Their society does not tolerate deviation from its authoritarian etiquette. Ellen Olenska comes back into this society from the outside, genuinely unaware of its' unyielding boundaries. She is both a heroine and victim of society. She has come from a difficult period in her life, and initially finds the safety of this world charming. Later on, she realizes how cruel and ridiculous the society is.
Ellen emerges from the criticism of her peers and evolves from it. "In a society which raises every barrier against a woman living apart from her husband, the Countess faces the censure of two continents, sustained only by her own good conscience."
Her life, until this point, has been vastly different than Archer's. In Europe, everyone solely pursued their own happiness, in spite of the consequences. There, Ellen's life was free-spirited and bohemian. Her husband, an astoundingly affluent Polish count, led an extravagant lifestyle. Unfortunately, he also cruelly abused Ellen to selfishly suit his own needs.
In New York, Ellen finds a higher standard of morally that she has long forgotten. In this society, the individual promotes the happiness of the many, or the common good, instead of seeking after personal pleasures. In adopting this code of ethics as her own, she sacrifices her happiness.
Ellen, who is being ushered against her will into their society, begs the question "Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!" (Wharton, 50)
Meanwhile, these ethics have always guided Archer's every movement. He has lived solely in a world where social and moral codes dictate the actions of the individual. New York society expects both Archer and Ellen to sacrifice their desires in order to maintain the time-honored order of their world.
Archer is clearly the protagonist of the novel. In the beginning of the novel, Wharton describes him as a 'dilettante', an amateur who enjoys the finer pleasures of the ruling class. Archer also enjoys maintaining a high level respectability. However, he has a more unique viewpoint than those of his peers.
He follows social code without hesitation, but does so with a touch of irony, openly mocking its ridiculousness at times. He recognizes the superficiality of it all, yet participates in it eagerly.
Archer is the character chosen to reveal the author's sentiments on the inadequacies of American society. Wharton "uses frequently the concept of the tribe, with its tribal principles and tabus, the most important of which existed to secure its own survival and purity of race by breeding and its protection against social contamination by exclusion from its environment of alien elements. She sees that in America, against the need and power of money and the lure of sex, tribal instincts and customs, family pride and hereditary principles are bound to go down... The wasting away of an aristocracy."
Upon meeting Ellen, his attitude changes some what. Unlike his peers, Archer finds Ellen's unconventional behavior intriguing. He begins to see the society which he has devoted himself to with open eyes for the first time. Archer suddenly begins to dread his place in society, and his inevitable future inside of it. He sees the true nature of his peers, firsthand, as they cruelly condemn Ellen for her eccentricity.
The high society families think nothing of sacrificing Ellen's happiness for the mere purpose of preserving their comfortable existence. Her own family encourages her to return to her abusive husband. When she refuses, they cut her off from them financially. When Ellen finally concedes to submit to society's rules, Archer considers abandoning them. However, she shows her strength and decides not to allow him to do so.
When Archer makes a move towards Ellen she replies, "Ah, don't make love to me! Too many people have done that." To which Archer replies, "I have never made love to you...and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us." (Wharton, 109)
Catastrophe on many levels would have ensued if they had decided to fulfill their love for one another. Their reputations would be marred, as would the reputations of their families, and neither would be able to pursue a life of high social standing in New York. It would also damage May, whom they both love. Realizing these consequences, both Archer and Ellen surrender all hope and remain safely within the confines of social order. Both feel that the good of the many, outweighs the good of the few. Ellen sums this up by stating to Archer, "I can't love you unless I give you up." (Wharton, 112)
Archer lives his life with May, producing children and his esteemed career. Meanwhile, Ellen is forsaken by the very society she has sacrificed herself to preserve. "Her subtle and supple mind so distresses her American relatives that they expel her from their midst, sending her to Wharton's district of Paris to live out, presumably, a gracious life in exile."
Joslin and Price, 11)
When May dies, Archer, who is fifty-seven, mourns his past. Although he has been the ideal loving husband and father, he did so at an expense. He gave up true love and happiness in his quest for social prosperity.
His son Dallas persuades him to go to Paris, where he discovers Countess Olenska is expecting them for a visit. In a strange twist, Archer does not go inside to see her, but instead sits outside on a bench, gazing up at her window. He tells his son to tell her that he is old-fashioned. After a servant closes the window, he walks away.
According to Jessup, "Archer's complete pliability in the hands of women, on earth and in the grave, forms too weak a contrast for the daring of the Countess Olenska."
There is little to explain why Wharton ends the novel in this manner. It seems that May's control haunts Archer even after her death. Or, his sense of obligation to her will not allow him to seek out Ellen. Perhaps he feels it is wrong to benefit so greatly from May's loss. Either way, he yet again denies himself refuge with the one person he loves most.
The story of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer depicts not star-crossed love or even the sub-dual of masculine lust by feminine chastity. What The Age of Innocence actually concerns itself with is the bleating of a pusillanimous mortal after a divinity and by such concern looks toward the realm of metaphysics, outside the tough province of the novel."
Archer's passage is the focal point for Wharton's main theme - the sacrifice of the good of the one for the good of the many. Newland Archer is forced to forfeit true love in order to uphold his society's ethical code. He does the right thing and contently survives. Though some may see this as heroic, others see it as a 'cop out'. Wharton leaves the reader with a final question. Is it heroic to forsake true love in order to maintain a society's (or a families) scandal-free comfort?
Through the memories of her girlhood we enter a group of families, almost as limited and compact as one of Jane Austen's neighborhoods, and similarly united by a single interest, their survival as the fittest through an accepted system of matrimonial alliances. We become acquainted in the flesh with persons who have hitherto been names to us, the van der Luydens, and the Dagonets, Mr. Sillery Jackson, and Mrs. Manson Mingott. The plot is a simple one, the engagement and marriage of Newland Archer to May Welland, his passion for her cousin, the Countess Olenska, who has been the victim of a European marriage, and his redemption to good form and useful citizenship by his wife, who plays a trump card traditional in English fiction from the days when it chiefly inhabited Newgate - she pleads her belly."
Dasenbrock, Reed Way, ed. Literary Theory after Davidson. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Davis, Joy L. "The ritual of dining in Edith Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence.'." The Midwest Quarterly 34.4 (1993): 465+. Questia. 19 May 2003 http://www.questia.com/.
Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists: A Study in the Novels of Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.
Joslin, Katherine, and Alan Price, eds. Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Lovett, Robert Morss. Edith Wharton. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1925.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Barnes & Noble books, 1996.