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Although Edith Wharton describes a society that had disappeared in order to make way for the progress of a later age, she both criticizes and lauds the unrecoverable culture that helped to define New York City in the 1870s. Throughout The Age of Innocence, she uses the social interactions and attitudes of Newland Archer and his acquaintances as a means of weighing society itself. Years after the novel’s primary events, she has Newland reflect upon the good of the lost elite, and despite obvious problems, “there was good in the old ways” (Wharton, 347). At the end of the story, he has the opportunity to once again meet his former love, Ellen Olenska, but the fact that he would rather preserve untainted the memories of his youth shows how much he values the irreclaimable past. While Wharton frequently derides New York’s aristocracy, its reluctance to abandon the social standards and moral conventions of the period truly does make it a good society in Newland’s perception, and the author supports his conclusion through her depiction of the interaction between the New York elite.
The activities of New York’s elite society create an atmosphere where the preservation of standards and conventions is of greatest importance for its participants, and communication or lack thereof plays a significant role in protecting the social norms. Every action or conversation has a purpose beyond its explicit meaning, and this form of expression permits the preservation of order and virtue in society. Through the events surrounding his marriage to May Welland, Newland experiences this communication firsthand. For example, he decides to declare his engagement to May earlier than anticipated in order to support her family when Ellen arrives from Europe (Wharton, 11-12). This action does not simply create an alliance between his family and May’s, but it helps to avert any disgrace that may have come upon the Mingott clan due to Ellen separation from her husband. This fact is never overtly stated, but it is the primary motive for his hurried pronouncement, and May and her mother understand without questioning Newland’s decision. The customs of aristocratic New York in the 1870s calls for the use of representative behavior rather than simple openness or forthrightness, and Newland understands his position within this system.
While Newland is a product of the system that discourages disgrace through surreptitious action, Ellen presents another model to follow since she has adapted to the openness of European culture. The frankness that Ellen exhibits in the presence of everyone is appealing to the young man, and the conventions to which he is accustomed does not enchant him like the Countess does. She penetrates the facade of New York society and questions the need for the standards with which Newland is familiar, and during his time spent with her, he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his society’s way of life:
“They like you and admire you—they want to help you.” […]”Oh, I know—I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. […] Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” (Wharton, 77).
In this conversation between Ellen and Newland, the two modes of life come into direct conflict with each other. According to Newland, the people around the Countess only “want to help,” but she comprehends that in doing so, they simply desire for her to “pretend” like they do. Compared with the society in which Ellen has lived for so long, his culture is artificial, and it makes her lonely when no one outwardly pursues the truth. To her, they are concerned with preserving appearance rather than examining the foundation of a problem, and their unwillingness to authorize Ellen’s divorce is an example of this behavior. Tempted by Ellen’s mode of living, Newland must choose between the his own society and the possibilities presented by Countess Olenska as a consequence, but in order to select the latter option and yield to his love, he would have to abandon the standards that his culture had created for him.
Newland’s choice between Ellen Olenska and his New York upbringing is a choice between open communication with the rejection of customs and hidden meanings with adherence to conventions. When he resolves to depart with Ellen so that he may love her openly, he decides to break the bond he has with his own values and standards. At the farewell dinner for Ellen, May achieves the victory that permits social convention to be upheld, and it transpires without the problem of her husband’s devotion to the Countess even being explicitly stated. “It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them” (Wharton, 335). Everyone present at the meal knows of Newland’s feelings and understands May’s need to frustrate his plans, but they never have to speak a word about either situation. The complex system of communication allows the truth to appear sans any disgrace that may come with its outward revelation. The elite culture discourages scandals and “scenes” that would disturb “decency” and virtue, and therefore it attempts to control Newland’s conduct by means that cause the least amount of shame for everyone involved.
While it may seem that the aversion of scandal is the primary motivation for society to act as it does, it comes with consequent benefits, and much of the goodness of Newland’s culture is that it allows him to continue to devote himself to previous obligations. When Newland himself cannot be a faithful husband, the social conventions of the time force him to be, and everyone can appreciate the outcome. Without a word to being spoken, a situation that would breed shame if it were to be exposed by Ellen’s system of openness—like Olenska’s own separation from Count Olenski—do not result in scandal or disgrace. Everyone knows, but no one expresses the fact that they know, and therefore everyone participating succeeds in the end. Society avoids the stigma of an elopement involving two of its most prominent families, May retains her spouse, and even Newland remains faithful without ever having to tell his wife of his potential infidelity. Newland also emerges with the belief that this last accomplishment was his own doing, but only decades later when his son Dallas reveals May’s contributions to the affair does he realize the full extent of the situation. His children, his marriage, and his later life as a model citizen would not have existed without the intervention of his society’s social standards, and “it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty” (Wharton, 347). In his youth, his preference is for Ellen, but when she departs, he still has the responsibility to support May in marriage. Life with May might have been “dull” at times, but overall, staying with her allowed him to keep his dignity as a husband and father. As a result of his recognition that his culture had actually saved him from a scandal that would not allowed the happiness of his later years, and that it was not from his own doing, he can truly say that there was good in the old ways.
Newland sees that the old ways provided the means for his own personal scandal to be minimized at any cost, and he is grateful for the conventions that his society had in place. For a time, he thinks that he can avoid the effects of an illicit love, but ultimately it is his culture that allows his marriage to survive and the happiness of his family to remain. He can proclaim the good of the former way of life because he knows how it prepared him to live a life of honesty and purity. Although Newland discovers that it is necessary to perform sacrifices—even to relinquish “the thing he most wanted” (Wharton, 356)—to ensure this innocence, he ultimately benefits from the standard set for him and the circumstances that force him to follow it. Wharton allows the reader to see the goodness of the lost past through the outcome of Newland’s life, and the fact that he was able to remain faithful shows the undeniable success of society’s ability to maintain its standards.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1920.
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