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sfwriter eNotes educator| Certified Educator
How "INNOCENT" is May Welland?

I know that Newland Archer sees May as very innocent and simple, but I wonder if anyone can post about the actuality of May's innocence. I get the sense that she knows more about what is going on than anyone truly understands. SHe almost seems at times to be conniving, and manipulative...

Can anyone else comment on this?

If May was conniving and manipulative, as you say, it was because she lived in a "hieroglyphic world" wherein it was necessary to say things other than what one means.  In modern terms it is fair to say that May was conniving and manipulative because she said things other than she meant (and allowed lies to go unchecked -- such as Archer's lie about Letterblair sending him to Washington because he wanted to go to Boston to see Ellen), but the mores of her day and class would not.  They would say that she was polite and doing the right thing, allowing everyone around her to save face, while still guiding people toward conventional morality.

Certainly, as the other poster has pointed out, May knows more about Archer's fascination with Ellen than she lets on.  But that was required by the society of her day, and to have let on that she knew about the passion would have meant a great deal of loss for herself and for Archer.  Archer would have been labled a "cad" and would have had a hard time being accepted by his old friends, and Ellen would have received a much greater share of the shame (the double standard of the time.)  Most of all, May would lose the supremely-appropriate fiance that Archer was (whom she presumably loves) and have to face the very real possibility of never marrying.  She had been taught since childhood to act a certain way to maintain the status quo; that she was more knowing that she may have appeared was simply a testament to her intelligence and the self-control her training had given her.  May Welland was, in 1870s New York terms, a lady -- and she acted exactly as the morality of her family and friends, and perhaps her own conscience, too, dictated.

cheryl-talley | Student

Well at the end of the novel we find out she did know more of what was happening between Newland and Ellen. But May is the perfect example of New York society. SHe has the perfect and innocent appeareance.

Read the study guide:
The Age of Innocence

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