Discuss and write a critical commentary of Wharton's presentation of the old generation versus the new generation in The Age of Innocence in chapter 34, relating back to the rest of the novel in terms of the transitional shift that New York society has undergone by the end of the novel.
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In Chapter XXXIV of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, 26 years have gone by, and Wharton dutifully brings the reader “up to date” on the societal and other changes that have transformed – some might say “transfigured” -- not only the city but its inhabitants. Most of The Age of Innocence takes place in the 1870s, and the transition from the 19th to 20th Centuries represented substantial changes in virtually every respect. The chapter opens with Newland Archer sitting in the library of his upscale New York City home, an ‘old money’ home in which the family celebrated innumerable occasions and in which it engaged in the kind of forced, suffocating gentility Wharton implicitly criticizes. Archer is reflecting on the opening of new wings at the Metropolitan Museum, the ultimate manifestation of New York upper-class permanency and social dominance. Wharton’s description suggests the scale of change that Archer has witnessed during the museum’s prominent event:
“He had just got back from a big official reception for the inauguration of the new galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, and the spectacle of those great spaces crowded with the spoils of the ages, where the throng of fashion circulated through a series of scientifically catalogued treasures, had suddenly pressed on a rusted spring of memory. ‘Why, this used to be one of the old Cesnola rooms,’ he heard someone say;”
With this passage, the author cements her transition from old world to new, with her protagonist representing continuity amidst change. It is here in his library, however, where Wharton presents the transformations that have occurred over the intervening years most vividly. The setting’s importance is evident in the author’s notation that the library “was the room in which most of the real things of his [Archer’s] life had happened.”
As important in discussions of the generational and societal changes that have occurred between chapters I-XXXIII and chapter XXXIV is Wharton’s discussion of the Catholic Church to which the Archer family had belonged for so many decades:
“. . .here their second child, Mary (who was so like her mother), had announced her engagement to the dullest and most reliable of Reggie Chivers's many sons; and there Archer had kissed her through her wedding veil before they went down to the motor which was to carry them to Grace Church--for in a world where all else had reeled on its foundations the "Grace Church wedding" remained an unchanged institution.”
Note that last sentence: “in a world where all else had reeled on its foundations the ‘Grace Church wedding’ remained an unchanged institution.” Nothing bespeaks continuity like the Catholic Church (this is not a criticism but an observation regarding the church’s role in Wharton’s novel), and it provides Archer’s greatest sense of security from all of the social changes occurring around him. His own children, especially daughter Mary, are daily reminders of the changes that have transformed the world he has known. Mary, physically strong and athletic in contrast to Archer’s late wife May, the demure, slim and lovely society matron to whom he was reluctantly wed, represents even more than the changes to the museum the vast transformations that have occurred during the intervening years:
“Mary Chivers's mighty feats of athleticism could not have been performed with the twenty-inch waist that May Archer's azure sash so easily spanned. And the difference seemed symbolic; the mother's life had been as closely girt as her figure. Mary, who was no less conventional, and no more intelligent, yet led a larger life and held more tolerant views. There was good in the new order too.”
Wharton continues with this theme, noting how men are no longer content to dedicate their lives to the dull, stifling worlds that had been the only real options open to those raised to rule the country. Now, she writes,
“. . .the chances were that they were going in for Central American archaeology, for architecture or landscape-engineering; taking a keen and learned interest in the prerevolutionary buildings of their own country, studying and adapting Georgian types, and protesting at the meaningless use of the word "Colonial." Nobody nowadays had "Colonial" houses except the millionaire grocers of the suburbs.”
In short, Archer is lost in the world he now inhabits, and the library and the church represent the only sanctuaries left to those like him who hopelessly cling to the past, to the ‘good old days.’ As he reflects sitting in that room in his home that provides comfort and security from the outside world, “. . .there was good in the old ways.”
Eighteen-seventies New York was a very different world from that of the early 20th Century. There was no shortage of old money society still around – see Fitzgerald’s description of East Egg – but the old was increasingly clashing with the new. Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘trust-busting’ sometimes liberal visions of the nation he had recently been elected to lead were threatening some of the old ways of doing business, and Archer was a representative of that old way. As Wharton, in transitioning from her description of the scale of changes Archer has witnessed around him during those 26 years, shifts her focus to Dallas’ invitation to return to Paris, and the revelation of Ellen’s life there, she summarizes the alienation Archer has experienced: “Archer, as he looked back, was not sure that men like himself WERE what his country needed, at least in the active service to which Theodore Roosevelt had pointed; . . .”
One wonders what The Age of Innocence would have looked like had Wharton lived to witness the societal changes that would occur 50 years after publication of this novel. Working with what she had, though, was sufficient to depict the generational changes that affected those unable or unwilling to evolve with the times.
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