Title: Ironic Structure and Untold Stories in The Age of Innocence

Author(s): Kathy Miller Hadley

Publication Details: Studies in the Novel 23.2 (Summer 1991): p262-272.

Source: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning

[In the following essay, the critic describes the three story lines Wharton considered for The Age of Innocence and discusses the significance of the structure and perspective she eventually selected for the novel's final version.]

In her 1920 The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton presents a story which, on the surface, is a man's story, and which in many ways appears to be a conventional nineteenth-century romance. These things appear to be so because Wharton tells the story from Newland Archer's point of view, focusing on his consciousness and the way he deals with the potential love triangle in which he finds himself. But as Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, while nineteenth-century authors made certain “that Bildung and romance could not coexist and be integrated for the heroine at the resolution,” twentieth-century women writers are “writing beyond” such endings, breaking the narrative structure which says that women must ultimately sacrifice their questing to marriage, or die. In The Age of Innocence, Wharton writes beyond a traditional nineteenth-century ending by ironically undermining the structure of the novel and its focus on Newland Archer, a would-be American hero, and by drawing the reader's attention to the untold stories of Ellen Olenska and May Welland.

Wharton's careful structuring of The Age of Innocence is evidenced by the three different plans she outlined for the novel. In the first version, May and Archer break their engagement. Archer is shocked when Ellen responds to his proposal by suggesting that they spend a few weeks together to make sure of their feelings for each other. Ellen and Newland marry despite Archer's misgivings but eventually separate because Ellen's soul “recoils” from the prospect of an old New York marriage. Ellen returns to Europe, where “She is very poor, & very lonely, but she has a real life”; Archer returns to his mother's house. Apparently this version of the novel would have emphasized Ellen's ability to act and to cause extensive changes in the lives of others.

Wharton's second plan calls for a much more conventional novel: Archer marries May and has a brief affair with Ellen, who then returns to Europe. Discussing these plans, Alan Price concludes that Wharton shifted the focus from Ellen to Archer in the second version partly because: “she could not be confident [in her first plan] that her readers would share her sympathy for a woman who broke up the engagement of a nice girl, suggested a trial marriage, and then abandoned her husband because she thought New York's seasonal social life was dull.”

The third plan again has Archer marrying May but having an affair with Ellen. Although everyone else surmises that Newland and Ellen are lovers, May “suspects nothing.” As a Catholic, Ellen cannot divorce, so she could not marry Newland even if he left May. But Ellen again grows tired of New York and her affair with Archer and returns to “the freedom and variety of her European existence”. The final dinner for Ellen in versions two and three is simply a good-bye, not the ritual of ostracism it becomes in the finished novel.

By the time she had completed The Age of Innocence in its published form, Wharton had made Ellen Olenska an ostensibly minor character, while Newland Archer became the novel's central figure. As Wharton's chosen center of consciousness, Newland appears to be a traditional American hero: the American male whose search for a new frontier, according to such critics as Henry Nash Smith and Richard Chase, makes this country's literature distinctly American. Discussing the way the myth of the American hero has displaced women writers from the canon and has trivialized women characters in fiction, Nina Baym says that the myth entails “the pure American self” confronting “the promise offered by the idea of America ... that in this new land, untrammeled by history and social accident, a person will be able to achieve complete self-definition.” Society becomes “something artificial and secondary to human nature” which “exerts an unmitigatedly destructive pressure on individuality.” Because both society and landscape are “depicted in unmistakably feminine terms,” the American hero is realized as the opposite of the feminine, and the myth becomes exclusively male.

The American hero's story becomes, in effect, a male bildungsroman; thus Archer, whose first name refers to the American hero's quest for a new land, struggles with his romantic triangle and his need for self-definition. Newland persistently fails to define himself, however. Married to May for a year, he contrasts his present life with his “vision of the past” and muses, “What am I? A son-in-law—.” At the end of the novel, Newland reminisces about having “risen up at the call” to politics (dropping “thankfully” into obscurity when not re-elected), and of having been “a good citizen” and “what was called a faithful husband.” To the end, Wharton emphasizes that Newland is defined by his social roles.

May is originally the frontier on which Newland plans to exercise his selfhood. She is to be a “miracle of fire and ice,” both passion and purity, which he will create by his “enlightening companionship.” But Newland relinquishes this goal after his wedding, concluding that “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free,” an assumption based largely on the “most tranquil unawareness” Newland believes he sees in May's eyes.

Ellen is the promising landscape; for Newland, this quite unfree woman comes to represent the freedom of a world different from his own. Sitting beside Ellen in his wife's carriage, Newland tells her, “The only reality to me is this.” When Ellen asks if he wants her to be his mistress, the flustered Newland replies:

I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won't exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.

This is the new-land of Archer's name. What he really wants is the ability to move between May's and Ellen's worlds without any cost to himself, and without deciding between the two worlds. That Newland seeks a dream world rather than an actual place is suggested by the fact that he had previously rejected the possibility of a physical quest. When Ned Winsett had spoken of emigrating, Newland had thought, “Emigrate! As if a gentleman could abandon his own country!” Ironically, one of the few physical journeys Newland does make is his flight from Ellen to Florida, where he begs May to hasten their wedding—with the result that Ellen can be, at most, his mistress. Ellen sees through his romanticized longing for another world and responds, “Oh, my dear—where is that country?”

Wharton undermines her own form throughout the novel, writing beyond the story about Newland Archer to convey a sense of the women characters that her attention to her audience and to acceptable forms removed from center stage. Beside Newland's bildungsroman is that of Ellen Olenska, whose search is manifested by a physical journey—“home” to New York, then back again to Europe. Wharton makes it clear that Ellen's return to New York is a type of quest. At the van der Luydens' dinner, Newland assures Ellen that she is “among friends.” She answers, “Yes—I know. Wherever I go I have that feeling. That's why I came home. I want to forget everything else, to become a complete American again” (my emphasis).

Not that Ellen's journey to New York involves a wholesale acceptance of its ways. She refuses to live with her grandmother because she “had to be free,” and she moves away from the social center of New York to be surrounded by artists, as she was in France. When Archer tells her that her house is in an unfashionable quarter, she says, “Why not make one's own fashions? But,” she concedes, “I suppose I've lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what you all do—I want to feel cared for and safe.” She continues, “Being here is like—like—being taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all one's lessons.” She appeals to Newland for help with learning how to fit in: “But you'll explain these things to me—you'll tell me all I ought to know.” Newland responds, “It's you who are telling me: opening my eyes to things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see them.” He has turned Ellen's appeal for help around, thus refocusing her energies, and the reader's on his quest. Newland is unable to truly help Ellen because he is so self-absorbed.

Ellen's respect for the ways of old New York becomes increasingly tinged with skepticism. She soon begins to see New York differently: It is no longer a haven. Ellen's early ability to see through the van der Luydens' reclusiveness anticipates her increasing ability to make her own informed judgments about New York and to decide whether or not her quest should end there. Newland, trying to steer Ellen away from the influence of Julius Beaufort, assures her that the older women “want to help you.” Ellen answers, “on condition that they don't hear anything unpleasant ... Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” Ellen has already discovered that she must continue to be a “good little girl” if she is to get along in New York; her success there depends on behaving to please others, as children must do, and stifling her adult views and feelings. If she fails to do so, Ellen may, like a bad little girl, lose her allowance.

In a later scene, Newland (not yet married) confesses his love for Ellen and speaks of their freeing themselves for each other. But Ellen rejects Newland's plan because of the sense of loyalty he has made her feel: “you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before—and it's better than anything I've known.” Ellen's words suggest that Wharton wants the reader to view Newland positively, as a champion of loyalty, kindness, and concern. But while Ellen sees his advice that she give up her divorce suit as evidence of Newland's strong moral character, Newland was simply representing the family's view when he gave her that advice. By speaking for the family and urging Ellen not to divorce, Newland has, in effect, sabotaged his own quest. Finding that they are now inconvenient to him, he is willing to overthrow the principles for which he had stood. Ellen, however, refuses to do so.

In this scene, Ellen also tells of Granny's revealing how New York sees her.

I was perfectly unconscious at first that people here were shy of me—that they thought I was a dreadful sort of person ... New York simply meant peace and freedom to me: it was coming home.

She tries to explain to Archer the way this realization has affected her: “I was lonely; I was afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.” This is a critical stage in Ellen's quest. She has learned to find comfort and strength within herself, rather than seeking them in the external world. She is now able to leave New York (returning only when her grandmother has a stroke), so that she does not disrupt Newland's and May's wedding. But Archer responds, “I don't understand you!” He still assumes that a woman needs a man to sustain her; earlier in their confrontation, when she cried “I can't love you unless I give you up,” he had retorted, “And Beaufort? Is he to replace me?” Newland, unable to comprehend Ellen's psychological self reliance, continues to think that she is simply rejecting him in favor of another man.

Because she is seen through Newland's eyes and appears primarily as a factor in his quest, much of Ellen's story is untold. Discussing the politics of the untold story, DuPlessis says:

To compose a work is to negotiate with these questions: What stories can be told? How can plots be resolved? What is felt to be narratable by both literary and social conventions? Indeed, these are issues very acute to certain feminist critics and women writers, with their senses of the untold story, the other side of a well-known tale.

Wharton negotiates such questions by constantly reminding us that Ellen's is an untold story. She ironically invites the reader to speculate about Ellen's story by focusing on Newland's obsessive curiosity about it—a curiosity that is fed by Ellen's own willingness to leave her story untold. In this way, Newland's quest becomes largely a search for information about Ellen's.

In Ellen's legal file, Newland finds a letter from her husband which he tells himself contains “the vague charge of an angry blackguard”—that Ellen had had an affair with his secretary. Yet Newland wonders, “how much truth was behind it? Only Count Olenski's wife could tell.” Many of Newland's subsequent conversations with Ellen involve attempts to answer this question. Initially, he gropes for a denial, but Ellen does not give one. When he asks what she thinks she can gain by divorcing her distant husband, Ellen says, “But my freedom—is that nothing?” Newland concludes that “the charge in the letter was true, and that she hoped to marry the partner of her guilt.” For Newland, apparently, Ellen's freedom does mean nothing; he assumes that she would only want to be free from one man in order to marry (i.e., relinquish her freedom to) another.

Unsettled by Ellen's failure to deny having an affair, Newland “rambled on” in “his intense desire to cover over the ugly reality which her silence seemed to have laid bare.” Newland needs to know whether or not Ellen has had an affair because for him it is important to keep women in categories: he remembers how young men make an “abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied,” He tries to tell himself that in Europe, there might arise situations “in which a woman naturally sensitive and aloof would yet, from the force of circumstances ... be drawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards.” Newland is clearly uncomfortable with such a scenario, however; only when Ellen implicitly denies her husband's accusation, saying “I had nothing to fear from that letter,” is Newland ready to commit himself to her.

Contrasted with Ellen's bildungsroman is May's seemingly conventional romance. But Wharton undermines May's romance plot, as well. One of the more obvious ways in which Wharton wrote beyond a traditional nineteenth-century novel ending was her handling of Newland's and May's wedding. Rather than concluding the novel with Archer's feelings for Ellen resolved beforehand, as it would have a conventional novel, the wedding begins Book II of The Age of Innocence. Structurally, placing the wedding here suggests a new beginning, but in fact Newland's conflict continues—and intensifies—once he is married.

The wedding itself is an extremely ironic occasion. It takes place the Tuesday after Easter, a holiday that symbolizes regeneration, new life, hope; yet, as Virginia Blum notes, the service is “cast in funereal language.” Newland compares his wedding with an Opera night and wonders if, “when the Last Trump sounded, Mrs. Selfridge Merry would be there with the same towering ostrich feathers in her bonnet, and Mrs. Beaufort with the same diamond earrings and the same smile—and whether suitable proscenium seats were already prepared for them in another world.” With this imagery, Wharton juxtaposes the two traditional nineteenth-century novel endings: marriage and death become one. Newland cannot concentrate on the ceremony; he looks for Ellen, and misses half of the bridal procession.

Placing the wedding in the center of the novel suggests that The Age of Innocence will fit another pattern that developed early in the twentieth-century: novels “which either begin with [the heroine's] marriage or launch her rapidly into it, and concern a working out of her identity within or against the context of the marriage.” Wharton does not work out May's identity, however; May's story, like Ellen's remains untold. The difference is that, while Newland becomes obsessed with Ellen's story, he has almost no curiosity about his wife's. He prefers the potentially scandalous past of another woman even to the present of his own wife who, he assumes, has no past worth his notice.

Newland discounts May's experience because he perceives her as completely innocent. In fact, we see May only through his eyes; Newland projects his ideal of innocence onto May (just as he projects an aura of secrecy onto Ellen). May appears to be the innocent of the novel's title, but she is not, and Newland must misinterpret his interactions with May in order to continue viewing her as innocent. When May questions his reason for wanting to hasten their wedding, Newland recognizes her insight. But when she “flushed with joy” at his assurance that “There is no pledge—no obligation whatever—of the kind you think,” May “seemed to have descended from her womanly eminence to helpless and timorous girlhood.” Ironically, he is disappointed with May for believing that he is telling the truth.

This scene also indicates May's “potential for growth and change.” This potential is what Archer does not see. One of the few times in the novel that he really looks at his wife is near the end, when he “was struck by something languid and inelastic in her attitude” and briefly “wondered if the deadly monotony of their lives had laid its weight on her also.” He does not consider that she may suspect his feelings for Ellen, much less that she may be pregnant. Newland then trivializes what he sees by attributing May's languid demeanor to the fact that he had forgotten to meet her at her grandmother's that day.

Only in the novel's penultimate chapter, at the dinner for Ellen, does Archer realize how much his wife has suspected and how often she has acted. “And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers... he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything.” The “means” had culminated in May's telling Ellen she was pregnant, before she knew for certain; and in telling this lie, May was “acting with the knowledge and approval of the family,” as Judith Fryer notes. Fryer says that “Because of the way we are used to reading novels, the romance of Newland and Ellen at first obscures the force of the countersubject: the inexorableness of the offensive launched by the women” against Ellen (my emphasis). Wharton gives us what appears to be a traditional novel and then surprises us with this most powerful glimpse of May's untold story. In fact, it has been Newland's lack of attention to May's story that has enabled her to destroy his hope of “escape”: while he fell asleep exhausted after arranging for Ellen to come to him once, May was having the “really good talk” with Ellen that causes her to finally decide to return to Europe.

May's careful, knowing control of her situation—contrasted with Newland's ignorance—makes the title of The Age of Innocence especially ironic. Wharton appears to have intended this effect. Her working title for this novel was Old New York. In both of the plans in which Newland and May Marry, Newland has an affair with Ellen which his wife never suspects. Only in the final version, when she changed the title to The Age of Innocence, did Wharton invert the relationship between suspicion and truth, changing May into a woman who assumes that her husband has had an affair when he has not.

Also ironic is the way Wharton treats May as domesticator. This role, like that of May's innocence, is largely projected onto her by Newland. Early in the novel, Newland had “thanked heaven that he was a New Yorker, and about to ally himself with one of his own kind.” But as he becomes enamored with Ellen, “there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future.” His response is to rush to May, to encourage her, in effect, to seal his future before he risks involvement with Ellen. Much later, at the dinner which is “the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe,” Newland “felt like a prisoner in the center of an armed camp.” These and other references to Newland's feeling trapped are juxtaposed with the fact that he begged that his wedding be hastened, and that May offered to break their engagement when she sensed that he loved another woman.

As Wharton takes care to describe it, May's house represents all the negative aspects of domesticity; here Newland also feels trapped, as the following scene indicates. One winter evening in his library, watching May as she sews, Newland opens the window because “The room is stifling: I want a little air.” Leaning out the window, “The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses, roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and made it easier to breathe.” May is infringing on Newland's space; this is his table, his lamp, his library—the only room in the house he has decorated as he likes. He looks out the window to “a whole world beyond,” much as the traditional American hero looks to the landscape and the frontier for escape from a domesticated world.

But Wharton undermines Newland's perception in two ways. In this scene, Newland is frustrated because Ellen has just refused to become his mistress. And Newland's sense of May as entrapper is ironic because he has considerably misunderstood her character. Before opening the window, “he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind [her clear brow], that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.” Yet Wharton makes it clear that Archer does not know May's thoughts; he not only hasn't realized that she suspects his feelings for Ellen, he does not yet know that May and the rest of the family have determined to exclude him from their discussions of Ellen. When May says, “Do shut the window. You'll catch your death,” he wants to tell her, “I am dead—I've been dead for months and months.” But any sympathy we may feel for him wanes when he thinks, “What if it were she who was dead! ... [May] might die, and set him suddenly free.” Having failed to take control of his own life, Newland now passively hopes for a catastrophe to change his life for him.

If May represents domesticity and her house, that domesticating force, Ellen's house represents escape for Newland. Ellen's drawing room is “unlike any room he had known”; it contains pictures that “bewildered him, for they were like nothing that he was accustomed to look at (and therefore able to see) when he travelled in Italy.” In the same way, Newland is “unable to see” Ellen herself; she will remain, for him, wrapped in an aura of European mystique. Newland had contrasted Ellen's drawing room, with its “vague pervading perfume... like the scent of some far-off bazaar,” with the stuffy, conventional house that awaited him after his conventional honeymoon with May. As Fryer notes, Ellen “offers the possibilities of individual freedom and experience, instinct and variety, cultural and sexual richness ... [so] Newland sends her not lilies-of-the-valley, but yellow roses.”

Unlike the typical nineteenth-century woman's bildungsroman, Ellen's story ends in neither death nor marriage. Her quest has not been sacrificed to romance, as far as we know; she rejects the novel's two major romance possibilities: an affair with Newland and return to her husband. At the end of the novel, twenty-six years after Ellen is banished from New York, Newland has an opportunity to see her again. May has died, and Newland, in Paris with his son Dallas, has received an invitation to Ellen's. But upon reaching her apartment building, Newland decides not to go in. Critics have offered several convincing reasons for this ending: Newland may be afraid to take the risk of a real relationship, or that Ellen will have changed too much; or, he may be so struck with Dallas' revelation that May had understood what it meant for him to give up Ellen, that he does not want to disturb his memory of May, who had “guessed and pitied.”

However we choose to interpret Newland's declining to see Ellen at the end, the fact is that with this ending, Wharton leaves the resolution of Ellen's bildungsroman open, and once again invites us to speculate about her untold story. Like Newland, we can only imagine whether or not quest and romance coexist for Ellen, just as we can only imagine what it was like for May to live at the center of “a kind of innocent family hypocrisy” in which her husband and children treated her as one “so lacking in imagination, so incapable of growth” that she saw nothing that happened around her. Wharton does invite us to imagine the best for Ellen, however, by suggesting that she has kept herself free all these years.

So the novel ends with the bittersweet denouement of Newland Archer's quest in which, because his son touches on what he and May had never spoken of, “He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime,” a life which “had been too starved.” And in the same city where his quest comes to an end is Ellen, who so far as we can tell, enjoys the “freedom and variety of her European existence” on the same street in Paris where the divorced Wharton lived for many years, surrounding herself with “a quiet harvest of friendship.”

Source Citation

Hadley, Kathy Miller. "Ironic Structure and Untold Stories in The Age of Innocence." Studies in the Novel 23.2 (Summer 1991): 262-272. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.