In the Newland Archer plot, Wharton presents one of her favorite themes, the sacrifice of artistic, romantic impulses for family duty and societal respectability. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York's best families, thinks he is in love with the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska and even entertains the thought of leaving his wife for her, but when he learns that his wife May is pregnant, he abandons all hope of love and happiness and decides to stay with May.
The difficulty of genuine human communication in the upper strata of society is an important theme in the Archer plot. Newland Archer lives in what Wharton calls "a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." Most of the important personal communications between Archer and his wife are left unsaid. Many times Archer imagines what she is saying to him (or more complicated yet what she thinks he is saying to her), but of course Archer may be reading the hieroglyphics wrong. Because so little that is felt is actually expressed, Archer at times appears to be having an internal dialogue with himself.
In the Julius Beaufort subplot, the morality of money and sex is an important theme. On the surface, the society appears to be almost Puritanical in its response to divorce and unconventional European living arrangements, but as Wharton makes clear, even in the New York of the 1870s, people chose to...
(The entire section is 310 words.)