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Edith Wharton’s Opposition of The Past and The Future in The Age of Innocence

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The past permeates the lives of New York Society as portrayed by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. Society appears to be an inherently conservative institution with extreme attention to ritual and tradition, evidenced by our introduction at the beginning of the novel to one character who can explain even the most intricate of Society family trees, and another who is the authority on “form” (7–9). Thus it appears that members of Society are conscious, if not explicitly so, of the past through their every ritual and tradition. Newland Archer, through his Harvard education in anthropology, continually makes references to pre-historic ritual with respect to Society: most notable are during his wedding (153pp) and engagement (59). The motif of the furs and feathers worn by the women and the use of words such as “clan” in the narration reinforces this focus on the past by comparing the current society to an ancient one. The future is also explicitly discussed: as an author of a historical novel, Wharton dangles her knowledge of Society’s futures before them; often, characters will discuss technological innovations that they’ve heard speculation about.

This continual reference to time provokes the question of how these characters relate to the future and the distant past. Objects from the past and speculation about the future do play a large role in conversations: elements of the past are sprinkled throughout the narrative through metaphor and word choice, while speculation about the future occurs in a few conversations. While the past seems to have a larger presence, and different role from the future, there are two occasions when speculation about the future is present in the same scene as a significant presence of the past: in the Patroon’s house at Skuytercliff and at the Museum. The juxtaposition of past and future in these scenes raises the question of how a transition from discussion of the past to that of a future affects the mood of the scene.

The first passage of interest occurs when Archer visits Ellen at Skuytercliff, the estate of the van der Luydens. Archer meets Ellen in the road, and they walk together to a stone house on the property which had been built in 1612 by the first Patroon (footnote – A patroon was a proprietor of an estate granted by the Dutch government). There they begin an emotional conversation, but are interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Julius Beaufort; to deflect tension, Ellen uses a remark of Beaufort’s begins a conversation about the prospect of the telephone.

The setting of this scene establishes a sense of rusticness not present in New York Society; although separated from the era of the Patroon’s house by two and a half centuries, the change in attitude conveyed by the van der Luyden’s house as compared with this house may as well span millenia. The squat stone house has four rooms grouped around a central fireplace in which there is a bed of still-warm embers under an iron pot held by a crane (111, 113–4). This is much in contrast with the van der Luyden’s house:

People had always been told that the house at Skuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had never been to Italy believed it; so did some who had. . . . It was a large square wooden structure, with tongued and grooved walls painted pale green and white, a Corinthian portico, and fluted pilasters between the windows. From the high ground on which it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustrades and urns descended in the steel-engraving style to a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhung by rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, the famous weedless lawns studded with specimen trees (each of a different variety) rolled away to long ranges of grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments; and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stone house which the first Patroon had built on the land granted him in 1612. (110–111)

The contrast between a house built to suit its environment and a house built in spite of its environment is quite clear. The house at Skuytercliff is built to appear as if it is an Italian villa in a natural environment, but it has borrowed elements of other architectures, and elements of nature within it are tamed within its bounds. The ground descending from the house is terraced as in Italy, but this terracing, normally used with agricultural land to prevent erosion, is unnecessary: these terraces are lined with urns and balusters, and no greenery is mentioned in connection with them. Below, a lake is retained by an edge of asphalt, yet is irregularly shaped, which raises the question of whether it is a natural part of the environment, or whether it, too, has been unnaturally created to set-off the rare trees at its edge. Additional rare trees (one of each [specimen]) are planted at regular intervals, studding the famous weedless lawn, the van der Luydens’ lawn a velvetine display case for their tree collection. By its presentation as a foreign villa, as well as the words used to describe it (e.g., the lawn being amous), this house was clearly built to be on display. Even a weedless lawn — planting acres of land with a single inedible plant and maintaining it in that state — is in sharp contrast with the aesthetic of the Patroon’s house; the cast-iron lawn ornaments ironically combine the mundane functionality of cast-iron with the notion of decorating this pseudo-natural setting.

Contrasting this house with that of the Patroon highlights the roles of each with respect to its environment. The Patroon’s house was clearly built for functionality. Its central chimney, shutters, and stone walls conserve heat, while the presence of a cast iron pot and crane with which to lift the pot reinforces the age of the house. The only ornaments in the house are shiny brasses (footnote – brasses probably refers to brass utensils) and Delft plates, both functional but decorative.

The setting in an antique house proves to be a place where Ellen is comfortable; May later speaks of Ellen’s feelings about the house, saying, it’s the only house she’s seen in America that she could imagine being perfectly happy in (162). The house proves to be a beneficial environment to Archer as well:

He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits. . . rose with an irrational leap. The homely little house stood there, its panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically created to receive them. (113–114)

The house is described in the same sentence as homely and having been magically created. These ideas seem at first to contradict eachother: magically conjured houses are generally conceived of as magnificent and exotic, and more like that of the van der Luydens than a small stone cottage. However, both Ellen and Archer seem to view the cottage as an escape: Ellen notes, we shan’t be missed at the house for another hour, (113) giving something of a furtive note to their encounter; Archer appears disappointed that they will only have an hour together. Archer and Ellen both clearly seem to have an affinity for the old simplicity of this house, which allows them escape. (Footnote – Obviously, there are additional questions about which aspects of the house were comforting for them, and from what they preferred to escape; unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered through textual analysis of individual passages, if at all, due to lack of information.)

A revelation of the source of Ellen’s worry seems imminent when Julius Beaufort is seen coming up the path. Both men are surprised to see the other. Beaufort explains that he had come to notify Ellen of a house which would be perfect for her:

If only this new dodge for talking along a wire had been a little bit nearer perfection I might have told you all this from town, and been toasting my toes before the club fire at this minute, instead of tramping after you through the snow, he grumbled, disguising a real irritation under the pretence of it; and at this opening Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other from street to street, or even — incredible dream! — from one town to another. This struck from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne, and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the most intelligent when they are talking against time, and dealing with a new invention in which it would seem ingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of the telephone carried them safely back to the big house. (115–116)

Leaving aside the irony that Beaufort causes Ellen to leave the house which she has already decided is perfect for her in order to discuss a house he feels is perfect for her, we can note the transition from a focus on the past to a focus on the future, which is used to distract them from the present tension of Beaufort’s visit. A discussion about the future is a device of transition between the Patroon’s and the van der Luydens’ houses. In this discussion, Ellen seems to hold the most significant role: she raises a topic of conversation to prevent discomfort, and is referred to as Madame Olenska in the narration, while Beaufort and Archer are only implicitly mentioned.

The attitudes of the characters towards the future seems to hold excessive speculation as fantasy. The insertion of the exclamation incredible dream! within Ellen’s unquoted remark that perhaps telephones will reach between towns seems surprisingly unbelieving about the prospect. The phrase itself offers a mix of connotation. Although it is used as a meaningless exclamation or superlative modifier, incredible generally refers to something which cannot be believed. Using this word to modify dream seems to imply that even ideation of inter-town telephones cannot be believed, i.e., the concept itself is unbelievable. This remark seems to be fairly extreme, then, in its expression of incredulity, and so might be read as adding some sarcasm to Ellen’s expression of enthusiasm, given Wharton’s and the reader’s stance fifty years hence. Referring to this as a fantastic possibility reinforces their incredulity, especially considering that In its original sense, fantastic meant a product of dreaming, rather than the meaningless exclamation that it tends to be in current parlance.

The description of such a conversation as talking against time can be read in a few ways. If we parallel this phrase with a race against time, it can be taken to imply an opposition or competition between the discussants and time itself in which the latter is at a great advantage; in this case, it would be a valiant battle to force time to divulge its secrets. A reading which holds time to be monolithic, but not necessarily animate, might take against time to imply that their talking pushed against time as if it were a wall. Such talking might be regarded as a force, possibly moving the wall of time forward; however, that the wall of time moves slightly anyway might only provide an illusion of such motion. Regardless, talking against time might refer to an intense effort to push against the wall of time with one’s words.

The diction here implies that the characters are discussing unbelievable prospects, and are engaged in an intense quest to learn the truth. The seriousness of the diction plays off the implication within the same sentence that the characters might not actually discuss the prospect of the telephone, but instead resort to banal remarks that they’d use about any innovation, lest they seem so gullible as to believe in such a thing. In other words, it seems that regardless of what sort of innovation these characters were discussing, the conversation would have been the same, with each character afraid to venture a belief in the possibility of the new technology. The existence of a generic conversation with the respect to the future is likely to have been part of a reader’s experience over fifty years after this scene; thus, describing such a conversation does add to the irony implicit in a discussion of the future that both the reader and Wharton know. There is already the dramatic irony, because the readers are given the advantage of at least 50 years on the characters; in addition, irony is present in the fact that people still seem to react to the future in the same way.

One possible explanation for the juxtaposition of past and future is that it demonstrates the lack of the present within the scene. The present intrudes very little upon this scene, as it moves from the past within the Patroon’s house to the future, on the walk back to the van der Luydens’ house. Note, in addition, that Ellen has been the controlling character, in determining that the past and future will be the foci of the scene: she led Archer to the Patroon’s house, and leads the conversation to the future.

Escape from the present also features in a conversation between Archer and Ellen in the Museum where the presence of the past causes them to consider their role in time. Archer asks Ellen to meet somewhere they can be alone to discuss his feelings for her, in the Metropolitan Museum (262). Avoiding a more popular main gallery,

they had wandered down a passage to the room where the Cesnola antiques mouldered in unvisited loneliness. They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator, they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments of Ilium. (263).

The juxtaposition of the antique with the modern is quite evident: a steam radiator, glass cabinets, and even ebonised wood (footnote – which we can imagine is some sort of wood which has been artificially stained darker to appear like ebony, an expensive wood not native to America) contrasts with the ancient contents of the exhibit. The extent of the display is much exaggerated by referring to it as the recovered fragments of Ilium. The use of the and of (respectively) rather than, for instance, some and from carries the implication that these are the last and only remains of Ilium, (footnote ” Troy) when in fact the display likely comprised only a small portion of the available artifacts. Another interesting aspect of this phrase is the use of the passive in describing the artifacts which plays off the delicacy and sterility of the glass cases, the artifacts are recovered, as if they had been lost, and then neatly returned to the sterile setting of a museum. This language contrasts with the beginning of the description, where the artifacts are personified as mouldering in unvisited loneliness, as if the artifacts are decaying or falling apart in their glass cases for want of company.

Upon arriving in this gallery, by way of apologising to Ellen for the modest state of the museum, Archer shares his prophetic notion that someday, perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a great Museum. This exchange between Archer and Ellen makes an interesting juxtaposition with the earlier passage. By looking at fragments of a society which no longer exists, and then discussing the future of the museum in which they sit, they place themselves in a historical context: acknowledging that they inhabit a time between this ancient society and the time of the potential greatness of the Museum. While it is an obvious conclusion that {em anyone} inhabits a historical context which falls between the past and the future, the fact that Archer thinks of the future after being confronted with the past is not necessarily the obvious thing to do, and perhaps reveals something about Archer’s state of mind.

Indeed, change, as it applies to Archer and Ellen, is mentioned, and again juxtaposed with artifacts.

Presently, he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects — hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles — made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.\ It seems cruel, she said, that after a while nothing matters. . . any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: `Use unknown.’ \ Yes; but meanwhile —\ Ah, meanwhile — \ As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, her hands thrust in a small round muff, her veil drawn down like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose, and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirring with her quickly-taken breath, it seemed incredible that this pure harmony of line and colour should ever suffer the stupid law of change. (263–4)

In addition to the antiquity implied by the museum artifacts, we can note that there are extreme images of the tribal here which add to the effect of age: Ellen has an entire heron’s wing in her fur hat, and is wearing a sealskin coat. The choice of these more exotic animals, which one can picture being used by Native Americans, intensifies the image.

The primary set of questions raised here relate to Ellen and Archer’s future. In one sense, it seems like Ellen and Archer are considering whether they will vanish into the past. Archer’s desire not to see Ellen vulnerable to the stupid law of change or as a time-blurred substance clearly seems to foreshadow Archer’s decision not to go up to see Ellen and perhaps rekindle their old relationship, or whether he need only rely on memories. This question evokes the continual tension between the tangible and non-tangible: the question of artifacts versus memory. Artifacts can endure and prove something while memories die with their owner, but may be passed on to future generations in skewed form. The fact that Dallas believes that Archer had an affair with Ellen demonstrates distortions within oral history.

Examining the specific phrases yields additional insight. The phrase time-blurred substance carries a much different connotation than simply that of aged materials, which are described as merely discoloured. The use of the word time-blurred implies motion — as though the substance itself had become indistinct, and had its boundaries vaguely defined, after traveling through so many years.

The stupid law of change may be interpreted in a few different ways. First, note the reference to change as being law, as though it were a physical law or ordinance, as opposed to a mere phenomenon: things do change, but there is no way to a law which says that they must because the notion of change is so vague. Archer seems unhappy about the notion of change in general, and, by extension, the notion of the future: since any future would be a changed version of the present. There are two ways to interpret his use of the word stupid, which is an intriguing word choice. The first is that Archer might perceive the law as senseless and unfortunate; his use of the more childlike word stupid might imply his stubbornness and unwillingness to confront the reality of the future. Another interpretation is that the law of change itself is blind, and acts mechanically upon the present, without an eye to the alterations in the present that it produces.

This passage also raises additional questions about what Ellen is upset about. On first reading, it seems that she is upset about the fact that the use of the artifacts are forgotten, but a closer reading — noting the phrase any more than — shows that she is upset about something else, perhaps her lack of relationship with Archer, or perhaps something unrelated to Archer.

Examining the juxtaposition of the past and future in Edith Wharton’s {em The Age of Innocence} reveals that the juxtaposition can be interpreted as a means of escaping the present. One possible explanation of the focus on time in the novel might be that Wharton wanted to portray the movement of time through Society, which revels in the static, as well as emphasizing the aspects of Society which are rooted in some time other than the present.

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Edith Wharton’s Opposition of the Past and the Future in the Age of Innocence. (2018, Jun 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
“Edith Wharton’s Opposition of the Past and the Future in the Age of Innocence.” GradesFixer, 13 Jun. 2018,
Edith Wharton’s Opposition of the Past and the Future in the Age of Innocence. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Jun. 2022].
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