Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton

Examine the suffocating effect that the polite society of the 1870's had on the characters in the famous novel, Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence delves considerably deeper into the motives of human behavior than the standard romance novel or love triangle scenario. The novel's true message lies in the suffocating and emotionally stagnating rules that governed old New York's polite society during the 1870's, and how adhering to those rules deterred people from being true to themselves and enjoying life in the manner in which it was meant to be enjoyed. Wharton writes of a time and place where a public kiss was considered scandalous, where divorce was a mortal sin, and where women were taught to be ladies and men to be gentlemen even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Failing in business was the ultimate disgrace for the gentlemen of New York society at this time, just as divorce or estrangement eternally condemned women. Unlike other key characters in the novel, (May and her husband Newland) Ellen does not let these condemnatory standards crush her self-confidence or undermine her determination to be her own woman. It is assumed that her time away from New York was what allowed her to break free from the chains that bound its upscale society. When Ellen originally returned home to New York, she was expecting to be welcomed with open arms rather than subjugated by feelings of disdain. After all, she had been the victim of infidelity and was asserting her strength of character by choosing to leave her husband. Yet this was not the way society viewed the situation. In the elitists' minds, a man's infidelity was not a violation of "the code" yet a woman abandoning her husband, under any circumstances, was.

Once Ellen became painfully aware of this pervasive hypocritical attitude, she was appalled. After witnessing her family and the rest of society's avoidance of emotions she could not help but notice the hypocrisy and contradictions that had spread through the city she had once idealized. The bulk of upscale New York society was undeniably vain, superficial, disparaging and arrogant; all of which were qualities that the free spirited character of Ellen abhorred.

Ellen's decision not to take her love affair with cousin's husband Newland to the next level was based primarily on her contempt for these unfavorable qualities. She did not want to hide her true self and her true feelings behind an illicit affair; She was the type of woman who would feel compelled to shout her feelings of joy from every rooftop. Unable to suppress her feelings or her beliefs, she rebelled against society's masquerade of innocence by developing and living up to her own moral standards. Though she made the conscious decision, at Newland's urging, not to divorce her husband, she did not go crawling back to him either.

Also, because Newland did not feel he was in a position to expose their mutual attraction, Ellen boldly turned away from him as well, proving that attaining a comfortable level of self-respect is far more important and fulfilling than simply being someone's wife. This was as new and inconceivable a concept to this circle in society as man landing on the moon Wharton's views towards women, men and society were undoubtedly reflected in the theme of the novel and the tenor of its message. The characters of Ellen and May are as opposite as they are similar, which explains Newland's feelings of ambiguity. However his choice is not based so much on the individual characteristics of each woman as it is on a standard of living and a familiar set of beliefs. Choosing to be with May despite his love for Ellen is representative of Newland's decision not to defy the mores of wealthy New York society. In other words, it is not the woman he is opting for as much as the lifestyle.

Whether his decision is one to be respected or pitied depends on one's perception of honorability. In some ways, Newland is making the admirable choice to stand by his commitments and live up to his responsibilities to May and to society. Yet in doing this, he is sacrificing his responsibility to himself, and is forfeiting any change at true happiness.

Edith Wharton must have faced similar struggles in her own lifetime to be able to understand the deep levels of confusion, contradiction and hypocrisy that plagued polite society in the 1870's. Through her detailed descriptions, evolutionary character development and insightful suppositions, Edith Wharton managed to convey a literary feast of feminist expression long before it was socially acceptable to even consider women as respectable, admirable individuals with real human emotions that need to be openly expressed.

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