A New Perspective

A New Perspective

As I have been reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the symbolism has been extremely strong. Each character has their own meaning and representation which I am fascinated by. May Welland represents the social norm and stereotypical New York society. She is a beautiful, perfect representation of what society expects in a wife. Mrs. Manson Mingott represents a cross between the upper class and an outcast. She is very much involved in the affluent society, but she also has a strong opinion about things and accepts Ellen Olenska into her home which is very taboo. This leads us into our next character, Ellen Olenska, who is a complete misfit. She represents mystery and freedom, exactly what society does not want. Our final character to analyze is Newland Archer, who is the most perplexing character in my opinion. Archer is constantly changing, in the beginning of the book he is very involved in societal norms, but as the book goes on he is straying further away from that. Archer represents change and controversy in society. “‘Women should be free- as free as we are’… ‘Nice’ women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant” (Wharton 37).  Archer’s change of heart is sparked by his newfound curiosity with Ellen and he begins contemplating his engagement with May. This quote really stood out to me because it emphasizes how unique his thinking is because most men in that society didn’t want women to have freedom, they just wanted a perfect little housewife. Obviously something, or more specifically someone, has changed Newland Archer’s mindset.

I am incredibly pleased with Wharton’s ability to show character changes so subtlety. Just the way their thoughts and conversations are portrayed you can see how the character has had a change of heart and the factors that contributed. Obviously I am talking about Newland Archer in which I have seen the character shift since the beginning of the book, as I was saying in the previous paragraph. No one every blatantly said he is changing because of his interaction with Ellen, but from the author’s writing style, it is made clear.

The Outcast

In the 19th century the cutthroat upper class of New York City was extremely selective with their acquaintances. If you were not the top tier societal members, find a new group to run with. Edith Wharton’s, The Age of Innocence opens with the wealthy ones gathered at the opera. Most think the opera is a good place for social bonding, but in their eyes the most important thing to do at the opera is judge everyone, and make sure you are seen. Protagonist, Newland Archer, is sitting in his family’s section when he notices a scandalous misfit in the section of his fiancée, May Welland. Our outsider, countess Ellen Olenska, draws the attention of the entire theater due to her unusually low social status. The countess turns out to be cousins with May Welland, and is recently separated from her husband, so Mrs. Manson Mingott takes in the misfit. A conflict I see sprouting is Archer’s specific attention to Ellen Olenska, that I predict will cause some future conflict.

Before reading The Age of Innocence I did some research to see what I was getting myself into. From the research I concluded the main plot of the story is Newland Archer’s conflicting drives for May Welland and Ellen Olenska. Although he is engaged to May right now, I am predicting Archer will separate from her because of Ellen. However, I do not believe this will happen right away. Because of society’s standards Archer will probably need to keep his affection for Ellen internal to maintain his reputation. I think the end theme will be that Archer chooses to be with Ellen to go against the conforming standards of present day New York City.