The Age of Innocence is an enchanting Victorian era novel that eloquently illustrates the price of being among New York's high society the late nineteenth century. The novel's main characters are Newland Archer, a high society attorney, his fiance May Welland, and her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska.
Archer is captivated by May's girl-like innocence and her firm grasp on their society's traditions. Their families are among New York City's social elite, and their marriage is a profitable one from both sides. The arrival of May's bohemian cousin, Countess Olenska, shakes their society and threatens to spark their engagement with controversy.
Archer, on behalf of his in-laws, announces his engagement to May in order to draw attention away from Countess Olenska, in an attempt to prevent scandal. It is here that Archer sets himself up as Olenska's defender - a role he fulfills both reluctantly and dutifully throughout most of the book.
In the beginning of the novel, when Archer's sister Janey begins gossiping about Countess Olenska's scandalous evening at a commoner's house, Archer replies: "Hang Countess Olenska...I'm not her keeper." (Wharton, 56)
When Countess Olenska decides to divorce her horrible 'brute' husband, Archer is the attorney assigned to her case. He halfheartedly continues to take interest in the Countess, as he does not desire to mar his social standing by marrying into a family with a looming divorce. Divorce, in the upper echelons of New York society, is considered damning. After Archer advises Countess Olenska against divorce, the van der Luydens, (New York's most influential family), attempt to bring her forward in their society.
The more Archer becomes involved with Olenska, the harder he finds it to escape her. Eventually, he realizes that he is drawn to Ellen Olenska not because of her need for guidance, but for her passion and slant view of life.
Unfortunately, both Archer and Ellen know that they must never marry or be united in any manner. Ellen decides that the only way they can truly love one another is to give each other up. Persuaded by societal pressures and family honor, Archer marries May despite his love for Ellen. Archer and Ellen continue to see one another after his marriage. However, his dreams of living a passionate life with Ellen fall away. They are deeply in love with one another, but decide not to pursue their feelings out of respect for May and societal obligation. Even after May's death, Archer chooses not to see Ellen.
The characters May Welland and Ellen Olenska are very different from one another. May is domesticated and sensible. She is the ideal wife for a proper man in New York at this time. May embodies old worldly sensibilities. Archer has the 'upper hand' when it comes to his relationship with May. She is controllable and respectful.
For example, Archer did not consider May conscious of the fact that she was, in any way, his equal. Although he fantasizes about intellectually liberating May while they are engaged, after their marriage he sees no potential for her intellectual growth. "It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all of his friends treated their wives...There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that that she was not free." (Wharton, 125)
May is depicted as being naive and highly devoted, the epitome of New York's old traditions. From Archer's point-of-view, May is unwaveringly and unusually childlike. She doesn't want to know the reality around her, and prefers to be protected from it. While in many ways, her character can be construed as being both manipulative and calculating.
Archer occasionally infers that May might be more aware of the world around her than he had anticipated. After their marriage, her thoughts and actions become more transparent. A year and a half after their marriage, Archer again has contact with Ellen.
May becomes a fervent opponent of her cousin Ellen, disregarding her prior loyalties. Before they can consummate their love affair, May strategically reveals to Ellen, prior medically confirming it, that she is pregnant with Archer's first child. This is what leads to the final separation of Archer and Ellen. This is one of the many instances in which May exercises her power over Archer. She is in essence, the typical high society female who feigns weakness in order to gain control of a male. Although there is little supporting text for this claim, it is insinuated by being left unsaid.
Countess Ellen Olenska is almost the exact opposite of May Welland. She is not traditional at all, nor is she intentionally manipulative. She is a symbolic reference of the future of New York society. Married to a philandering European Count, Ellen is initially driven to the pursuit of divorce. Divorce in early New York society, is the equivalent to ultimate social ruin. Even so, Ellen decides divorce is best. She cares little for societal rules or family aristocracies, as does May. While it is May's primary goal in life to be popular and traditional, it is Ellen's goal to be different and out of the public eye.
When Ellen first returns to New York, it is almost as if she is entirely unfamiliar with its social customs. Characters throughout the book spend time reminding Ellen of New York society's social rules, such as those surrounding divorce, which she is bent on breaking. Meanwhile, May would never dream of doing anything that could be construed as a movement against her family, husband, or tradition. Ellen is bohemian, while May is the ideal young woman of her time.
Ellen is a daring, intellectually awakened woman whose gift of self-realization enabled her to conform to the old custom of the society. This same self-realization also enabled her to break free from her old bondage. She is not held down by society's label of what a proper 'woman' should or should not do.
Newland Archer admires both women for their differences. He is caught in a continuous struggle between the old and new, between the custom and love, May and Ellen. Archer's way of thinking represents the present, but is clearly unable to break free from the old ways of society. He clings to May because of her hold on custom. She is a handsome, respectable woman of high society. He likewise clings to, and runs away from, Ellen because of her courageous plight to refuse to be defined by customs and social standards. Archer makes the safest choice he can - to marry May, who will preserve his future family's position in society.
The relationship between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is complex. Though they never consummate their love for one another, it continues to grow. Eventually, their love becomes so strained beneath the facade of custom, that they are forced to tear away from one another.
Archer and Ellen resemble and differ from one another in their outlook on the customs and values of society, and their speculation of life. Both characters dislike New York's social customs and protocol and are eccentric in their way of thinking, yet are willing to sacrifice their happiness. They differ in their ways of dealing with customary social injustice.
Archer is caught up in society's demand for social etiquette. He is able to think for himself, and disagrees with most of this etiquette, but he finds himself bound to it. Archer believes that he should fulfill his obligations as a husband and son. Though he longs to be with a woman that society has not prescribed to be his wife, he faithfully fulfills society's expectations of him.
Ellen is focused more on her own happiness. Although she was raised in New York society, her encounter with European culture made her more appreciative of art, love and happiness. She experiences some what of a culture shock when she is re-submerged into New York society.
It is through the character of Ellen that the author chooses to reveal the effects of one society upon another. Wharton "explores the international world of the "wretched exotic," the American affected by contact with Europe...the "safe, shallow, shadowless" world of Old New York society is threatened by the interloper Ellen Olenska, whose European upbringing has brought her into contact with a bohemian world of real writers and artists."
Joslin and Price, 11)
Like a "wretched exotic," Ellen claims that she does not know how to fulfill New York society's customary duties, and in the beginning she implies that she does not care to anyway. Ellen simply carries on as she wishes, and with whom she wishes, until her relatives insist that she adhere to some of their rules. She seems to want to make her family happy in addition to herself, as opposed to Archer who lives only to make others happy. In the end, they both choose to sacrifice themselves for the happiness of others - Ellen for Archer, and Archer for May.