Critical Analysis Of The Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, born in 1862, was an American novelist who came from a wealthy family. She loved travelling and frequently visited France, Italy and England; and as a result, became fluent in French and Italian. Wharton started writing at a young age and her most recurring themes are: confinement, seeking freedom, mannerisms and behaviors of old society members, social conventions and so on. She authored many literary works such as Ethan Frome, The Reef, Summer; but the novel that won her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was The Age of Innocence, making her the first woman to win the prize.

The Age of Innocence is set in the post-civil war era of 1870s and takes place mostly in New York. The characters of the novel belong to the high and elite society of New York who are members of the old families there. The major characters include the protagonist of the novel, who is a young successful lawyer; Newland Archer, May Welland, and Countess Ellen Olenska. The plot can be summarized as a conflict between Archer’s desires and his reality, he’s engaged and later married to May but then realizes he’s in love with her eccentric, intellectual cousin Ellen.

To begin with, realism is a literary movement that aims to depict life and society truthfully by portraying monotone everyday situations as they are in real life, think of it as seeing life through an unfiltered lens without using elevated or poetic language or sugarcoating. One sub-genre of realism is psychological realism. It is identified by being heavily character-driven, as in digging deep into the minds of the characters, telling the story from their perspective including the process of why and how they make certain decisions; and it criticizes or points out social and political issues through these characters. In The Age of Innocence, we see this technique applied through the character of Newland Archer. The story is told from his own perspective, describing all his personal experiences, feelings and opinions. One of many examples is his thoughts on his wife May, we read about how he perceives her as “innocent“ or ignorant and why. Archer questions May’s ability to think for herself independently; because to him, she seems no more than an obedient robot told what to do by society, hollow from the inside and devoid of any form of freedom of thought and speech. As readers, we see what he means clearly at the beginning of the novel, he goes to meet Ellen frequently and May doesn’t even question his lies at first. Another example is Archer’s views on Ellen. We see the character of Ellen and a handful of other characters mostly through Archer’s eyes. We learn that at first, he saw Ellen as strange and scandalous just like the rest of old New York society; but eventually, he got to know how independent and intellectual she actually is, falling in love with her. The same goes for his criticism of the old New York families. Through the character of Archer, Wharton calls out the hypocrisy within the elite society who claims to be the pinnacle of morality, but are in fact, the complete contrary. Basically, delving into Archer’s mind, his changing views and thought process is what makes the novel a psychological realist one, and these opinions extend to a bigger picture to provide commentary on society as a whole. Would we perceive or comprehend the story differently if it wasn’t told from Archer’s perspective? Probably yes; but one thing is certain, Wharton portrayed the old society during her time as truthfully as possible.

Another technique is the novel of manners. The novel of manners is another sub-genre of the realist novel that focuses on the behavior, customs, and values of a certain social class in a certain historical context where society norms dictate how the people of this social class act and live their lives, and these characters are often differentiated by how much they measure up to society’s conventions. There are numerous instances of using this technique in the novel, the first one that should be mentioned is the relationship between Archer and Ellen and how it was destined to be doomed because the morals of their society deem it shameful that a married man seeks a relationship with his wife’s cousin Ellen who is in the process of divorcing her husband. Archer doesn’t want to be caught not only because his affair with Ellen could lead to a huge scandal, but also because he wants to protects Ellen and the “purity” of their affair from society’s harsh judgment who would only refer to her as his “mistress”. Even when they considered eloping, they realized their situation would remain the same. Also, we learn a lot about the elite society and their superficiality. When the Julius Beaufort’s business fails, the old New York families cut all connections with them immediately and turned them down when they asked for a loan, making them another victim of the old society. Moreover, the way Ellen sparked controversy from her first appearance until the end is very telling about the manners of New York families. They don’t like women who challenge their conventions either by the way she dresses or the way she thinks independently. It is clear that they scrutinize Ellen for simply being different since she was raised in Europe and doesn’t uphold the same morals as theirs. They don’t want her to divorce her husband due to fear of scandal, they don’t want her to be involved in another relationship, they don’t want her to be seen with a man. They simply don’t want her to have an opinion; they want her to be like May, happy to be ignorant or rather not even aware of being ignorant. Ellen tries to fit in within the New York elite society and yet they still didn’t want to associate with her, and even withheld her allowance when she didn’t listen. This is considered a social satire because the old families hint at discovering Archer and Ellen’s affair that technically didn’t even get the proper progress to be prosper and be considered a real relationship yet they ignore other womanizers who actually cheat on their wives, the likes of Julius Beaufort and the pretentious Lawrence Lefferts and; it shows the hypocrisy of these families and their social values.

Moving on to the last technique known as naturalism. Naturalism is another type of realism, its uniqueness lies in its portrayal of realistic situations with a tone of detachment, pessimism, social environment, scientific objectivism, and determinism. It is highly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution which believes that survival is for the fittest. Instances of naturalism in the novel are shown on many occasions, like the way Archer gets less and less attached to the elite society and their morals by rejecting their conventions and seeking a relationship with Ellen; which makes the couple, but especially Ellen, outcasts and further ostracized from old New York society. Another example is the pessimistic tone attached to Archer and Ellen’s affair and their inability to overcome their desire to see each other in the beginning. There’s a recurrent scene that happens multiple times which is described as Ellen turning her back on Archer, causing them to be unable to meet or communicate. This scene shows how their relationship is doomed to fail no matter what, it shows that one cannot simply be free from the chains of their society or escape what was always predestined to them. Their failed affair and the downfall of Beaufort’s business are clear representations of Darwin’s theory and how “survival is for the fittest”; Wharton tells us through her novel and characters that an elite society like the old New York families hold their members to a high moral standard and when you fail to meet that standard, they all turn against you; thus, only the strong – or rather the most hypocritical – survive in such a social environment. Through Archer’s character, Wharton studies society and each member of it, describing their appearance, traits, and manners. However, this study isn’t exactly “scientifically objective” because although it can be considered as an accurate description for society in the 1870s, we only see it through Archer’s eyes so one can argue that this study is biased.

In conclusion, I am personally neutral with the book; neither love it nor hate it. Nonetheless, I find it very important and accurate in its representation of society, not just back then, but even nowadays. Sometimes while reading it, I wonder if anything even changed at all. The methods mentioned above are tied together in perfect harmony you almost can’t tell the difference at times. For me, the most prominent technique is the novel of manners due to the high focus on describing society, although psychological realism is very apparent as well because this depiction of society is only possible through the character of Archer. Elements of naturalism were clear as well but not as strongly as the other two.

For me, what makes the book of value is its realistic representation of real life; life isn’t about fairytales or heroes. Although it is sad to see Archer tied to someone he doesn’t like anymore, and to see his affair with the right person for him fail; we still sympathize with May because Archer’s descriptions of her make her seems like a robot that is incapable of rational thought or feelings, but she proves otherwise when she suspects and shows knowledge of what’s happening behind her back. For all we know, she’s another victim of that same society which conditioned her to stay silent and that her voice doesn’t hold any worth; she is just as trapped as Archer and Ellen themselves. Could we say she is a victim of Archer’s judgment as well? He does the very same thing that he hates society for, judge; isn’t that hypocritical of him too? Anyway, even though the ending isn’t necessarily a sad one, I still felt sad at how society ruins innocent people’s lives and crushes their simple dreams; being suffocated in such a hypocritical and judgmental environment is no way to live.

16 August 2021
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