Contradiction Between Innocence and Individuality in the Age of Innocence

Category: Age, Innocence
Last Updated: 11 Feb 2023
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Edith Wharton is acknowledged as one of the most important American female writers in the early 20th century, who produced many works of different types such as novels, poems, critic essays, travelling diaries and autobiographies. The Age of innocence, the most successful work, made her the first woman win Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Ellen Olenska and May Welland, are two female protagonists in The Age of Innocence. Through analysis on the omparison between different personalities of these two protagonists and society’s different attitudes towards them, the author of this paper attempts to argue that the conventionality of society is much weightier than the pursuit of individuality in that given era, yet the individuals, especially women should step out their circumscribed roles to realize their unique identity. Key Words: The Age of Innocence, individuality, innocence, convention Contradiction between Innocence and Individuality in The Age of Innocence


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Edith Wharton, novelist and writer of short fiction, was born into a carefully guarded upper class of New York society in 1862 and died in 1937. Her parents, George Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander, were from two aristocratic families that dominated New York society. Both her father’s and mother’s family protected her in the New York Four Hundred[1]. Though born in New York, Wharton was transformed by European culture and tradition because she once lived in France, Italy, Germany and Spain between the age of four and ten.

She herself insisted that after she returned to New York at the age of ten, she “never felt otherwise than as in exile in America. ” So deeply influenced by both European and American culture, Wharton produced a great number of fictions with the background of New York society and European experience. During her lifetime, Wharton published numerous works as a writer, including 86 short stories, 11 collections of short fiction, 22 works of large fiction, 3 collections of poetry, books on architecture and gardens, a travel book, a critical study called The Writing of Fiction, and an autobiography A Backward Glance.

Wharton achieved great accomplishment as a female writer in American literary history. Her most productive period as a novelist began with the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 and ended with the publication of The Age of Innocence in1920, which enabled her to become the first female writer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Elizabeth Ammon once argued that women “like Wharton, Cather and Stein” were “the real giants against whom” writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway “needed to define themselves. The Age of Innocence was the most sophisticated novel written by Edith Wharton in the year of 1920, when American women first had the right to vote. Wharton reviewed the 1870s New York upper-class society in the sight of 1920s. Like most of her works, The Age of Innocence tells a story about love and marriage among three characters: Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska and May Welland. Young lawyer Newland and beautiful girl May announce their engagement at the party for welcoming the return of Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin who was born in New York but later has grown up in Europe and married a wealthy Polish Count.

Ellen comes back to New York for her family’s support and comfort because of her husband’s unfaithfulness. However, as she claims to divorce, the whole family as well as the whole Old New York society strongly opposes to it for they regard divorce as scandal and humiliation. So they send Newland to persuade Ellen from her decision. However, Newland is gradually fascinated by Ellen’s confidence, sophistication and individuality, which he never feels from his innocent fiancee and inevitably falls in love with her.

He hesitates between the two totally different women and vacillates whether he run off with Ellen to live a life with moral freedom and personal fulfillment or marry May to live a decent life accepted by the whole upper class though he still loves Ellen. Later, he actually marries May but after their marriage, Newland dates with Ellen frequently and has planned to elope with her to Europe. However, to everyone’s surprise, May’s announcement of pregnancy smashes Newland’s wish thoroughly. It traps Newland in the excruciating marriage and expels Ellen from New York society.

Thus, at the end of the story, the three characters all surrender to their destiny. Many major literary critics and authors have reviewed The Age of Innocence. The list of writers and scholars who have reviewed it includes such important figures as Carl Van Doren, Henry Seidel Canby, William Lyon Phelps and Vernon L. Parrington. The criticism of The Age of Innocence is roughly divided into two categories: Naturalism and Feminism. The former one thinks that this novel is influenced by Wharton’s growing background and the vast change of society.

The latter one holds the opinion that the novel expresses the female constrain and rebellion. Both of the two views make sense. The Age of Innocence gives us a portrait of Old New York society in 1870s, a particular moment in history when individuality is shunned and a set of social rituals and conventions are enforced. During that period, it is common that the intellectuals, artists and writers are not welcomed by Old New York society members for they would probably bring about ideas and opinions that are disconcerting.

On the contrary, most members believe that they have the duty to follow the rules and conventions upheld by Old New York society, and few of them are able to get rid of them and take their lives into their own hands. However, Ellen Olenska, the leading female protagonist in The Age of Innocence, as an alien and invader of Old New York society, is against those rigid conventions to a large extent. Brought up in Europe, Ellen has become a kind of female maintaining her own individuality which does not exist in those New York women at all.

It is exactly this kind of individuality that conflicts against the national celebration of female innocence.

Individuality and Innocence in The Age of Innocence

Literary works always have their female protagonists as “heroines”. It is generally accepted that men are born to develop their individual identities while women are doomed to serve men. They should be “relative to men. To please them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to make life sweet and agreeable to them——these are the duties of women at all times, and what should be taught them from their infancy. (Rousseau 1966, p. 263) So in many men’s novels, women usually serve as the mere subordinate characters. However, in Wharton’s novels, the female figures weigh as important as male figures. Just as Mary Kelly once pointed out, the female figure in Wharton’s novels is “a strong, commanding, central figure in the home, a supportive and guiding redeemer for husband; a model and teacher of rectitude for children; and a reformer of and servant to an American society judged to be in dire need of regeneration. Yet on the other hand, “an undercurrent of despair runs throughout the novels which question the possibility of women’s autonomy and individuality. ” (Dudovitz 1900, p. 88) The idea is well presented in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. There are two sharply contrasted female characters: Ellen Olenska and May Welland. May Welland is a charming young girl with the careful bringingup in Old New York society who represents innocence. On the contrary, Ellen Olenska, the disturbing element of that society, is a dark, passionate beauty touched with the xperience and idea of Europe who represents individuality.

Ellen’s Individualistic

Qualities Ellen Olenska, one of the female protagonists in The Age of Innocence, is born in an aristocratic family of formidable social background in New York. However, her parents were dead when she was a little girl. So she grows up in Paris full of music and art with her aunt, Mrs. Medora Manson, a lady being independent. This distinguishes Ellen from the characters of those typical New Yorkers in The Age of Innocence. Unlike the innocent May, Ellen is mysterious and attracts all people’s eyes.

In the opening scene of the novel, when those aristocrats are watching the opera “Faust” in the new Opera House, Ellen’s first appearance makes all people shocked because she is “a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds…which gave her what was then called ‘Josephine look’, …carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a laree old-fashioned clasp. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 7) When she was a little child, Ellen “scandalized” (ibid. p. 52) her family because she “was in crimson merino and amber beads, like a gipsy foundling” (ibid. , p. 53), and was “a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerting questions, made precocious comments, and possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar” (ibid. , p. 53). Unlike her other cousins growing up in the respectively restricted atmosphere, Ellen receives “expensive but incoherent education” which makes her incompatible with the society, and thus she is doomed to isolation and separation from the old New York society.

Ellen leaves her unfaithful husband in Europe for the comforts from her family members in New York. However, when she returns, she notices that everything has changed from her memory. And through a series of events, it can be concluded that Ellen is a sincere, strong-minded, independent and sophisticated person with strong individuality. Beauvoir says, “It is required of woman that in order to realize her femininity, she must make herself object and prey which is to say that she must renounce her claims as sovereign subject.

It is this conflict that especially marks the situation of the emancipated woman. ” (Beauvoir 1953, p. 643) Ellen is such kind of emancipated woman with courage and independence. When she comes back to New York for comfort, her past brings her not sympathy but endless rumors and mocks among those so-called aristocrats. In order to seek freedom, Ellen leaves her unfaithful husband and returns to New York. However, her word and behaviors are striking and intolerable to most of the New Yorkers who are always devoted to keeping their circle decent and conventional.

Ellen’s individuality is reflected in her confrontment with different men. Soon after she arrives in New York, she breaks the conventional rules of the old society and seeks the company of gentlemen at the party. What she has done makes people uncomfortable because the old pattern requires that a lady “should wait, immovable as an idol, while the man who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 56) Her individuality can also be found in her style of dressing and her house decoration.

She appears first in a decollete, showing her neck and shoulder. She chooses unadorned dark velvet for the opera, a fur-trimmed lounging robe at home-clothes. And her house is kind of foreign style full of old romantic scenes and sentiment, as “the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses. ” (ibid. , p. 45) What’s more, Ellen is brave enough to renounce her rights. In the Old New York society at that time, the richer the husband is, the less freedom his wife will own.

As Ellen realizes that her marriage can no longer continue, she is courageous enough to leave her husband, a noble count with vast fortune and return to her hometown. Unfortunately, her clan as well as the whole New York society is not her backup but the obstacle. They only welcome her on condition that she doesn't bring them unpleasant decisions which will probably destroy the decency of the upper class. Here, Ellen is trapped in a dilemma that her true self is in contradiction with her role in Old New York society.

For one, she may win the support of society once she decides to return to her husband. For another, she will lose all the support of society if she insists on divorce. At that time, the legislation was for the divorce while the social convention was against it. At last, driven by her strong desire for seeking individuality, Ellen makes up her mind to give up that marriage and insists in a legal opinion on her divorce. Ellen’s individuality is also reflected in her attitude to Newland. Though deeply affected by each other, Ellen refuses to be the mistress of him because she s clearly aware that if she sinks into this helpless love, she and Newland will be torn into pieces by the harsh reality. Look what Ellen responses when Newland asks her to elope with him: “For us? But there is no us in that sense! We are near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we are only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 243)

So, she rejects Newland’s fantasy and persuades him to face the reality by her rationality and individuality. She cannot aimlessly yield to the social conventions by giving up her mind and soul. The road for individuality is full of obstacles and people keep telling her that she will lead a better life if she gives up her idea of freedom and individuality. However, she sticks to her own perseverance and bravely put herself against the social customs.

May’s Artificial Qualities

May Welland is Newland’s fiancee and succeeds in being his wife later. She is an innocent and dull girl accepted by the whole New York society. It is generally acknowledged that the most salable woman is this virginal girl who is the commodity needed by this materialistic world —— a girl without soul, without self, distorted and twisted from her true nature into a marketable product. (Cerrito 1999, p. 372) In Newland’s as well as Old New York society’s eye, May represents all the merit of aristocratic class. She is “innocent” because she is a loving and sweet New York upper-class girl who simply doesn't conceive that “what they do” and “what they say”.

Born into the upper-class family, she receives good training that suits the conventions of her class. She has been taught to remain graceful and noble, ignoring all the unpleasant things and avoiding all the difficulties. During their engagement, Newland sends her lilies of the valley every day, which represents virginal purity. And during a long period, Newland supposes that his wife is an innocent and ignorant girl knowing nothing about evil and disturbing things. Only at the end of the story does he realize that May is actually complicated and calculating. However, the “innocent” here can e interpreted that she is conventional, unimaginative and does not think for herself, only to ingratiate the society’s expectations. As Newland points out, May is a “product of social system” (Wharton 1996, p. 7), a “creation of factitious purity” (ibid. , p. 41) that is blind to reality like “the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. ” (ibid. , p. 73) May is interested in books, but she cannot appreciate the beauty of contents in Ulysses even with the help of Archer’s explanation. She has little sense of humor which is obvious from her reaction to Newland’s jokes. She is frank, because she has nothing to conceal, assured because she knows nothing to be on her guard against. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 41) As a girl of dependence, May actually follows what adults want her to do and say and she is inclined to her mother’ opinion of a long engagement, just for the reason of “having time to prepare a hand-embroidered trousseau containing the proper number of dozens. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 70) Therefore, in spite of her attracting appearance, she lacks all the charming qualities which Ellen obtains to catch the eyesight of Newland.

It is mainly due to the background and surroundings where she has grown up. Under such kind of atmosphere, May as well as the other women in the Old New York society gets in touch with little advanced ideas and thus, what they consider right is merely to follow the social conventions. However, May is not as “innocent” as she looks like. She distinguishes Newland’s feeling towards Ellen at the rather early time, but she pretends to know nothing about it. She keeps silent and remains loyal to Newland even though she suspects the relationship between Newland and Ellen.

There is much evidence which can support the statement that May is not so innocent. It can be first identified from Beaufort’s ball when Newland asks about Ellen’s absence. She answers that it is because of the dressing problem that Ellen decides not to appear at the ball. Actually, she knows about the truth that Ellen doesn't come for fear that her scandals may influence her clan’s reputation. Even facing the one she loves, May still doesn't tell the truth. She says and does everything in correspondence with the social conventions rather than her true feelings.

In the early time of their engagement, when Newland persuades May to advance their wedding, she responds: “Is it because you are not certain of continuing to care for me? Is there someone else? I’ve wanted to say this for a long time… I’ve wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand there may be situations which make it right that they should- should go against public opinions. And if you feel yourself in anyway pledged…and if there is any way, even by her getting divorce, Newland, don't give her up because of me! ” (ibid. , p. 127) How beautiful and attracting of what she has said!

However, when she really feels that Newland cannot help yielding to the relationship with sophisticated Ellen, she advances the date of their wedding just the moment he thinks of breaking the engagement. After they get married, when feeling their intention to elope to the other country, May persuades Ellen to leave New York by confiding the news of her pregnancy, though she herself doesn't confirm whether it is true or not. Thus, Ellen gives up her decision to continue having an affair with Newland and later returns to Europe. Besides, May’s announcement also pulls back Newland for the responsibility of being a husband and father.

Contradiction between Individuality and Innocence

In The Age of Innocence, there are two female protagonists with totally different personalities though they have blood relation. Ellen represents the kind of “New Women” seeking for freedom and individuality, while May stands for the traditional women in Old New York society, graceful and innocent. It can be easily identified that May and Ellen are two different kinds of women by comparison of their dressing style and the way they express their ideas and many other aspects. When creating the image of May Welland, Wharton alludes to using Roman myths and the image of Roman goddesses.

Brought up in Old New York society, May has received perfect traditional education like other women in her circle. So she owns all the virtues which the society is fond of — beauty, reservation, obedience and innocence. When May appears at the opera at the beginning of the novel, with her pink face and fair hair, she is dressed in white tulle caught modestly at her breasts with a gardenia and is holding a bouquet of lilies of the valley. In western culture, lily of the valley represents not only purity but also the Roman Goddess Diana[2](Artemis).

And in this novel, Wharton makes several explicit analogies of May and Diana. For example, when May makes her second formal entry to the Van Der Leyden’s dinner party, it is depicted as follows, “in her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like a Diana just alight from the chase. ” (Wharton 1996, p. 62) In the contest of archery, she comes out of the tent “in her white dress, with a pale green ribbon about the waist and a wreath of ivy on her hat, she had the same Diana-like aloofness…” (Wharton 1996, p. 11) All of these quotations indicate that May is pure and vigorous like Diana. However, just as puzzled as Newland Archer, “what if ‘niceness’ arrived to that supreme degree was ‘only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness? ’” (Wharton 1996, p. 212) Through Newland’s puzzlement, Wharton indicates that May’s gracefulness is only a kind of superficial presentation, behind of which is an empty and bland mind. It also indicates that May’s so-called innocence is a kind of cover because Goddess Diana, who represents purity and innocence, usually becomes ruthless when she tries to protect her own family.

So May Welland, who knows very much about Old New York society, protects her own interests by the powerful traditional force from her aristocratic class and finally expels her cousin Ellen from New York. To some extent, May is the symbol of Old New York society. On one hand, she represents the moral value orientation of Old New York society, such a superficially harmonious, stable and responsible family relation. On the other hand, she represents the nature of Old New York society that kills people without spilling blood with the graceful appearance. In contrast with May’s innocent image, Ellen is more authentic. rought up in Europe and influenced by European culture, Ellen is full of the quality of freedom and independence. In order to get rid of the miserable marriage, she comes back to New York, hoping she would gain comfort and support from her relatives. However, what she has thought about is not acceptable for the upper class of Old New York society. Ellen’s unique personality and exotic style are displayed from her way of dressing and decorating her house. Unlike her sister May’s white dress and silver blossom, Ellen is dressed in dark blue velvet gown.

And while May is linked to white lilies of the valley, Ellen is linked to red and yellow roses. These all indicate that Ellen is full of vitality, passion and sophistication. Unlike those New Yorkers’ indifference, Ellen expresses her own feelings and views frankly towards different people and objects. Ellen’s individuality is also shown from her sympathy and her attitude towards the servants. Ignoring the conventions and rituals held by the upper class of Old New York society, Ellen just does what she thinks is right.

When her servant goes out, she lends her own cloak to her, ignoring others’ strange glances. To some degree, Ellen stands for the new trend in Old New York society. Her image symbolizes a group of “New Women” seeking for freedom and individuality who are influenced by different kinds of trends of thought in literature and art. However, Old New York society still has the predominant status and it is still hard to pass through its value orientation and moral standard. That's why it is impossible for Old New York society to accept Ellen’s unique individuality. Old New York Society in The Age of Innocence In The Age of Innocence, the story is based upon the background of New York society in the 1870s. After the Civil War, America underwent considerable social changes. It was just in the age of transformation to a new world from the old one. With the economic boost, the society changed to some extent. There were two rising groups despite the traditional aristocrats. One was the newly arrived immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the South. The other one was the newly moneyed classes with large possession but low social status.

To Old New York society, these two groups were the invaders and intruders. Heedless of tradition, the newborn riches and immigrants shocked Old New York society with there unfettered manners and their brash displays of wealth. However, it did not mean that the conventions and the rituals would also change. At that time, the social conventions and the popularity of keeping silence still dominated the society. People living in that circle were required to obey the rules and were forbidden to fight against the setting rules.

That is to say, it was the particular time and place that individuality was shunned and a set of rituals and conventions were enforced. During that period, people with free ideas and creative thinking were not welcomed by Old New York society. On the contrary, most members believed that they had the duty to follow the rules and conventions upheld by Old New York society, and few of them were able to get rid of them and take their lives into their own hands.

The Social Values of Old New York Society

In The Age of Innocence, Old New York society refers to the time of 1870s in New York. Though new ideas and improvement flourish throughout the outside world of America, they have never penetrated the conventions of Old New York or changed its long-lasting ritual in any way. This aristocratic class tries its best to fight against creation and innovation. Isolated from the outside world, the society copies itself from generation to generation in its own way. In the novel, we often see children growing up in imitation of their parents. Henry and Louisa van de Luyden dominate this Old New York society through their aristocratic European ancestry.

May Archer dies with fulfillment, leaving a daughter resembling her very much. Besides these characters, the public scenes also repeat themselves year after year. The opera circulates itself season after season and the diamond arrow won from the archery match is passed on to the children. Old New York society consists of prominent families. They are classified by hierarchy according to their blood lineage and financial capacity. Usually, the former one is much more important than the latter one. As a matter of fact, the mention of money is disturbing.

They talk about it and try to think about it as little as possible. Those new-rich without noble blood relation are usually looked down upon by those self-contained aristocrats. One of the most obvious characteristic of Old New York society is the “gender specification”. In the novel, many places are gender specific: men go to their libraries talking about politics, finance and other issues after dinner while women use the dining room and the drawing room. In such a male-dominated Old New York society, woman always plays a role as decoration and property of husband and “the perfect wife and mother”.

And the society is in favor of the girls who possess those feminine virtues such as modesty, purity, obedience, gracefulness and innocence. On the other hand, the society doesn't like those girls who pursue freedom and individuality. Another significant figure of Old New York society is the “dread of innovation”. People are reluctant to change and experience those newly-born things as they may offend their existing conventions and rituals. They are used to those traditions which represent truth in their view. For them, new ideas are as dreadful and fierce as floods and savage beasts.

Attitude toward Ellen’s Individuality

According to the existing conventions and family purity, Old New York society regards Ellen as doubtful as mushrooms. Although she is born from the Mingott family, her orphanage and long-time living abroad makes her different from those typical New York girls such as May Welland. So Old New York society regards Ellen as an outsider and intruder to their circle. It is widely believed that those fossil New Yorkers like innocent young women more than sophisticated women. Ellen’s orphanage, her experience of living in Europe and her scandal with her Polish husband all challenge the acknowledgement of Old New York society.

When Ellen first appears in front of everyone’s eyes, the whole society is shocked because they have never met such kind of woman with strong individuality. They are shocked by both her dressing and her behavior. The way of Ellen’s dressing arouses great disturbance to the upper-class of Old New York society. It is indicated from Leffert’s reaction, the foremost authority of the upper-class of Old New York society. When he sees Ellen at the first sight, he cries out “my god” and concludes that she could not be one of the Mingott because the Mingott would not dress in that way.

If Ellen’s dressing and behavior are shocking to Old New York society, then her decision to divorce might be the blockbuster to them. In Old New York society, it has double standard on the issue of marriage. To be more specific, it demands woman of her completely loyalty to her husband and marriage while man is not required to obey so in the same level. When betrayal happens, it is always woman who is to blame. Although Ellen’s unsuccessful marriage is due to her husband’s unfaithfulness, Leffert still finds it unacceptable of Ellen’s choice to divorce.

So when Ellen’s Grandma Mrs. Mingott holds a welcome party for her, he refuses to take part in. As Leffert enjoys high prestige and commands universal respect, other members of the society all follow him and reject the invitation. As a result, no one appears at that party. The refusal to accept Ellen by the whole Old New York society reveals that all people are firmly in favor of conventions and against the nonconformity. In that case, social conformity is much weightier than the pursuit of personal happiness and freedom.

In 1870s, it is the time when Old New York society tries their best to exclude the outsiders because they are afraid of destroying their long-lasting rituals. The flourish of bourgeoisie class forces the upper-class to fasten their pace to assert the endangering conventions. For instance, the Van der Luydens are repeatedly required to support the existing rituals. For those New Yorkers, Ellen is too foreign and fashionable, and thus her appearance is the potential threat to the conformity of their circle. She has stayed abroad for so long that they can hardly regard her as their comrade.

Her unimaginable idea of divorce with her unfaithful husband is undoubtedly unacceptable to the upper-class. What’s more, Ellen’s spiritual “date” with Newland is another important reason that banishes her from Old New York society. It is her misfortune that Old New York society at that time is hypocritical and marble-hearted.

Attitude toward May’s Innocence

Unlike Old New York society’s attitude toward Ellen, May is always welcomed by this circle. In the upper-class of New York, people are more afraid of scandals and rumors than diseases because they think decency is much more important than individuality.

In their opinion, keeping stable, unchanged and being innocent, obedient is much weightier than pursuing personal fulfillment. Living in Old New York society since she was born, May is undoubtedly sincere, innocent and sensitive which is in accordance to the society: “In Old New York society the most salable woman, is the virginal child bride, May Welland, who is commodity demanded by a materialistic world——a woman without soul, without self, distorted and twisted from her true nature into a marketable product. (Cerrito 1999, p. 372) As is mentioned above, May is the most salable woman in Old New York society, which means she is widely welcomed and accepted in that circle. The New York society needs this kind of conventional woman who is without any thought and imagination for change. Brought up by the society, May always obeys all the conventions held by this society and always satisfies the New York society’s and her family’s expectation. In other words, May is the ideal woman in patriarchal system in Old New York society.

In this society, it is regarded that women are the subordination of men and is required that women should be fully dependent on men. It is hard to imagine that women have the same rights as men. To this extent, May perfectly matches Old New York society, for “she is virtuous because she is incapable of temptation, competent because she is incapable of any deep perturbation, and willing to suit herself to the least decorum of their world because she is incapable of understanding that there is anywhere anything larger or freer. ”(Carl 1920, p. 86) 4 Conclusion Not as a “writer of manner” as some critics comment on Edith Wharton, she is an outstanding female writer who seeks for the true meaning of life. During her lifetime, she has devoted to keeping the balance between personal desire and social responsibilities. Although born in an aristocratic family in New York, Wharton discloses the limitations and demerits of her class in a rather cruel way when she writes different novels. Among them, The Age of Innocence is one typical representative which has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence not just about the lost love, but also about the profound distress caused by the destruction of World War I and by the deaths of her close friends such as Henry James and Howard Sturgis, all of which indicated that the former era had ended. This novel was written in 1920 when World War I had just finished. After that disaster, the world, especially the New York society, was out of order both materially and spiritually. Under the circumstances, Wharton was puzzled so that she decided to write a story with the settings in 1870s in Old New York society.

Compared to the reality, Old New York society was much more stable. However, she was also aware that stable as it was, it would strangle all the personal fulfillment and freedom because of its social conventions and rituals. In the 1870s, though Old New York society has experienced great changes, it is not to say that the new social order is free of norms. It is a society which is frightened by change that it absolutely stands for obedience and innocence against creativity and individuality. At that time, women are never given the chance to enjoy economic independence like men.

Besides, there are many conventions existing in Old New York society. Women are encouraged to play the role as “perfect wife and mother” and to tolerate the betrayal of their husbands. All in all, it is concluded that the core of the conventions and rituals in Old New York society is that woman should play passive roles in social affairs and should live for the whole family other than for her own happiness. It is represented in The Age of Innocence by the two protagonists May Welland and Ellen Olenska.

It is illustrated how Ellen’s individuality challenges the long-time accepted “innocence”, and how Old New York society sustains its rules and conventions by oppressing Ellen’s individuality and encouraging May’s obedience to “innocence”. As a representative of traditional woman in Old New York society, May obeys all the rules regulated by the patriarchal society. On the other hand, as a representative of “New Woman” in Old New York society, Ellen challenges the traditional woman’s role and tries to be the kind of women of rationality, independence and individuality.

As a result, it is concluded that through the contradiction between Ellen’s individuality and May’s “innocence”, the conventionality of society is much weightier than the pursuit of individuality in that given era, yet the individuals, especially women should step out their circumscribed roles to realize their unique identity.


[1] Aaron, D 1995, ‘Three Old Women’, Queens Quarterly, pp. 633-639. [2] Benstock, S 1994, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. [3] Carl, VD 1920, ‘An Elder America’, the Nation, November 3. [4] Cerrito & Joann & Laurie 1999, Modern American Literature, St.

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