The Social Subject in the Age of Innocence

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 8 January 2017

The Social Subject in the Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence major theme is based around a battle of the individual’s desire and the monotonous life, rules and duties that control New York during the eighteen seventies. The conflict is between freedom and society. It was a society “intent on maintaining its own rigid stability”. Each man and woman had its own duties and people were forced to maintain this social code that existed, even if they wanted to put their happiness into their own hands. Big decisions were made by group choice not by the individual. This is evident through the protagonist Newland Archer who has doubts and changes with his life upon meeting Ellen Olenska. The protagonist in Ethan Frome can be compared to Archer by the way they both have difficulty with their desires and duties particularly through love and freedom. Archer realises New York is suffocating him from achieving his desires. I will discuss throughout how he conflicts with his desires and duties throughout along with other characters and compare them to Ethan Fromes decisions also. The setting of The Age of Independence is eighteen seventies New York.

The Cambridge Online Collections state that Edith Wharton wanted to get the “1870s right – the moustaches (”not tooth brush ones, but curved & slightly twisted at the ends”), the clothes and the buttonhole flowers (violets by day, gardenias by night), the manners and the language (no slang, no Americanisms – “English was then the language spoken by American ladies & gentlemen”). Since she had insisted that she did not want the novel taken as a “costume piece” (Letters, 433), this punctiliousness might seem surprising. But in The Age of Innocence, social details matter.” The setting alone plays a huge part in Archer achieving his desires. New York is conformed during this period people are expected to follow the social codes that are implemented. This puts a hold on Archer and Ellen’s desires to be with one another. New York has a hold on their feelings. They cannot express them in this kind of community because of judgemental eyes.

The time and place in the novel controls their actions towards one another. There are expectations that are supposed to be met. A normal wealthy New Yorker would have children and get married. The worst thing that could happen in a wealthy New Yorker’s eyes is a divorce or an affair. This leaves Ellen in a difficult place while in New York. She wants to divorce her Polish husband but Archer tells her she should not as society will abandon her. Even though Archer and Ellen love each other the fact that their families would be so disappointed by them if they were to go with their gut feeling. Mary Douglas states “society does not exist in a neutral, uncharged vacuum It is subject to external pressures; that which is not with it, part of it and subject to its laws is potentially against it” (Wharton 40) this evokes that The Age of Innocence was about being around the right people and marrying into good families and not to disappoint even if there is something out there that one desires. Through the novel we follow Newland and how his eyes are opened to what is expected of him in nineteenth century New York. He becomes engaged to May Wellend this is a normal and expected engagement of that of him and May.

May is introduced in the opening and “appears at the opera pink-faced and fair-haired…one immediately associates her name with youth and virginity” she is what is taught to be as a fiancée at this period perfect for this social circle. Then there is Ellen Olenska the cousin of his fiancée the contrast between the two is extreme. Ellen is different and exotic. Ellen escapes from a marriage which is a taboo in this era. This evokes how Ellen breaks away from her duties as a wife to desire happiness. She is introduced as a controversial figure. Ellen is unaware of this and what happens at the Opera. The Opera is like a courtroom people are judged here. Ellen is judged by the gossiping men and this is predictable in this society. From coming across someone different from all he sees and expected from what a woman is to be Newland finds reason to doubt what he is expected to do as his duties and desires come into place. It is like if Ellen became an inspirational figure to him and defends her “‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

Even though from previous chapters he is happy his own fiancée follows the customs of the social circle that New York women should acquire. Although he does not approve of Ellen’s behaviour he is captivated by it. Ellen has made the subject of romance and marriage a complicating issue for him. Seeing Ellen as an outcast from the rest of the women he knew, he begins to think why the likes of May do not have experiences as what males do in New York and why they should only have one partner. May Wellend to Archer and the reader initially is a “picture of an ingenuous and demure young girl whom Archer hopes to shape into a worldly-wide mould of the married woman with whom he has recently had a two year-year-long affair” this evokes Archers duties and what he firstly hopes will become of his marriage but now that Ellen is in the frame his thoughts about life, marriage and love are different. This quote also shows the duty of May and what is expected of her in this period in New York typical marriage material for Archer.

Wharton based many of her novels around failing relationships as like her own with her husband. Ethan Frome and Newland Archer were both heading in the same direction. They are both stuck in a love triangle and are unable to be with the one they love because of their duty. Once Archer finds out May is pregnant his plan to stay with Ellen is abandoned due to the fact that he must be a father now. Ethan is quite similar even though he is in love and wants to leave the horrid town he lived in he was unable to because of Zeena being ill and it being his duty as a husband to stay with her. Both Ellen and Mattie play as a “ray of light” they were both something different from what the protagonists were expected to do, a break from normality. Mattie was something fresh and something to break away from Ethan’s monotonous life in Starkfield and Ellen was something exotic for Archer to admire in New York compared to what he was used to seeing.

They act as a forbidden fruit for the protagonists. Both want the thing society doesn’t allow them to have, both wanted the thing their duty won’t allow them to have but they both conform to what is expected of them and do not follow their desires and stay in the Garden of Eden which is nothing like paradise. Ethan has Zeena to destroy his desires and Archer has May and the wealthy community of New York to destroy his. Both offer up love for them but both are hit with complications Ellen is told by May that she is pregnant so that she would leave and Zeena shortens Mattie’s stay. Newland Archer cannot belong to the socially elite because of what it is and will not be changed and this is why someone like Ellen is so exciting for him and Ethan does not belong in Starkfield as he is seen differently because of his injuries and something fresh like Mattie enhance his life. Both having a way to escape from new women in their lives makes it exciting for them. It can be realistic but both don’t take the opportunity due to their duties. Martin Scorsese’ depiction of The Age of Innocence also deals with the same themes of desire and duty as the book does.

Scorsese says that “What I wanted to do as much as possible was to recreate for a viewing audience the experience I had reading the book.” He was enthralled by how Edith Wharton was able to blind the reader and he put his own persona on it. Scorsese shows Archers desire for a woman to mould through a symbol. The first thing we see when Archer meets Ellen alone for the first time just after leaving his fiancée is that of a painting of a woman who is faceless. This symbolizes how Archer wanted something different from which he would have seen everyday like May who was artificial. He wanted something he could mould himself something he could fill the blank face with and not what he was supposed to have a ‘creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestress, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.’ (Wharton 35) this evokes that Archer desired something different against his duty to be with something that actually was picturesque May and Scorsese was able to get this across by drawing our eye to the unfinished image.

The conflict of desire and duty is based on the protagonists’ battle of wanting something different and sticking to something normal. He is understandably fed up with the duties that he along with people in his same wealthy state are supposed to do. With the emergence of Ellen he finds love in a place where everyone else in that society would be embarrassed about. The Age of Innocence shows how desire can throw a life off the straight and narrow. Left with though not knowing what would have been the best outcome as he does stay with May. What would have become of him if he went with his desires? Love has no limitations and it is says conquers all but not in this case he is held back from his duty as being a husband and a father instead of leaving with May.

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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 8 January 2017

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