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The Age of Innocence (Essay)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Kevin Shah Mansouri

Explain how the writing of a text can be interpreted as an act of rebellion and/or empowerment.

Literary texts often work to challenge and question the conventions and codes of the society they were produced in, rebelling against the dominant ideologies of the time through highlighting their hypocrisies, flaws, and detriments. Questioning the social conventions and perceptions of “freedom” within her historical novel The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton paints an intimate view of 1870s New York society through depicting and challenging its rigid and oppressive values and belief systems. Exploring the underlying tension of nostalgia which surrounded “old New York” from a post-World War 1 perspective, Wharton provides an insider’s view of New York society as being an oppressive, outdated and unsustainable system. Utilising and shifting between the detached, ironic third-person omniscient narrator and the often subjective, flawed third-person limited point of view of Newland Archer, Wharton explores this milieu through her male protagonist as he is torn between adherence to propriety, and his own passions and desires. Through the use of characterisation and satire, Wharton depicts and rebels against the conflict between the individual and society, and their oppression under society. This reading can be extended, as in the mode of the historical novel, Wharton presents society as outdated, unsustainable, and anxious towards the imminent inevitable social change. Finally, Wharton empowers the female voice through critiquing female oppression.

One of the central themes to The Age of Innocence is the conflict between the individual and society, which Wharton seeks to challenge through her male protagonist Newland Archer, as he is torn between the demands of society, and his yearning for self-expression. This challenge of dominant ideals of the time is first explored when Newland Archer “…rambled on…” that “…the individual is nearly always sacrificed to what is…the collective interest: people cling to any convention that keeps the family together…”. The sibilance of the tribalistic imagery of being “sacrificed”is compounded with the aphorism of people “clinging”to convention, emphasising the near-fanatic importance of societal convention for the upper echelon.The rigid rectitude of Victorian society is shown through the ineffable attachment to conventionality, as within “old New York”, Newland notes “…that few things seemed more awful than an offense against “Taste”, that far-off divinity of whom form was mere visible representative and vicegerent…”. The hyperbole and satire of the abstract concept of “Taste”, coupled with “…far-off divinity…” and “vicegerent” works to mock the standards of the upper-class, while aligning religious connotations to conventionality to further position readers to acknowledge the sacred role that propriety plays in the lives of upper-class society. Moreover, the dystopic nature of such a society is presented to readers through the “outsider” character of Ellen Olenska, who positions readers to questions concepts of freedom and thus rebel against moral codes, as she discusses her desire for divorce from her influential European husband with Newland, emphatically declaring “But my freedom, is that nothing?” and Newland replies “Aren’t you as free as air as it is? Who can touch you?”. This barrage of rhetorical questions emphasises the different perceptions of this idea of “freedom”, positioning her readers to consider just how important is individual freedom. This question is shortly after answered, as ironically, after several glimpses into Countess Olenska’s own freedom, a freedom from societal oppression, Newland is made aware of the confinement he feels, emotively stating “The haunting horror of doing the same thing every day at the same hour besieged his brain… The word [‘sameness’] ran through his head like a persecuting tune…”. The glottal alliteration of the “haunting horror”, which is compounded with the violent metaphor of “besieged” reveals Newland’s own internal anguish under societal codes. This text works as a critique and rebellion of high society, as within old New York, Wharton reveals that a choice must be made between one’s own individuality or conformity. It is Newland’s indecisiveness that leads to his psychological turmoil. Thus, Edith Wharton rebels against the codes and conventions of “old New York” through depicting the conflict between the individual and society.

1870s New York society is depicting within The Age of Innocence as unsustainable, oppressive, rigid, and anxious towards the imminent inevitable social change. Wharton wishes to challenge these aspects of society, rebelling against “old New York” society through the mode of the historical novel, providing readers an insight into the social change from the Gilded Ages of 1870s New York, to the early modernist era. This critique is founded through the constant allusion to the discourse of anthropology, where the narrator describes society as a “…hieroglyphic world…” where “…the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” The metaphor of a “hieroglyphic world”, as well as the allusion to the now defunct society of Ancient Egypt depicts the codes and conventionalities of “old New York” as “arbitrary”, obscure, and meaningless signs, much like the primitive superstitions of tribal cultures. Moreover, the unusual syntax when listing the description of the “real thing”, which is created through the repetition of “or”, suggests an anxiety and fear towards social change. This is explained in Chapter 21, where Mrs. Archer describes “…beyond the small and slippery pyramid…lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by musicians, artists and “people who wrote”.”. The image of the “unmapped quarter” is contrasted with society as a “pyramid” to create an opposition between the chaos and ambiguity associated with “artists”, and “musicians”, and the predictability and stability of “old New York” society and conventions as a “pyramid”. Yet Wharton rebels against this desire for stagnancy, suggesting it to be a form of paralysis. The unsustainable nature of such a society is reflected in the novel’s structure, depicting social change. Within the final chapter of the book, Archer presents a completely different image of society: “Of what account was anybody’s past in the huge kaleidoscope where all social atoms spun around the same plane?”. The antithetical metaphor of society as a “kaleidoscope” suggests a dynamic, changing social atmosphere instead of the rigidity of a “pyramid”. With the dominant hierarchy being replaced with “social atoms”, suggesting ungrounded, minute particles instead of fixed families, bringing light to the irrelevance of social status in a more democratic age. Even the discourse of physics, from which the metaphor is drawn, rebels against the society of “old New York” as it is modernist in comparison to the realm of “pyramids”. Wharton further rebels against societies rigidity through Archer’s son, Dallas, who is an architect (a creative profession) and has a genuine interest in the arts, which opposes Newland as a dilettante, and previously held societal conventions. Even Dallas’s marriage to Fanny Beaufort, being previously described as one of “Beaufort’s Bastards” is evidence that society has moved on. Thus, The Age of Innocence critiques and rebels against the rigidity and unsustainable nature of “old New York”.

Wharton seeks to empower the female voice within The Age of Innocence through depicting and critiquing the oppression of women within New York society. Within “old New York”, it is revealed that the female voice is largely silenced, while the male voice is promoted. This is explored through May Welland, a female who has been conditioned by society to allow her own perspectives and preferences to be rendered obsolete in the face of patriarchal male culture. This theme is first explored where Newland muses that “It was his duty as a decent fellow to conceal his past from her, and hers [May Welland] as a marriageable girl to have no past to conceal…”, employing aphorism and irony to emphasise the clear sexual double standard present in societal code, inviting readers to question and challenge the unequal powers of men and women. While it is suggested that May is oppressed, she is neither naïve nor blind to the lies and indiscretions of her husband. Newland Archer likens May Welland to a “Kentucky cave fish, which has ceased to develop eyes as they had no use for them.”. Yet ironically, May’s supposed blindness to her husband’s actions is proven false when she questions Archer’s motives for wanting an earlier marriage, stating “One mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices.”. The use of broad, generalised, and inclusive language (“One hears…one notice”) creates a powerful metonym for women within upper-class society. May Welland’s choice to obey the sexual double standard is evidently part of her duty as a female, and she remains loyal to Archer despite being aware of his affair with Countess Olenska. Ironically, it is through the male protagonist that Wharton invites readers to question gender expectations, as when Countess Olenska is discussing her desire for divorce, Newland states that “…no one has the right to make her life over…” and that he is “…sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a women of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”. The emotive language in this dialogue raises strong critiques of the society he lives in, challenging the sexual double standard. Wharton further empowers certain women in her novel through depicting them as independent and socially mobile. Most notably Marchioness Medora Manson, who aligns and reinforces the power of the old families, while herself coming from a business family in Staten Island and choosing to live in an “unfavourable” residence and location. While wealth and privilege bestow power on some women, this is contrasted with the suffering of the “invalid” Mrs. Winsett and the passive Janey. Thus, Edith Wharton presents female oppression within her novel, critiquing its influence and empowering certain women to challenge and rebel against the dominant patriarchal ideologies of the time.

Edith Wharton’s historical novel The Age of Innocence (1920) provides readers an insiders view and critique of the rigid, lethargic, and unsustainable life of “old New York”. The characterisation of both Newland Archer and May Welland, as well as several other key conventions, work to critique and thus rebel against New York high-society by first depicting the struggle and conflict between the individual and society in such an environment, then by painting “old New York” as out-dated and anxious towards inevitable social change, before finally empowering women and critiquing their oppression in such a society.

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