The Themes Of Duty And Women Subjugation In The Age Of Innocence

In the telling novel, The Age of Innocence, the author, Edith Wharton presents to the audience two of the story’s most blatant themes, being the “subjugation of women” and “duty”. Both of these themes provide the literary piece with more detail and substance for the reader to use whilst picking apart the novel for their personal comprehension.

Beginning with one of the more prominent themes in the novel, the submission of women to male authoritative figures is a recurring theme in The Age of Innocence. The author's decision of making Newland Archer the lone character, whose every emotion and thought are apparent to the audience, directs immediate attention to the power imbalance between the genders of that specific era. The reader must attempt to understand May Welland and Ellen Olenska through the eyes of Newland because the author does not allow access to their personal lives. Ironically, this simple technique used is a reflection of the idea that women are “passive objects, in need of protection, guidance, and judgement of men”. On the contrary, the difference between the perspectives of Archer and the narrator allows Edith Wharton to inject her own commentary of this male-based society.

Following the engagement, Newland makes a reference to May, calling her a “blank slate”. Because of her physical beauty and her utter lack of personal ideas, experiences, and aspirations, May is seen as a young lady capable of being married. He takes advantage of the fact that he will have the opportunity to mold May into the woman he would like her to be, based on his own desires in a woman. Although it is a contradicting statement, Wharton notices that Archer’s idea of the perfect wife is one who is “worldly-wise and ... eager to please'. Newland realizes that May’s personal affairs do not match up so well to his, so he comes to the conclusion that she is truly lacking a personal life. As she does not reveal her beliefs and emotions, he reckons that she does not have any, and claims to see her as 'a type rather than a person'.

The reader can infer that the attitude behind Newland Archer stems from his ideals of the superiority of the male race, and lack thereof for females. As a consequence of his supposed assumptions, he finds himself very interested in her. He is taken aback at the fact that he has found a woman who is straightforward and truly analytical in her speech and mannerisms. Since she is a far cry from his “perfect” concept of how women should be, he ends up with a strong urge to have her, similar to how someone might want to have something foreign from an area so far away from them. At different points in his discovery, he feels as if he has to advise her and safeguard her from her own measures.

Ironically, regardless of his statement that 'women ought to be free — as free as [men] are', Newland has no sights of Ellen as an equal counterpart. As some point in the novel, this statement is apparent when Archer, with no hesitation, believes Olenski’s supposed guilt regarding an adultery charge. Even though he is supposed to be her lawyer, he gives her no option to give her opinion and response to the accusations. He then continues to advise her, assuming the charges brought upon her are the truth. Because, unfortunately, in this society, women are only what the man says they are and wants them to be, so Ellen’s side of the story means nothing. Newland Archer strengthens his notion of Ellen’s adulteress activities by reflecting on how he already assumes women are; they are huge liars compared to men, being 'subject creature[s] ... versed in the arts of the enslaved'. In his hypocritical nature, Newland is only willing to convict a woman on adultery if he is not receiving anything beneficial from it. The long-time relationship with a married woman, Mrs. Rushworth, alongside his desire for Ellen to commit the spoken act are proof of his hypocrisy.

In the end, Archer is refused any control or influence over Ellen and May, in spite of the masculine privilege and misogynistic presupposition of male advantage and dominance.With the lies of pregnancy, May stops Archer from sleeping with Ellen, whilst simultaneously ensuring Ellen’s indefinite departure to Europe. After discovering that the pregnancy is actually real, it is truly beyond the bounds of possibility for Newland Archer to accompany her to Europe as previously arranged. With May’s pregnancy, she is ultimately allowed to get what she has been wanting for a while now, which is a husband true to her that will not commit any adulterous acts. The pregnancy is also a symbol of a feminine power that no man could ever truly comprehend. This all furnishes Ellen with the momentum to go back to a favorable life with people surrounding her that accept her for who she is, and she is out of arm's reach from Newland with all of her morals and complete respect for herself. In the end, the pregnancy flips the ordinary power struggle between males and females upside down.

To conclude with the second theme in question, in modern, quiet New York, obligation and obedience, not individual inclinations, necessities, or predilections, steer the activity of average citizens. Ignorance of self-responsibility disgraces, not only one’s self, but their respective families as well. Depending on someone’s societal role, their commitments may differ, but there is one duty that remains consistent through all levels: conformity.

The most avid yearning for Newland Archer would be the possession of Ellen Olenska, but if he were to fulfill this desire, he would be abandoning May Welland and their future family together. Among the numerous times Archer is prepared to repudiate his responsibilities to May and be with Ellen, there are more times where he has gone back to May and answered each one of duty’s calls. Even though Newland has an internal societal criticism, his character does not carry the strength to oppose his duties and continue with a life of legitimacy. He puts on a mask of, externally, committing to his allegiances, but he is secretly downhearted.

Archer is not the only character in the novel holding conflict with dutiful actions. As Ellen makes her arrival in New York, she does not realize that, being a lady divided from her spouse and carrying the accusation of adultery, she must learn to behave in an unobtrusive manner as often as possible. She has her sights set on enjoying the independence of being recently divorced. Nevertheless, her current home, New York, sees it as a woman’s duty to stick with her husband no matter the extenuating circumstance(s). Following a consultation with Archer, her lawyer, Ms. Olenska uncovers the fact that she was a commitment to uphold with her family. Noticing how the recent divorce could and would tear her home apart, as well as damage and affront her family, she comes to the resolution that she needs to forgo personal liberation in order to satisfy her obligations, and with that, she terminates the idea to go further with becoming a divorcee. Fortunately, Ellen is reluctant to being mistreated by her husband for “duty”, so she puts her foot down and does not return to him, although the rest of her family would prefer her to do just that.

The manner in which Wharton treats the notion of duty is truly censorious. Responsibilities can be metaphorically suffocating, but to Ellen’s realization, in addition, duty contains 'things so fine and sensitive and delicate' that unlimited freedoms seem 'hard and shabby and base' by means of comparison. For Ms. Olenska, there are surely some restrictions that come with the territory of fulfilling personal duties, but along with that comes tranquility and sanity of being sure that she is not damaging the people who love and care for her the most by committing selfish acts. Towards the end of The Age of Innocence, following the death of his wife, May Welland, Newland Archer reflects on his years and decides to reconstruct the conceptualization of “duty”. No more does he place obligation and confinement on an equal scale, similar to what he did at the apex of mental love affair. Archer now sees that there is notability in satisfying one’s responsibilities honestly, after spending at least the past 20 years with a wife and child. Unfortunately, Newland discovers that he is now unable to act out of his ordinary ways: 'The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else' (Wharton). In his later years, he is living in an era where his life of commitment to duty has left him without the ability to obtain the freedom he so desired in his younger days. 

16 August 2021
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