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It has been said that the true power of beauty is felt most deeply by those who have caught but a glimpse of its potential; those able to see its ethereal quality without demanding more. Perhaps, some have said, the fragility of aesthetic beauty can be stronger in human imagination than in reality. Between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence, there is a passion beyond the descriptive capacity of words; it is an exquisite relationship that seems incapable of existence in the realm of mere mortals – a connection of two souls. Unfortunately, these souls dwell in bodies bound to the earthly realm, and therefore must abide by societal rules. The theme of impossible love will be explored in the four stages of the relational evolution between Newland and Ellen: the initial spark that results from the conflict between Newland’s idealistic naivete and the reality of 17th century New York society embodied in the character of Ellen, the implications of its passionate yet non-consummated nature, its fundamental reliance on sacrifice, and finally, the destiny of the relationship to stay in the ideal realm, never to be truly realized.
In keeping with her realistic style of writing, Edith Wharton creates a sympathetic yet conflicted individual in the character of Newland Archer. While he desperately desires to break free from the prescribed manners of New York society, it remains impractical for a true separation to occur; it is the infeasibility of a relationship between himself and Ellen that embodies the reality of this conflict. While he proclaims ideas ahead of his time regarding the status of women, the immense influence of his society remains. The perceived absurdity of his views at the time he speaks them condemn him to a lifestyle of feigned complacency. In a society where laws and customs radically differ, Ellen’s marital separation is a disgrace. Newland’s attempt to defend her lack of overt shame attests to his good-natured idealism: “[w]hy shouldn’t she be conspicuous if she chooses? Why should she slink about as if it were she who had disgraced herself?” (28). Newland goes further in verbalizing his opinion about the rights of women by saying, “women ought to be free—as free as we are” (30). Yet at the same time as he expresses these generous opinions, he also realizes their relatively safe nature: “‘nice’ women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them” (31). Therefore, at the same time as he can genuinely state these beliefs, he can subconsciously feel reassured by society that his open-mindedness won’t actually be called upon. It is this assumption of the inapplicability of his views that is questioned with the introduction of Ellen.
While on the one hand Newland embraces modern ideas, on the other, the strength of the society in which he lives is an inescapable reality. Newland contemplates the double standard that New York has regarding relationships between men and women, and finds himself dissatisfied. While chastity (and later monogamy) is unquestionably a fundamental necessity in women, philandering in men is treated with little more than a slap on the wrist. Sexual relations then take on a degree of bias, with men being “foolish and incalculable,” while women are “ensnaring and unscrupulous” (26). Later, Newland reflects more on this topic and the reaction, especially of the older women in society to it. While he is repulsed by the unfairness of the situation, he is also drawn to its appeal in the case of his own affair with Mrs. Rushworth: “[w]hen the fact dawned on him, it nearly broke is heart, but now it seemed the redeeming factor of the case” (68). This particularly pertains to Ellen; she is living proof that his intellectualizations about the freedom of women are impracticable in the context of New York society. If she were a man, the social consequences would undoubtedly be more favorable.
Though Newland believes himself an advocate for progressive ideas, Ellen challenges the strength of his convictions. The result is that she invigorates him; Newland is both attracted to and apprehensive about her untraditional style. The arrangement of her little house perplexes him at the same time as it appeals to him. He admits that he is unfamiliar with the paintings, yet he is drawn to their novelty: “[b]ut these pictures bewildered him; for they were like nothing that he was accustomed to look at (and therefore able to see) when he traveled in Italy; and perhaps, also, his powers of observation were impaired by the oddness of finding himself in this strange empty house” (49). He is mystified by Ellen’s unconventionality and has a newfound sense of adventure where there had previously been disdain at the opera. He is as strongly drawn to Ellen’s uniqueness as society dictates that he should be wary of it: “[t]he atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure” (50). The more Newland immerses himself in Ellen’s company, the more alluring he finds her vibrancy and vitality. He comments on his own traditionalism in light of her nonconformity: “he was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself into conditions incredibly different from any that he knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty” (73). She provokes his sense of adventure and stimulates his obstinacy against the closed-minded rigidity of society; in essence, she challenges him in a way he has never before been challenged. This provocation arouses a passion in him that never completely subsides.
Ellen’s very essence challenges Newland’s own beliefs and fuels his desire and appreciation for her. Newland comments on his own bafflement regarding his attraction to her, and realizes that within herself, Ellen has a “mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience” (81). Her sense of raw humanity enthralls him; she embodies what society condemns. When he is with her he feels refreshed by her sense of immediacy: “Archer, through all his deeper feelings, tasted the pleasurable excitement of being in a world where action followed on emotion with…Olympian speed” (116). In speaking with Newland in the cabin, she once again captivates him with her sincerity: “I’m improvident: I live in the moment when I’m happy” (94). Ellen’s vibrancy and originality inspire Newland to reach beyond his own limitations; he comments on the unconscious effect she has in enabling him to see his own conventionality: “she had managed, by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly conventional just when he thought he was flinging convention to the winds” (201). Throughout the novel Ellen is characterized by her non-adherence to accepted social norms. She does not spitefully violate them; instead, she ignorantly and non-concernedly breaks them. Ellen’s violation of social nuances brings into question the strength of Newland’s modern views; it is the nature of this type of challenge that charges his passion for her. The effort required to develop his theoretical ideas invigorates him and incites strong feelings for her.
The connection that Ellen and Newland share is more than mere physical attraction; it is an incommunicable connection of souls. Newland’s concern that their relationship will deteriorate into little more than the quality of Lawrence Lefferts’ love affairs is unfounded; Newland and Ellen share a devotion that transcends mere physicality. In fact, despite the distinctly sensual aura that distinguishes Ellen, their love remains unconsummated. There is little doubt as to the sexual tension that exist between Newland and Ellen; he comments on her physical appeal several times: “[e]verything about her shimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress had been woven out of candle beams; and she carried her head high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomful of rivals” (115). He is drawn to more than her appearance, however; he values her soul. For example, he contemplates the depth of her eyes: “[i]t frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes” (44). The non-sexual nature of their romance is referred to several times throughout the novel. Newland is aware of this aspect of their relationship: “Archer was conscious of a curious indifference to her bodily presence…He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied” (170). This non-physicality is so strong that Newland in fact reproaches himself for his inability to recall her exact appearance: “he saw Madame Olenska’s pale and surprised face close at hand, and had again the mortified sensation of having forgotten what she looked like” (198). During his last visit with Ellen, Newland finds her pallid and unappealing, yet he comments on the intensity of his love for her especially at that moment: “her face looked lustress and almost ugly, and he had never loved it as he did at that minute” (234). Paradoxically, it is the transcendental quality of their love that demands its own sacrifice.
Unlike a passing fling, the depth of feeling shared between Newland and Ellen extends beyond that which is felt by most people in a single lifetime. However, the ideal nature of their romance is fundamentally based on sacrifice. From the initial acknowledgement of their mutual feelings, it is understood that the relationship is forbidden. As a prominent member of society, it would be unfathomable for Newland to break his engagement and pursue Ellen, the separated cousin of his fianc?. Yet the customs that enforce their public self-denial only serve to ignite their internal desire. Rather than act on their individual impulses, they sacrifice their own happiness to the collective. Though Newland speaks of being permanently together only several times, Ellen reminds him that the integrity of the relationship demands its surrender. From the time of Newland’s unwitting contribution to their perpetual separation, when he advises Ellen against divorce, the love between them remains on the plane of sacrifice. Because they honor those who care about them by forsaking their individual desires, their love is of a nobler quality than those who wildly abandon themselves to each other. They express their love precisely by giving each other up. In fact, Ellen repeats this conviction to Newland in the midst of her turmoil: “I can’t love you unless I give you up” (122). This theme of sacrifice is fundamental to the core of their spiritual intimacy.
Not a conversation is had between the two lovers without the underlying theme of the necessity of denial. Archer speaks of individual rights and Ellen reminds him “what an ugly word that is” (123). Ellen’s resolve to honor her New York family is repeatedly demonstrated throughout the novel. During Archer’s engagement, his determination weakens and he says he will not marry May; Ellen gently says “[y]ou say that because it’s the easiest thing to say at this moment—not because it’s true” (121). Ellen painfully yet beautifully alludes to Archer that the relationship itself is built on sacrifice:
But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands—and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before—and it’s better than anything I’ve known. (122)
Perhaps the romance is so aesthetically beautiful precisely because of the impossibility of its fulfillment. The idea of two souls keeping themselves apart for the sake of an ideal that they do not even subscribe to is more than admirable; yet this is precisely what Newland and Ellen do for the sake of their family’s reputation. The reader can feel the depth of emotion behind the painful conversations between Newland and Ellen; but somehow, because of the honorable nature of their love, it is possible to see beauty intermingled with the pain. Archer, in a moment of frustration, tells Ellen “[y]ou 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” (170). Newland, a moment later, realizes that the enduring must continue because they are “chained to their separate destinies” (170). Abandonment, denial and sacrifice are the core tenets of this relationship. It is a relationship that exists in the realm of ideals, but is painfully bound to the plane of reality and therefore entails sacrifice.
It is in tribute to the memory of this ideal that Newland walks away from Ellen’s window at the end of the novel. For Newland, the salience of memory is stronger than the pull of reality. For over two decades he enshrines her memory within himself; she has therefore become more significant for him in his internal world than in reality. The forbidden relationship was built upon the precept of sacrifice; the passing of May does not change this foundation. It is ironic that he imagines, during the early years of his marriage, that if May died he would be at liberty to pursue Ellen: “[h]e simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free” (207). As shocking as this sentiment may seem, it is important to remember that he thinks this not out of maliciousness, but rather out of desperation. He later realizes, however, that it is not external circumstances that keep Ellen and himself apart; instead, denial is the very premise of the relationship that they shared. He understands that seeing her after twenty-six years would break the magic of what they once had; a relationship marked by self-denial in the face of unwavering passion.
Ellen undoubtedly was the woman who Newland would have “chucked everything for” (250); his refusal to see her is not the result of diminished love, but rather of waning vitality. Newland feels himself beyond the age of such emotional intensity: “[b]ut I’m only fifty-seven—and then he turned away. For such summer dreams it was too late; but surely not for a quiet harvest of friendship, of comradeship, in the blessed hush of her nearness” (251). He contemplates the power of their past relationship and cannot reconcile it with the docility that it would now be negated to. As a young man, he yielded his fervor to the traditional role of a respectable husband; after two decades functioning in that position, he is no longer the man he once was. Abruptly being reminded of the Countess forces him “to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime” (250). Newland realizes that he is unable to bring the same zealousness to the relationship that it deserves; it is in honor of that memory that he walks away. Though his son does not understand the significance of Newland’s instruction to repeat to Ellen that he is “old-fashioned” (253), the reader does. The audience has witnessed the power of the sacrificed relationship and understands Newland when he says, sitting outside her window, “[i]t’s more real to me here than if I went up” (254).
Though not tragic by definition, there is a sense of sadness in the concluding lines of The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer’s life attests to the constraints that press themselves upon those who glimpse into the realm of the ideal. Though the relationship he has shared with Ellen is marked by anything but apathy, his reaction to the possibility of seeing her after twenty-six years is void of vibrancy: “Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel” (254). It is precisely because of the intense passion that they once shared that Newland chooses not to pursue her. He realizes that there is a splendor and intensity in memory that cannot be transferred to the reality that he now lives in. Ellen challenged him in his days of youth, they shared a bond beyond the physical, they forsook their own passions in the name of sacrifice, and now, in tribute to that relationship, he decides not to degrade it by dragging it into the plane of physical existence. Newland values its pure beauty and leaves it on the plane of the unrealizable in honor of its transcendence.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
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