Discuss and write a critical commentary of Edith Wharton's presentation of Mrs van der Luyden in The Age of Innocence, and how her characterization relates to old New York society. 

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janetlong | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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As Newland's mother explains, New York society--by which she means the ruling clans--was primarily merchant class, descended from merchants and deriving their wealth from commercial enterprise. Mrs. Archer believes that society is threatened by the base of the "pyramid," which is increasingly controlled by Julius Beaufort and Catherine Spicer--people whose families had risen “above themselves” by marrying into the old established families. Mrs. Archer feels that society has become "less particular" and no longer observes the old customs, which include cohesion about their own members. At the top of the society pyramid are the descendents of the few original old world aristocrats. This small but elite group, which includes the van der Luydens, has a special authority and cache that Mrs. Archer hopes will be able to rebut the insult to the Mingotts and Ellen Olenska and thereby hold New York society together.

In chapter 7, the readers Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden. Wharton endows them with almost divine status within New York society, and the Archers appeal is akin to prayer. Of the three existing aristocratic families left "the van der Luydens, who stood above all of them, had faded into a kind of super-terrestrial twilight, from which only two figures impressively emerged; those of Mr. and Mrs. Henry van der Luyden." Mrs. van der Luyden sees only her intimate friends at their house in the city. Mrs. Archer is one of these friends, and she appeals to Mrs. van der Luyden for help.

The house is one of the great old houses of New York, richly decorated and authentically antique. It is rarely "open." Mrs. van der Luyden seems to be of a piece with the house--faded, out of fashion, but still imposing. She has a timeless quality as reflected in the portraits of her ancestor and herself--still a “perfect likeness” though she is twenty years older. Newland Archer describes her as a being like a mummy, well preserved in the airless atmosphere. Her manners are cold, noncommittal, and extremely formal, yet she is sympathetic to the Archers. She is uncharacteristically roused to action by the alarming news of the Mingotts’ predicament and rings the bell for her husband to be called.

It isn’t possible for the van der Luydens to “go out”--to make calls, talk to people, even to attend the Mingotts dinner personally to lend their support to the cause. Mrs. van der Luyen’s “health” prevents it, meaning they would prefer not to. However, it isn’t necessary for them to leave the house or deviate from their undeviating routines. They have the power to solve everything simply by issuing an invitation to Madame Olenska to dine with a duke.

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