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Newland Archer is described in ‘The Age

of Innocence’ as a man of thought; what


do his inward reflections tell us about
Old New York’s power to compromise the
needs of the individual?

In your answer you should consider:

views of others
relevant contextual information
_________________________________________
Newland Archer is an anomaly in New York’s delicate social system.
A self

described dilettante, he partakes in pleasure for pleasure’s sake,


and

unlike the rest of New York, not just in a purely superficial manner.
His

cerebral nature means that “thinking over a pleasure to come often


gave

him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”. He, along with Ellen

Olenska and the bohemian Ned Winsett, represent the opposing


force to

New York’s stifling, rigid adherence to conformity.

New York society is one domineered by “immemorial custom”; it is


itself

one single entity rather than a collection of many. It depends on the


unity

of all within it for survival, ruthlessly cutting out any individual who
may

introduce independent thought and destroy it, like an invasive


bacteria.
Their system is an effective one, using a manner of hieroglyphs,
rites and

unspoken actions to achieve its objective.

The “maverick” characters are perhaps analogous to Edith Wharton

herself, a product of the very same society transcribed on the


pages. Like

Archer, Wharton was an intellectual, preferring books to clothes and


when

her literary talents arose at a young age, her mother’s reaction


“was one

of fascinated horror”1.

Wharton sought escapism through literature; the reading and the


writing

of it. It offered her respite from the “unimaginative and


lethargic”2

exercise of age old virtues. Channelling her own thoughts and


criticisms of

Old New York through the private musings of Archer, we get the best

representation of the fiercely conservative tribal community which


took

too much and gave so little in return.

Countess Ellen Olenska is every bit the woman Edith

Wharton wanted to be; independent, beautiful, smart and strikingly

original. She is a “foreign and a … revolutionary force”3 and


the novel

opens with her appearance at the Opera, where all of New York high

society came to see and be seen. Its small size kept out the
“nouveau

riche“4, whom New York was “beginning to dread and yet be drawn
to”.
The reaction of New York to such a symbol of nonconformity
appearing at

the bastion of the Old New York social scene is one of abject horror.
The

sight of Ellen in the Mingott’s box causes Lawrence Lefferts, the


“foremost

authority on form”, to exclaim “Well-upon my soul!”, loudly voicing


the

concern that all of New York would invariably be feeling.

This incident evokes Archer’s first emotion towards Ellen;


indignation. We

can compare this to the emotions May - his wife to be and


archetypal

product of New York - arises in him: “tender reverence” and so on.


Ellen

has instilled in Archer in a single instant a feeling more passionate,


deep

and earnest than May has in their many months of courtship. For the
first

time, Archer’s halcyon world of Old New York has been invaded by

something exotic, alluring and unnerving, and where he disapproves


of

Ellen having any influence on May, he can’t help but be intrigued by


her

presence. Compelled by a sense of duty towards his soon to be


“clan” -

another fiercely guarded tradition instilled in Archer by Old New York


-,

Archer makes his way to “the box which was thus attracting the
undivided

attention of masculine New York”. Here he shares his first moment


with
Ellen, and senses that New York has put her under tribunal, eerily
pre-

figuring the moment when the two lovers are ultimately broken by
New

York; driven apart after a silent, yet ferociously effective trial.


Ironically,

Ellen describes New York as “heaven”, although it is not elucidated

whether she describes it this way cynically, though one would like to

think so as it is the last place meant for such a free spirit as her.
Perhaps

Ellen’s judgement of Old New York society has been clouded over
with

years of absence, in contrast to Wharton who had to move to France


before

she could even begin writing her most scathing retort of her former

society’s customs.

Newland may not know it straight away, but this first

experience with Ellen profoundly changes him as a person. He


senses that

not everything in New York has to be definite and set in stone. By


bearing

witness to her nonchalant disregard to social mores and customs,


she has

subversively worked her way into the only place that matters - his
mind -

and she is henceforth never far from his thoughts.

Ellen at first serves only to make Newland grateful to have his own
piece

of security in May; a typical, uncompromised, blank canvass of a


New

Yorker. He sees it as his duty to mould her in his image,


daydreaming of

a future spent guiding her cautiously through the arts (as any

“cosmopolitan” husband such as Newland should consider it his duty


to).

Of May and Archer one critic has said, “One can see that they
are in fact

predestined to become a typical New York couple if of


slightly wider

interests than the majority”5. The use of the word “predestined”


only

serves to accentuate the view of New York’s strict adherence to


code and

custom. It would take a titanic force to break New York’s bond on


Archer,

a force that comes in the guise of Ellen.

It is during dinner with Sillerton Jackson that the subject of

Ellen is first raised with Newland in company. Archer “waited with an

amused curiosity” for the subject to be brought up, not wanting to


initiate

the conversation himself yet nevertheless desiring to talk about the


alien

woman that had been at the forefront of New York’s - and his - mind

lately.

Quietly observing his tribe’s feasting upon Ellen, Newland’s feelings

toward her again start to well up inside him. Newland sees fit to
defend

her honour against his own set; the first tentative indication of
Newland’s

deviation from society towards Ellen - and himself. Carried on by the

momentum of the argument, Newland exclaims “I hope she will!” in


response to Janey’s “I hear she means to get a divorce” - ironic in
that his

hasty, unheeded change of mind in regard to this position later on

ultimately dooms Ellen and himself. The word falls in the room “like
a

bombshell” and this perhaps is the moment that betrays Newland to


New

York, ultimately resulting in the two lover’s downfall.

Post dinner, Newland retires to his own study a deeply changed


man.

Whilst pontificating over a picture of May, he realises that “marriage


was

not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage
on

uncharted seas.” Ellen, through only a few words, has sent deep and

meaningful reverberations through his psyche, rumbling the


foundations

on which his own personal vision of New York was built. Thoughts
rush in

and out of his mind, unearthing feelings New York had taught him,
as a

duty, to repress. He sees his future marriage with a clarity he has


never

realised before, and what it is to become: “a dull association of


social and

material interests held together by ignorance on one side and


hypocrisy on

the other”.

Seeing that his future role is one of a self-replicating machination,

purpose built solely to keep the rites and customs of New York alive
at the
expense of progress, Newland feels trapped. With nowhere to run
but his

own mind, Archer is “too gentlemanly, too committed to the


regime of

doing the right thing, of avoiding unpleasantness of any


kind”6 and

makes sure to bury his problem deep down, where it won’t bother
him.

But this illuminating episode will forever be looming over him,


quietly

chipping away at any fragment of the foundation of Old New York


left

within him.

Newland, a man of inaction, necessarily begins to live a lie. What

was supposed to be his “moment for pure thoughts and cloudless


hopes”

has been corrupted by Ellen. As he undresses he is at his most

vulnerable, and his symbolic covering of the fire can be seen as an


allegory

to New York’s blotting out of the unpleasant. With New York’s blood
still

running through his veins, albeit diluted, he grumbles “Hang Ellen

Olenska”, futilely trying to grasp onto his crumbling ivory towers.

New York had at this stage sensed an imbalance within itself. It

could only deal with threats in two ways; by destroying or


assimilating it.

Seeing that Ellen was something it could not just destroy, and that it
was

quite impossible to ignore her and hope she’d go away, society


decided it
was in the best interests of survival to incorporate her into its own
being.

This could only be achieved through the powerful van der Luyden’s,
who

“keep their influence as Ellen knows by making themselves


so rare”7.

The van der Luyden’s were perhaps the archetypal New York family.
They

could be seen as the deity’s of the puritanical society for which


things such

as ‘form’, ‘taste’ and ‘decency’ formed its religion. Reluctant to be


at the top

of the social ladder, they are there out of necessity, acting as the
“arbiters

of fashion”. With Ellen being granted the seal of approval by the


cortex of

New York, she is seemingly ready to be accepted into society, and


any

potential unpleasantness can be pushed away, where it belongs.

Archer, perhaps assured by New York’s acceptance of Ellen,

begins to embrace within him her spirit. Watching her from afar at
her

entrance into society, she arises genuine thoughts and emotions in


him.

Distracted by her eyes, his mind drifts off as to “what must have
gone into

the making” of them. Ellen has saturated Newland Archer’s New


York

with curious, romantic reflections, the like of which he had probably


only

experienced through books, and certainly not through May.


During their first real conversation, Ellen deconstructs New

York, breaking customs and disrespecting important figures such as


the

Duke of St. Austrey. This thrilled Newland “so much that forgot the
slight

shock her previous remark had caused him”. Archer had finally
found

someone that shared his burgeoning, clandestine opinions of New


York of

which he couldn’t dare to utter. Throughout his conversation with


Ellen,

Archer is in a disembodied state, enchanted by her and only vaguely

aware of the words coming out of his mouth. Even as May enters the
room,

it is Ellen who holds his attention, her striking individuality and


beauty

captivating he, that is usually so docile. Like rainfall to an arid plain,

Ellen has instilled in Archer a new sense of life, which starts to rise

through the cracked surface.

Over time, Ellen’s influence on Newland becomes more explicit and


overt.

On visiting her house, Newland exclaims “It’s you who are telling
me;

opening my eyes to things I’d looked at so long I’d ceased to see


them”.

Ellen is the catalyst for Newland’s personal ‘Age of Enlightenment’,

making him see lucidly New York in all its oppressive, repressive

state: “It is Ellen Olenska who is able to explain to him the


alternative

- the disagreeable taste of ‘happiness brought by disloyalty


and cruelty
and indifference’”8.