Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is probably one of her most successful books because it offers an inside look at a subject the author knew very well, that is, New York society during the 1870’s. That was her milieu, and her pen captures the atmosphere of aristocratic New York as its inhabitants move about in their world of subtleties, innuendoes, and strict adherence to the dictates of fashionable society. Wharton describes those years for herself as “safe, guarded, and monotonous.” Her only deviations as a young adult were the frequent journeys abroad and summers in Newport. Her marriage to Edward Wharton, a prominent Bostonian, assumed the same character as her own early life until it became apparent that he suffered from mental illness and would have to be hospitalized. During World War I, Wharton worked for the Allies and received the French Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work with the Red Cross in Paris. Most critics agree that her best years as a novelist were from 1911 to 1921, during which time she produced Ethan Frome (1911), a grim New England study, and The Age of Innocence, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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Wharton’s most successful theme (like that of her friend Henry James) was the plight of the young and innocent in a world that was more complicated than that for which they were prepared. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska found the society of New York intricate and demanding and, as such, to be an impediment to their personal searches for happiness and some degree of freedom. The Age of Innocence is a careful blending of a nostalgia for the 1870’s with a subtle, but nevertheless inescapable, criticism of its genteel hypocrisies and clever evasions.

With respect to Wharton’s style, it can be generalized that she is not a particularly daring writer nor an experimenter in form. Rather, she writes in a comfortable, fixed, formal style that is closely layered. In some instances, her narrative becomes heavy, and the intricate play and counterplay of the characters’ motives can lose all but the most diligent reader. The author’s presence is never forgotten, and the reader feels her control throughout the story, as the narrative view is quickly established from the beginning. Wharton’s characters are portrayed through their actions. Since The Age of Innocence so carefully fits a historical niche, its scope is limited and its direction narrow. That is not to say that the drama is limited or lacking. On the contrary, in detailing such a small world, the drama is intense, even if it is found beneath a sophisticated, polished surface.

Three figures are projected against the historical background of New York society. May Welland, the beautiful betrothed of Archer, is completely a product of the system she seeks to perpetuate. Archer observes, after their marriage, that May and her mother are so much alike that he sees himself being treated and placated just as Mr. Welland is by his wife and daughter. There is no doubt that May will never surprise Archer “by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

Ellen, on the other hand, frees herself from the restraints of society by her experiences abroad and through her subsequent separation from her husband, the Polish count. Madame Olenska not only is more cosmopolitan but also is a character of more depth and understanding than the other women in the novel. She suggests by her presence as well as by her past experiences a tragic and emotionally involved element in the story. Ellen definitely does not conform to the rules of accepted behavior. She moves in a cloud of mystery that makes her an intriguing personality to those who observe her, if even only to criticize. As soon as she and Archer are aware of their feelings for each other, Archer tries to convince Ellen, in a halfhearted way, that one cannot purchase freedom at the expense of another. He gives her an idea by which to live and, in so doing, destroys his opportunity to find freedom for himself.

Archer is, in many ways, a typical Wharton masculine figure. He is a man set apart from the people he knows by education, intellect, and feeling, but is lacking the initiative and courage to separate himself physically from the securities of the known. The movement of the plot in The Age of Innocence is established by the transition from one position to another taken by Archer in his relations with May and with Ellen. Archer’s failure to break the barriers of clan convention leads him to an ironic abnegation, for in the last pages of the novel readers see Archer retreating from the opportunity to meet with Ellen—an opportunity his eager son Dallas is quick to arrange. Dallas is anxious to meet Ellen, because he heard from his mother, shortly before she died, that Archer had given up the thing he had most wanted (namely, Ellen) for her. It is sad to see that Archer, the object of two loves, is never able to satisfy or to be satisfied by either. The tragedy in the novel rests with May. It is she who appears to be the most innocent and naïve, yet, in the end, she is perhaps the most aware of them all. She suffers quietly through the years, knowing that her husband’s true desires and passions are elsewhere. Dallas’s generation observes the whole situation out of context, as “prehistoric.” He dismisses the affair rather casually, because his contemporaries have lost that blind adherence to social custom that the Archers, the Wellands, and the rest knew so well.

The novel is an incisive but oblique attack on the intricate and tyrannous tribal customs of a highly stratified New York society. Wharton’s psychological probing of the meaning and motivation behind the apparent façade of her characters’ social behavior shows her to be of the same school of fiction as her friend Henry James. The method is that of James, but Wharton’s style is clearer and less involved. The novel is the work of a writer for whom form and method are perfectly welded, and the action results inevitably from the natures of the characters. The Age of Innocence is a novel of manners that delineates a very small world with great accuracy. Under the surface of wealth, readers see a world of suffering, denial, and patient resignation—a situation that deserves more attention and reflection than one might give at first reading.

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