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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,


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

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


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


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


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

introduce independent thought and destroy it, like an invasive

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


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


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


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


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

riche“4, whom New York was “beginning to dread and yet be drawn
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.

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

something exotic, alluring and unnerving, and where he disapproves


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


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

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

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

figuring the moment when the two lovers are ultimately broken by

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


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.

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

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


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


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

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


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


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”


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


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


the conversation himself yet nevertheless desiring to talk about the


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

meaningful reverberations through his psyche, rumbling the


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


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

But this illuminating episode will forever be looming over him,


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

“keep their influence as Ellen knows by making themselves

so rare”7.

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

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

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


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

entrance into society, she arises genuine thoughts and emotions in


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


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


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


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

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

someone that shared his burgeoning, clandestine opinions of New

York of

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


- the disagreeable taste of ‘happiness brought by disloyalty

and cruelty
and indifference’”8.