomplish this in film and it seems that Scorsese is ultimately not as concerned with exploring the theoretical identity of America. The diverging interests of film and novel are apparent in how each deals with May and Newland’s European honeymoon. In Wharton’s tale, the honeymoon chapter is full of Newland’s reflections on how Americans travel in solitude in Europe and do not dare to truly interact with the people or environment. The author continues to illustrate how distinct European and American societies are through Newland’s detailed conversation with the French tutor, Monsieur Riviere. The American takes a liking to the Frenchman’s ideals of “critical independence” and “moral freedom.” The fact that this man chose the life of a poor tutor in order “not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation” impresses Newland deeply (164). He also acknowledges, however, that a man of such liberal and forward thinking notions could never succeed, never even have a place in the hyper conventional society of his Old New York. This exchange is largely glossed over in Scorsese’s film. The dinner scene where Newland and Riviere converse in the novel is portrayed through a few montage shots—their conversation does not take place on camera—while the narrator summarizes the events of the evening. May, however, delivers some carefully crafted lines about which fashionable sights they were able to see in London. After dinner, Newland and May have an on-screen conversation in their carriage where Newland expresses his approval of the Frenchman and wants to ask him to dine with them. May rejects this suggestion, saying the tutor was very “common.” Without the novel’s exchange between Newland and Riviere, the issue of American and European differences is never addressed on the honeymoon. Rather, the crux of the trip is the increasing distance and incompatibility of the newlyweds. The marital conflict that the film highlights is a perfectly legitimate and worthy one. With different modes of expression available to him in the medium of film, Scorsese chooses to concentrate on the more concrete relationship between Newland and May as opposed to the abstract one between America and Europe.
When considered generally, Scorsese’s cinematic adaptation of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is faithful in its adherence to the novel’s plot and most central themes. The film explores how the rigidity of New York society shapes the increasingly artificial relationship between Newland and May and deters the passion between Newland and Ellen from ever being fully realized or allowed. However, as Scorsese’s treatment of the story focuses on large, concrete conflicts, it leaves behind some of the more philosophical issues that the novel is committed to examining. Wharton’s original text deals with the important yet subtle question of American identity in the late 19th century, marked simultaneously by a desire to compete with, to achieve the grandeur of Europe and to distance itself from the Old Country through an elaborate social system. Though Scorsese seems uninterested and the medium of film ill equipped to address this issue, Wharton’s novel is predicated on this moment in history when American society grappled with its national identity and the complex part that Europe played in its formation.
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