Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence is a story of unrequited passion, with Newland Archer’s decades-long love for Ellen driving the narrative forward through societal, personal and professional transformations that affect the characters along the way. From the beginning of her novel, Wharton makes clear that Archer is not entirely suited to his life as one of New York’s privileged and as a representative of society’s elite. As The Age of Innocence begins, Newland arrives at the Opera House and enters the family box fashionably late:
“There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. . . it was "not the thing" to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not "the thing" played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”
Newland Archer, however, is only going through the motions. He appreciates the quality of life into which he was born, but he is bored by the stultifying atmosphere in which proper ladies and gentlemen live. As Wharton observes of her protagonist, “he was at heart a dilettante,” meaning he pretends to an interest that is only skin-deep. Additionally, and hardly unique among the young, educated generation that looks condescendingly upon those who came before, Newland feels himself the intellectual and cultural superior of his elders:
“In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented ‘New York,’ and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it would be troublesome--and also rather bad form--to strike out for himself.”
And so, Newland muddles along in the life to which he was thrust by circumstances beyond his control, and it is precisely this lack of control that will influence his life. His intensely-felt feelings towards Ellen, his fiancé and later wife’s cousin, are not permitted to run their natural course. Newland is condemned to a life of social rigor with May, the lovely but passionless woman to whom he is betrothed. Unable, as a representative of society’s elite and, consequently, forced to remain within certain well-defined boundaries that defined proper society, to divorce May and pursue Ellen, Newland lives his life according to the plan established at birth. He dutifully attends law school, marries, has children, and attends social events and the opera with a regularity befitting one groomed for success. But, Wharton points out near the novel’s end, “he would always be by nature a contemplative and a dilettante.” And so, when he and his son Dallas venture to Paris after May’s death, and Dallas reveals that he has arranged a meeting between his father and Ellen, Newland can’t bring himself to accompany his son to the apartment of this woman for whom he has pined for decades, prompting Dallas to question his father’s reluctance. Newland, however, instructs Dallas to simply explain that “I'm old-fashioned: that's enough."
After Dallas takes his leave from Newland to take the elevator to Ellen’s floor, Newland sits alone on a bench and contemplates the scene above and his inability to meet with Ellen:
"’It's more real to me here than if I went up,’ he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.”
Newland can’t bring himself to see Ellen because he can’t break out of the rigid structural confines in which he has lived and, as importantly, because he cannot accept that the years have inalterably transformed all those concerned. He prefers to remember her as she was, not as she is.