In the chef-d’oeuvre book, The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton highlights a form of innocence that comes by simulation. The strict societal rules that govern every aspect of living impose this form of innocence that does not come by one’s choice. In a bid to understand the context of Wharton’s writings, one has to realise her background and the occurrences that motivated her works.
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The book was written after the World War I (Ammons 21), which caused unparalleled destructions and social upheavals across the world. At the time, many changes were happening and they threatened to change the old norms especially of the 1870s Old New York. At the time of writing the book, Wharton was a Paris resident, where she had lived and worked for over five years. Wharton was born and brought up in the rigid Old New York of the 1870s (Singley 92) where everything had to follow a set code of conduct, which was the creation of society.
Wharton’s family belonged to the opulent class, and thus such families had a reputation to keep. Therefore, people were expected to behave, dress, and even converse in a certain manner in a bid to maintain uncompromised standards that befitted such class. Consequently, the common societal issues that bedevil the middle class and the poor were supposedly non-existent amongst the first-class citizens of the Old New York.
Some of the social misgivings that were unaccepted included divorce, extra-marital affairs, and corruption amongst others. Unfortunately, the first-class citizens of the Old New York could not repel these issues, and thus they were prevalent. Therefore, in a bid to live with the issues without exposing them to the outside world, the people within this class had to look for ways to cover their flaws.
Consequently, such people appeared flawless and innocent albeit such noble characters were imposed. Wharton talks of this form of innocence, which means pretence. This paper will highlight how the upper class of the 1870s New York created an age of innocence, which was forced upon its members under the influence of strict societal code of ethics. The paper will show how Wharton uses characterisation and the Old New York events of the time to underscore this form of imposed innocence.
The age of imposed innocence
Wharton uses Ellen Olenska to tell her personal story of how she was supposed to fake innocence and live according to a set of societal norms unquestionably. When Ellen arrives in New York from Europe where she has survived many years of abusive and loveless marriage, she becomes the talk of the town. Her dressing code is too revealing to fit in the rigid Old New York and especially the upper class where her grandparent, Mrs. Manson, belongs.
In addition, she announces her plans to divorce her womanising husband. At this point, Newland Archer, who is already indoctrinated into the societal unrealistic expectations, decides to persuade Ellen to recant her divorce mission. In other words, Ellen is expected to fake innocence and pretend that her marriage is functional. The upper class of New York cannot live with the notion that one of its members cannot keep a healthy marriage or at least tolerate an abusive one. In essence, Ellen loses individualism and her self-determination capacity to decide what is good for her life.
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Therefore, she loses the very innocence that she should be enjoying. According to the society, it is better for Ellen’s husband to steal, trample, and defile her innocence than to disgrace it via divorce. This stance is ironical as in the process of upholding the societal norms, Ellen loses her true innocence only to gain a fake one. Wharton uses this irony to chastise the Old New York and perhaps prod it to accept change, and thus let people live their lives freely without sanctions. Ellen then falls for Newland Archer, but the societal expectations do not allow the two to satisfy their heart desires.
As aforementioned, Wharton was born in a society where everything looked perfect, but falling apart from the inside. She uses Ellen to foreshadow the very things that she went through as she grew up in the 1870s New York. At the age of 23, “Wharton married Edward Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years older than her” (Lee 81). Wharton’s marriage life was allegedly riddled with chaos due to her husband’s mental instability. However, Wharton could not walk out of her marriage because her family, together with that of Edward, was well established and thus it could not withstand the ridicule that would accompany divorce.
Therefore, just like Ellen, Wharton was forced to tolerate her mentally unstable husband for the sake of the society. However, in 1913, “Wharton divorced her husband and fell for her journalist colleague, Morton Fullerton of The Times” (Lee 81). Therefore, as claimed earlier, the events that surround Ellen underscore Wharton’s life. For instance, Ellen ultimately divorces her philandering husband amidst calls to remain in the marriage. Similarly, Wharton also divorced her husband to the chagrin of his well-to-do family, which expected her to remain in her struggling marriage, and fell for Fullerton (Benstock 198).
Moreover, after Ellen separates with her husband and travels to the New York City, she falls for Archer almost immediately. Similarly, Wharton started a romantic affair with Morton after she divorced her terminally sick husband. Therefore, Wharton uses Ellen to tell her life story of what she encountered in the hands of the rigid and seemingly uncompromising Old New York. Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the strict regulations on how to live in this old city killed innocence and individualism wittingly or inadvertently.
In the book, The Age of Innocence, Wharton uses the war between individual desires and towering societal expectations to highlight ironically the lack of true innocence during that age. After arriving in New York, Ellen realises that she harbours some romantic feelings towards Archer. Similarly, Archer recognises that he has same feelings. However, the societal expectations and code of conduct do not allow these two lovebirds to pursue their feelings or even consummate their love. Archer is betrothed to May, and thus it would be against the norms to engage in another relationship. The set societal norms infringe people’s capacity to determine their fate and follow their desires.
Therefore, in an escapist move, Archer calls May and suggests that they should get married as soon as possible. The fact that Archer does not love May as he loves Ellen is inconsequential and he would rather languish in a loveless union and please the society, than to follow his heart and marry the love of his life to the chagrin of his parents, family, and society. Ellen faces criticism for her behaviour, and in the eyes of the society, she is a loose woman. Archer persuades Ellen to shelve their feelings for each other for the sake of society.
Ironically, Archer does not even believe in his beliefs, and thus he is living a lie by denying the inescapable truth. To seal Archer’s fate, May announces that she is expecting his child; hence, according to societal norms, Archer has to stick with her because a responsible man takes care of his children. However, as aforementioned in the thesis statement, Wharton used this book to chastise the Old New York, and thus Ellen defies the absurd norms and returns to Europe. This aspect highlights Wharton’s disapproval of the practices that the Old New York society upheld (Lowry 100).
Wharton talks of a superficial innocence, which is riddled with ignorance and utopia. As mentioned earlier in this paper, the only way that the city can live with the reality is by being ignorant coupled with covering its flaws. For instance, the upper-class residents of the Old New York know that Beaufort engages in dirty business deals. However, they turn a blind eye on the same in the quest to uphold the city’s fake morals and innocence.
Mr. Jackson is aware of the city’s ills, but he remains silent because, “not only did his keen sense of honour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted, but he is fully aware that his reputation for discretion increases his opportunities of finding out what he wants to know” (Wharton 6). Therefore, Mr. Jackson refrains from revealing Beaufort’s dirty dealing together with other many secrets for the sake of painting a perfect society from the outside. Similarly, Lefferts says one thing and does the other, but the society feigns ignorance on the same.
He prods people to observe moral behaviours, but he cannot uphold the same principles that he preaches. He had became the “high-priest of form, he had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness, saying that Lawrence was so frightfully strict” (Wharton 28). Lefferts’ wife is a product of this rigid society that sees no evil amongst its residents. She knows that her husband is a philanderer, but she lets people know that he is a strict moralist who cannot condone wickedness.
Similarly, May fakes ignorance and brushes off the fact that she knows of Ellen and Archer’s brewing affair. At the ball where Archer is to publicise his engagement to May, Ellen fails to show up. Apparently, May, as well as Archer, know that Ellen misses the party in a bid to avoid hurting the society. However, May lies that Ellen could not find a suitable dinner dress, and thus she had to miss the event. Nevertheless, Archer is aware that May knows the reason why Ellen misses the party. However, Archer simply admires his fiancée’s wittiness, and he decides not to bring up the issue at least to keep the status quo and please the society.
The societal principles require individuals to sacrifice their personal pursuits and feelings for the portrayal of innocence. Ellen and Archer pay the ultimate price of denying their burning love for each other, and thus living miserable lives in the name of upholding societal norms. Truly innocent people should exercise their freewill and determine their fate. However, people faking innocence have to pay a price for the same, and thus May, Ellen, and Archer have to live as victims of a suppressing system, which only seeks to paint a misguiding appearance on the outside, while at the same time falling apart from within.
The underlying motive behind the book, The Age of Innocence, is Wharton’s ridicule to the fake innocence that the upper-class dwellers of the Old New York endeavoured to portray. As aforementioned, city dwellers had to come up with a way of covering the inherent flaws that existed in the system. Beaufort finds a place in the system even though he is not a perfect man. His wife knows of his dirty past, but she lives with it for the sake of the system.
Apparently, the system is so rigid that when it gets to the point that it cannot cover its ills, it resorts to expelling some of its members. Beaufort becomes a victim of the system, and thus he has to leave at any cost. Ironically, the very people that Beaufort hosts in his balls ultimately turn against him after his business empire crumbles. Wharton records, “A gloomy silence fell upon the party.
No one really liked Beaufort, and it was not a taboo to think the worst of his private life; but the idea of his having brought financial dishonour on his wife’s family was too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies” (167). People feigned surprise and especially Mr. Jackson, who all along knew of Beaufort’s shoddy deals. This degree of pretence is sickening and Wharton sought to expose it perhaps because she was concerned that the Old New York City was not ready to accept change even after the First World War when the world was moving forward.
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Nevertheless, perhaps Wharton talks of a true innocence, which is rooted deeply in the values propagated by the Old New York City. The author uses Archer to expose the reader to the two conflicting sides. Archer is in an affair with both May and Ellen. On her part, May is a symbol of innocence and she upholds every aspect of the set rules. On the other side, Ellen is radical and she cannot tolerate the system’s phoniness. Archer can see the society through the eyes of both May and Ellen, and thus he can assess the situation from the two perspectives.
Archer is in a position to engage differing opinions from disparate people. For instance, his mother opines, “I’ve always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived in aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our social distinctions, instead of ignoring them” (168). From this perspective, Wharton uses such characters to highlight some sort of innocence that lies in the view that the Old New York residents assume that their rules will stand the test of time, defy all odds, and stand as true values that should be aped across the world.
This kind of innocence is hinged on the hope that even if the adults have failed to maintain morality, children can learn to live righteously because that is what the society demands. On the contrary, Archer looks into Ellen’s life, which has defied societal norms to follow self-actualisation in the pursuit for freedom. From this aspect, Wharton exposes the audience to a form of forced innocence, which only runs superficially devoid of significance. From these two perspectives, the audience can decide, which side to believe. However, the perspective of faked innocence comes out strongly as Wharton applies irony throughout the book.
Edith Wharton was born in claustrophobic Old New York of the 1870s, whereby people were expected to live according to the set standards and norms. In the 1870s, the upper class of the New York City was expected to lead exemplary lives devoid of the normal social misgivings that bedevil the ordinary classes. The people living under these rules were seemingly innocent because the rules were perfect. Unfortunately, this perceived innocence was an illusion, as it could only be achieved in a utopian society.
Wharton used the title, The Age of Innocence, as a satirical device to objurgate what seemingly appeared as the Old New York City’s reluctance to embrace change and let its residents live freely, without having to please the society. The upper class of the 1870s New York created an age of innocence, which was forced upon its members under the influence of strict societal code of ethics, and this thesis is important as it exposes the reality that such forced innocence was unsustainable. Ellen cannot fit in the system, and thus she has to leave the city.
Similarly, Beaufort is expelled from the city after the failure of his business empire. Wharton highlights the unsustainability of this system by showing how no one, apart from May, kept the rules. Archer lives a lie that he does not love Ellen, Lefferts preaches morality, yet he is a womaniser, while Mr. Jackson is aware of all the ills around the city, but he decides to remain silent. Hence, the Old New York City’s system of living was unsustainable, which underscores Wharton’s motive of writing the book, The Age of Innocence.
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Print.
Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: a biography of Edith Wharton, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. Print.
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton, London: Chatto & Windus, 2007. Print.
Lowry, Elizabeth. “What Edith Knew: Freeing Wharton from the Master’s Shadow”. Harper’s Magazine 317.3 (2008): 96–102. Print.
Singley, Carol. A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence, New York: Dover Thrift Publications, 1997. Print.