Archive for January, 2011


Jamesian Delineation and Technique in The Wings of the Dove

Any critical analysis of a Henry James work must eventually, whether we wish it or not, address the famous Jamesian style – one in which the reader is treated to complex sentence structures, a reluctance on the author’s part to state anything directly, and a rigidity often described by critics as difficult or unnecessary.  His good friend and contemporary Edith Wharton went so far as to call some of his later work “incomprehensible.”    This use of numerous qualifying phrases, stated or implied negatives, with deferred verbs and clouds of adverbs does little to change the impression that reading and analyzing a James work is, at best, a difficult task.  Also, when one considers many of his most popular novels involve entering into the deep consciousness of his main characters, the reader is faced with a challenging proposition.  That James uses point of view in such a way is to say that he sticks us headfirst into long streams of consciousness and internal monologue as he introduces us to his characters.  Far from simply describing them with prose, or using passages of dialog to familiarize us with them, he manipulates language into a means of characterization with lengthy passages of narrative.  And while this technique points to his unmatched ability as a dramatist, this subtle wordplay also creates differences in character and in their attitudes – which in turn affects both theme and plot.   As you can see, use of language as a way to delineate character is a major tool for James – from the way he manipulates grammar to how he forms paragraphs.  In his novel The Wings of the Dove, James is at his consummate best by granting us access into his characters’ individual consciousnesses and challenging us to jump right in.  The purpose then, of my analysis, is to take this specific work and examine it in terms of how James achieves this goal. 

How exactly does he manipulate language to one, develop interesting and robust characters, and secondly intertwine them into a successful story with strong themes and meanings?  How does he achieve then, as he states in his Preface to the 1909 New York Edition of the novel, “the indirect presentation of his main image?”  The answer may not be quickly or easily reached, but there are examples in the text that illustrate certain techniques.  Among these are his introductions into each of the main characters’ consciousness, how he chooses to let a reader into this internal monologue, and by his skillful use of omission.  In terms of this last technique, we will see that sometimes James conveyed a stronger message by leaving out descriptive narrative to depict elements of plot and theme.  To bolster our argument that James was a master of this unique style of language, Kathleen Komar’s critical essay “Language and Character Delineation in The Wings of the Dove” will be used as a primary source.  Additionally, other critical analyses will be used as secondary sources. 

Most importantly, as we begin a discussion on character and language, we must look at how the characters are introduced to us.  Or, at least in the case of Henry James, how we are introduced to and given access into their minds.  For this particular novel, there are three main characters into which we gain such access.  Chronologically, we meet Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale – and thus begins our journey into the depths of their consciousness.  To start off with, Kate Croy “waited”.  The very first sentence of the novel, “She waited, Kate Croy…for her father to come in…”  It is interesting and crucial for James to introduce us to the character of Kate not based on her personality or to even tell us much about her personality, but to give us the introduction in the form of her function.  In other words, he puts his verb before the subject, so that we see Kate first as someone who “waits.”  Komar contends in her essay, and it is supported in the text as well, that Kate’s identity takes a secondary position to her own primary function of preserving her family by “actively waiting” on things.  In my personal opinion while studying the novel, I never thought of a traditionally passive verb such as “to wait” as being associated with action.  Here is an excellent example of Jamesian technique – linking an assumedly passive verb into a character who is shaped by her activity level – in particular, the activity she puts forth in hatching her curious plot against Milly.  Evidence from our text shows that Kate waited on her father in the opening passage; she waited on Densher to return from America, she waits for her Aunt Maud’s approval, and for Densher to accept her plan.  She also waits to see what Milly may or may not bequest to Densher, and she ultimately waits for Milly’s death.  For Kate’s character then, waiting becomes more active than passive, and depicts a special determination.  When evaluating her motivations throughout the course of the novel, this sense of activity becomes paramount to her character. 

From this, James paints Kate as functionary instead of personality-based.  Since we learn also from the text that she has several motivating factors – not the least of which is her desire to escape from the environment depicted in her father’s squalor at the novel’s outset – it is not unusual that James chooses to create her in this manner.  This is what Komar calls the “dangers of degeneration”, and I feel like Kate must avoid them at all cost.  Therefore, it should be no surprise that we are thrown into her consciousness even before we know much about her physical description.  Another point to be made here is whether or not James uses these key elements in Kate’s debut to confuse the reader or to clarify his depiction of her.  Komar contends it is simply because they are unusual that they stand out so well against traditional character development.  Secondarily, the fact that James announces Kate as “violent and almost unfeminine” seems less important in comparison to her action-oriented character.  As the novel progresses into Book Second, we meet the second of the three main characters, Kate’s fiancé Merton Densher.

Densher is introduced to us, not by function – as Kate was – but directly, with his name front and center from the outset of Book Second as the object of interest.  The opening sentence of this Book reads:

“Merton Densher, who passed the best hours of each night at the office of his newspaper, had at times, during the day, to make up for it, a sense, or at least an appearance, of leisure, in accordance with which he was not infrequently to be met in different parts of the town at moments when men of business are hidden from the public eye.”


Once the Jamesian style is analyzed and the “fluff” removed, the sentence can be better read and comprehended as “Merton Densher had a sense of leisure.”  Differing greatly from Kate’s inclusion into the story, James presents Densher’s personality as in a sense of inactivity by using difficult qualifying phrases and clauses.  The difference in style here is evident when you compare it to the novel’s opening sentence, which leads with a verb.  Whereas the functionary Kate actively “waits”, Densher is viewed as a passive spectator by noting his work at the newspaper and the concept of leisure.  Using Komar’s words, James actually “reveals the quality of consciousness of his characters through language”.  To me, this is amazing literary skill and detail of craft.  Of course, a reader can get lost in the words and the difficult, long paragraphs.  But the beauty of the Jamesian style is that it means something; something that we can see in real relationships with real people in our real lives.  Some people are defined by what they do in life, their actions, and some are framed by what they are.  Henry James realized this, and used amazing wordplay to edify (in my opinion) his characterizations of these complex players.  To vary the language and grammatical structure to reveal character differences in context is, quite simply, literary genius.

As we delve deeper into Merton Densher’s character development, it is important to note the physical description James creates for him.  We see him as “longish”, “leanish”, and “fairish” – all very non-specific terms.  This picture of him is full of qualification and shows him neither as “extraordinary nor abnormal”.  Because of this non-specificity, we get the idea that his own character may somehow be in parallel with this concept.  The fact that Julie Olin-Ammentorp labels him as “marginally masculine” speaks volumes to James’s ability to create in Densher such an alternative male entity.  In her article “A Circle of Petticoats:  The Feminization of Merton Densher”, she implies that James uses these differences in language to strongly contrast Kate and Densher.  This goes perhaps even to the strongest degree of contrast, in that the characters assume many stereotypical roles associated with the opposite gender.  We see Kate in the typical masculine, assertive role; while Merton Densher represents the more feminine, or “conspicuous consumption” persona.    As the novel progresses, we see proof in the language that this is extremely potent use of grammar – especially in the fact that the morally-conflicted Densher exerts no will of his own, and seems to have the ability to rationalize his actions and his ultimately doomed relationship with Milly.  The language also brings to the surface the knowledge that Densher is a very different character from Kate, and serves the juxtaposition well.  Whereas Kate has very strong motivations, Densher seems to have no sense of urgency or “discomfort in his situation.”  Contrast this with what Komar calls Kate’s situation of “urgent suspense”, and the difference is clear – all due to James’s linguistics.  As the plot unfolds, we also see Densher’s malleability in the fact he knowingly participates in Kate’s lie, but does nothing to stop it.  Kate, by contrast, is characterized by suspenseful verbs:  she “waited”, “remained”,” took a brief stand”, “continued to wait”, “showed herself”,” looked”, “tasted”, “felt the room”, and she “felt the street.”  James even goes so far as to expound (via Kate’s consciousness) that she has thoughts about “the way she might still pull things round had she only been a man.”  This manipulation of language by James establishes subjective attitudes and motivations.  It is also highly important to keep in mind as we enter the consciousness of the third main character, Milly Theale, and how the relationships are defined by the former’s actions towards her.

The technique of using grammar continues with Milly’s consciousness and its introduction, in that it differs so much from both of the other characters.  Starting with Book Fourth, we see her psyche introduced not with her function (like Kate), or her personality (as in Densher’s case), but with one of James’s favorite and descriptive words, “It.”  The passage begins:

“It had all gone so fast after this that Milly uttered but the truth nearest to hand in saying to the gentleman on her right…”

In studying Wings, I noticed “it” was used almost as frequently as the word “everything”, pointing again to James’s vagueness – another example of his “exasperating” use of language for the modern and everyday reader.  But as we meet Milly and her inner monologue in Book Fourth, we are already inundated (perhaps too much?) into the consciousnesses of Kate Croy and Merton Densher.  Personally, I don’t think this is unintentional.  We have to know what is going on inside the psyche of Kate and her fiancé.  James is, in a very real way, almost required to form these characters in terms of their inner thoughts and desires.  We have to know their personalities, motivations, circumstances, situational conditions, and the basic framework of their lives to fully understand how Milly’s inclusion into this triangle is going to form and establish itself.  Honestly, James’s use of “it” was confusing to me at first – what was “it” referring to?  Komar contends it creates a “flurry or blur”, representing a sense of fleeting and passing time.  It is interesting also to note that later in the passage above, there is a reference to Milly’s physical location in the room (something literally evident to the reader), but James’s implication is that emotionally and mentally, “she scarce knew where she was.”  This could be, and probably is, conducive to the fact Milly’s consciousness is not stable – possibly due, in my opinion, to her emotional state (dealing with a serious illness and thoughts of dying).  Additionally, when Milly’s consciousness (based on idealistic chivalry and romance) meets the reality of the external world (lies and deceit created by greed), that is when her character famously “turns her face to the wall”.  In an essay by Sheila Teahan entitled “The Abyss of Language in The Wings of the Dove”, this was the renunciatory act that gave the “angel” figure of Milly her Christological, or Christ-like, attributes.  This creates the causal relationship that results in Densher’s redemption.  The irony in this Christ vision and the concept of renouncing anything is that it is exactly this renunciation that causes the eventual dissolution of Kate and Densher as a couple.  In my eyes, Milly comes to represent the definite center of attention and the “truth”.  In a novel like this, when a major theme is the confliction between right and wrong in terms of Kate’s plot for Milly’s money, Milly’s character stands out as this symbolic representation of truth and honesty.  To borrow a moniker from one of our earlier Wharton works, Milly represents innocence. 

In Komar’s mind, James has placed Milly in the position of owning an absorbing consciousness upon whom the rest of the consciousnesses flood.  In this capacity, she is referred to as both an absorbing consciousness and an imaginative creator.  My own interpretation of this analysis is that her perception of what is actually happening differs slightly in the truth.  Or more simply put, I think her consciousness thinks one thing while something completely different is being played out upon her.  The question then becomes what does all this prove, if anything?  For a critical reader of James, I think it proves everything!  It gives us the tacit understanding that James isn’t typical in his narrative style, and with such a novel of consciousness, how can he be?  His techniques are designed to give the reader a different view of the story from a psychological angle, and he does indeed use language to delineate (as our title allows us insight), or describe, character.  The interesting part to understand, to me, is that he doesn’t do it by character dialogue – although this is a useful and popular way to write.  Instead of delineating character by long passages of dialogue, he does it by lengthy passages of narration – which not only point to his skills as a dramatist, but also to the fact that he is able to structure such powerful characters out of “thoughts” instead of words or deeds.  So in effect, it isn’t the characters use of language, but his own, in terms of describing them.  This is the method by which we are granted access into each character’s individual consciousness – and for a very long time, sometimes forced to remain there. 

It is possible to believe that in a novel of consciousness such as this, it would be easy to understand the depths of each character, but James (in my opinion) has many layers.  He himself talks about reading between the lines, a process he said was “one of the most interesting pursuits in the world…of the best literature.”  And as Komar concludes her essay, I agree with her completely on her final point – if James’s novels are the do-it-yourself type, or rather the perceive-it-yourself type in terms of becoming “attuned” to James’s potential meaning, then his novels provide “an incredibly detailed set of directions.”  My personal analysis of this statement is that I couldn’t agree more.  His detail speaks for itself within the first few pages of the novel.  As he describes Lionel Croy’s surrounds, we get a “sense of the slippery and of the sticky”, a “shabby sofa”, and “glazed cloth”.  With a “centre-piece wanting in freshness”, and a “vulgar little room” overlooking a “vulgar little street”, we can see James’s use of detail early on.  This is the style we see throughout the novel, which edifies his themes of consciousness.  By providing such detail, we become conditioned to look for clues along the way, especially in instances where he leaves things out.  This brings me to another point in terms of James’s skill in using language – most notably what he left out.

Again, I do not believe that this was unintentional – but it is vitally important to note in any study of Jamesian technique, and that is his technique of omission.  Quite prominently, he leaves out of the novel two of the most important central events, sex and death.  Specifically, the consummation of Kate Croy and Merton Densher’s affair and Milly’s death occur during breaks in the narrative.  As he must be implying, these events elude representation.  For they must, if he was to intentionally omit them, be of the same unspeakable make-up.  Milly’s illness was, throughout the novel, an unspeakable condition – one that I personally wasn’t expecting to be completely revealed by the novel’s end.  I was even less sure that James would describe her death, in which he proved me correct.  This technique speaks to the fact that James is telling us “something” by telling us “nothing.”  Sheila Teahan also brings up the excellent point that the “unspeakable-ness” of Milly’s illness and death parallel the fact that Lionel Croy’s indiscretions as a husband and a father go unnamed as well.  In the fact that Milly was sick, and that Kate’s father did represent the element of irresponsibility, that is all we need to know in Jamesian fiction.  Here, the details are irrelevant.  Once the character is developed, especially by techniques I have described to this point, James saw no real reason to expound on these details.  There is power, to me, by using omission in literature; as much as what is said (or implied, or reached – in James’s case – after removing some of the “fluff”). 

A few other elements of this Jamesian style need to be addressed before concluding this analysis.  One is his use of alliteration in various passages throughout the novel.  For example, the phrase, “first full sense of a situation really romantic.”  This particular phrase and the alliteration that comprises it, gives the passage a fairy-tale, or nursery rhyme feel.  Not coincidentally, this coincides with James’s intention of coloring Susan Stringham as a fairy-godmother type.  Susan is also held up to this alliterative standard by this Jamesian prose, “Susan Stringham still sitting up,” in which consecutive “-s” sounds are all strung together.  This is a precursor to the introduction into Milly’s consciousness at the outset of Book Fourth, and what Komar calls a “fairy-tale-like” scene.  Earlier, I talked about Milly Theale and how she represented goodness and truth.  This depiction of her as fairy-tale princess, with the doting fairy godmother, lavish riches, and a core nature (ability) to bequeath, fits nicely with James’s use of the alliterative tool.  Again, we see his use of the English language in spectacular ways and tremendous technique.

Another point to ask ourselves as critics is whether or not Henry James was intentional in his “un-readability.”  Was his intent to tell us a story, or to literally investigate the depths of human consciousness?  How much was he influenced by his brother William’s work in the field of psychology?  Was he personally (maybe selfishly?) being vague with long, undulating passages of prose, or was it a necessary technique for this type of novel?  Empirically, there is little textual evidence to point us either way.  But as both a reader and a critic, I think there was a subtle mixture of both.  Based on the text itself, there is little doubt that The Wings of a Dove is a tough novel to tackle and digest.  It can become increasingly frustrating when trying to pare down James’s complex sentences to their root meaning.  However, I think what he has done is intentionally make this type of novel a little more difficult (in terms of syntax) based on the complexities of the human mind.  Referencing the Preface to his 1909 New York Edition again, James reflexively admits to his “having to sound here and there a little deep.”  My interpretation of this is that he intentionally has to be complex in order to illustrate the concept of complexity, something a novel of consciousness certainly has to contain.  Certainly, his work on Wings accomplished this goal.

In conclusion, I think it is evident that James has created a valuable work in The Wings of the Dove.  His use of language to delineate his characters – and more specifically – his ability to deliver us inside their consciousness, is a rare thing.  Language, and our love of it, is really what drew me to this topic, and generated such interest.  Words and grammar can formulate so many different things, and I think Henry James – despite some critics’ efforts to tear him down and label him as “un-readable”, did two things.  One, he made us think; and to a real extent, made his readers feel the points of view of his incredibly shaped characters.  He made us feel what they felt and think what they thought.  Secondly, he introduced us into the novel of consciousness like nobody else – most specifically in the identifiable forms of Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale.  These characters not only built the triangular theme around which the novel centers, they also represented what was quintessentially Jamesian.  By this I mean we learn of them not through their own mouths, but through their internal thoughts, ideas, motivations, and conflicts.  What James leaves out in terms of dialogue, he strengthens with his ability to deliver strong prose within the paradigm of consciousness.  And to any student or critic of Henry James and his work, we have to both recognize and analyze in that context.  James called on us to recover our “critical balance”, and so it is with this particular analysis.  To be complex or “incomprehensible” is one thing, but to manipulate language to form such a lasting and relevant work, is simply Jamesian.


Innocence Revealed: The Quandary of Context

Edith Wharton, in her aptly named novel The Age of Innocence, created a memorable and indicting criticism on the society of Old New York in the 1870s.  The term “innocence” here is a tricky one, especially given the way Wharton’s work is placed within certain historical and cultural contexts.  By this I mean a modern day reader may have a completely different idea of what innocence should be defined as, what it entails, how it is realized, or what form it may take.  For the reader familiar with the social stratosphere that was Old New York society in the late 19th century, innocence can mean many things – from a type of naivety or purity, or something extending all the way to what might be termed as feigned ignorance.  Either way, Wharton cleverly picked this title not out of a proverbial hat, but to awaken in readers the very strong and real possibility (certainty?) that this time and place in American history was all but innocent, and that its very inclusion in society was nothing but an act maintained by the elite to hide other glaring dysfunctional characteristics.  Since societal rules and mores of this particular time dictated not only how people acted, but to a very real extent how they thought, it is imperative to keep that in mind when studying the characters that Wharton has developed.  Contextualizing their thoughts, concerns, and actions within the framework of their culture is a key ingredient in any critical analysis, but it becomes even more important when we look at specific ideas and terms that may have considerably different meanings today than they did in Wharton’s time. 

Specifically speaking, and also the focus of this paper, “innocence” is a term which carries with it such a broad scope, we have be able to capture it and lay it against what Wharton thought it meant, how she integrated it into her criticism, and how we can interpret it today in our study of literature.  One of the ways Wharton incorporates this theme into her novel is by development of her characters.  Their inner thoughts, feelings, and ultimately, actions all play into how she draws this picture.  It is the focus of this paper to show that “innocence”, as it were, touches every character in some way, and not always in the strictest or most common way or definition.  Each character we are introduced to has their own variety of innocence, which is why the title of the novel is both apropos and vexing at the same time.  The choice of title could also refer to Wharton’s own biography, being raised in exactly the same sort of society in which she writes about.  As is generally the case in reminiscing, the term “innocence” can be used to romanticize a period of time we remember fondly as children.  Technically however, innocence is defined as simplicity or general lack of knowledge or understanding.  Other definitions describe it as freedom from sin or moral wrong.  In any case, being innocent incites in us thoughts of lacking awareness, or in modern day vernacular, being “clueless”.   

With such a critical study of The Age of Innocence, it is fair to say that a cursory glance at the character of May Welland gives us an initial impression of such a definition.  We first see her at the opera, dressed in (virginal) white.  Wharton also associates her character with flowers, specifically lilies of the valley and draws several comparisons between May and the virgin goddess, Diana.  Sexual innocence is most definitely implied, and we also see glimpses of innocence in Wharton’s depiction of her physical characteristics.  For example, her eyes are described as having “bright unclouded admiration” and we learn of her “warm pink cheeks” (Wharton 5).  Elizabeth Ammons describes May as being “still in the nursery…a lovely human doll” (Ammons 147).  Beyond physical characteristics, we see May through her fiancé Newland Archer’s eyes when he comments that “she doesn’t even guess what it’s (Faust) all about” (Wharton 5).  These depictions give us a base on which Wharton wants us to see May, as a pretty young thing, innocent in what she believes and perceives the world to be.  In her essay “The Transparent Eyes of May Welland in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence”, Evelyn Fracasso calls May’s space “her stagnant and predictable conventional world” (Fracasso 44).  To call May’s world predictable is to understand the context of how she was raised and nurtured to this point, “assured because she knew of nothing to be on her guard against; and with no better preparation” (Wharton 29).

The next major character Wharton presents is the aforementioned Newland Archer, who is engaged to May Welland.  Archer is a young man who is described as the “portrait of a gentleman” (79), in relation to 1870s New York society.  It is also revealed early that Archer was involved in a two-year love affair with a married woman, something his mother categorized as “that silly business” (24).  Contextually, it is important to note that such affairs happened quite frequently and were overlooked by society, as they “tolerated hypocrisy in private relations” (157).  Aside from this fact, Wharton chooses to push us into Archer’s conscience throughout the novel – and from that, we see not only his fears and concerns with the dictates of society, but also his own brand of innocence and how it touches his life.  One particularly striking example of Archer’s innocence is in his growing attachment with Countess Ellen Olenska, the cousin of his fiancé.  As he steadily moves into an “impossible affair” (Edwards 489) of the heart with Ellen, we see his wish to “somehow get away…into a world where words like that (boundaries) won’t exist” (Wharton 174).  This shows that even though Archer understands the limitations of New York’s self constructed boundaries, he still may be naïve in worldly ways, and in particular ways of love.  His naivety is shown throughout the novel in other ways, as well, after his marriage to May.

Countess Ellen Olenska is the third piece of the love triangle Wharton has developed for her reader.  She is a cousin to May Welland, which implies a working knowledge of the social setting of the period.  However, the big difference in Ellen is that she is estranged from her Polish husband, the Count.  This separates her from the other characters in a very important way.  She has a European “spin” on things, and has a “worldly” education.  Kathy Miller Hadley writes that Ellen’s “respect for the ways of old New York becomes increasingly tinged with skepticism” (Hadley 265).  Wharton describes her initial appearance in the novel as “pale and serious”, and “careless of the dictates of Taste” (11).  Now, this is not to say that Countess Olenska is ignorant of these dictates; it is more to say that she simply wishes not to adhere, in the typical fashion, in following them.  Her innocence comes later in the novel as she also realizes the “impossible-ness” of her affair with the husband of her cousin.  She knows it will never be consummated, and she is innocent of doing anything wrong.  While a large percentage of her actions seem rebellious in terms of her family, she maintains the family’s honor by not consummating the affair, as it were.

Now that we have a brief definition of innocence and the introduction of the three main characters in the novel, it is imperative to study and dig deeper into the contextual setting.  As with any important work of literature, the work is a living, breathing art form, and it develops as it progresses.  Such is the case with The Age of Innocence, and what seems true at the outset can change as the plot moves forward.  The biggest example of this is the innocent light in which we see May, and how her character develops into something quite different once she becomes Mrs. Newland Archer, and discovers there is a connection between her husband and cousin.  May begins to have “such unexpected boldness and insight” (Fracasso 45) in regards to her relationship with her husband.  She questions him about business trips to Washington and Boston (where Ellen conveniently happens to be) and she becomes “uncharacteristically manipulative” (45) knowing that Archer will have to conform to society and remain true to his wife.  Wharton also creates a stinging visual of May as having “transparent eyes” (Wharton 194) when she tells Archer that Ellen is returning to Europe, effectively ending the affair.  The implication here is palpable, and it is evident that May knows everything.  At this point in the novel, upon Archer’s realization that Ellen is leaving New York, he becomes aware of how much his wife suspected.  The innocent May Welland that we see in the opening chapters has been supplanted by May Welland Archer, who has the complete “knowledge and approval of the family” (Freyer 138) behind her.  Even Archer’s conscience speaks to us as he realizes, albeit the affair was never consummated, the family knows of the relationship:  “and then it came over him…that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers…the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved” (Wharton 200-201). 

Obviously, this scene illustrates that May is not innocent of what is going on around her at all.  She becomes, at least in some views, the strongest character in the novel because of her ability to notice her husband’s attraction to her cousin and to indirectly act on it.  May develops into a character of “toughness and tenacity” (Fracasso 48) and is established to have a “strength of character” (48) like no other character in the story.  It is no surprise that Ellen makes the decision to return to Europe, for she too realizes the impossible situation she finds herself in.  We also find out that Ellen is not so innocent in her beliefs as we may have thought.  Her ability to cut off the affair shows a knowledge and strength that is anything but innocent.  It shows maturity and wisdom, which is something we don’t see much of in the early portrayal of the Countess.

Now this leaves Archer, and the question remains, how does his character reflect in the “innocence” of the title?  This is a difficult question to answer, since the novel is primarily from his point of view.  We see things through Archer’s eyes much of the time.  One thing we do know is that he was ignorant of his wife’s knowledge of his affair throughout the novel.  If one was to contrast this ignorance with May’s well-thought out control of the situation, the title of the novel seems incredibly ironic.  Of course, Wharton probably intended this, as the theme of innocence is the primary theme of the work.  But Archer’s situation is different – we see him in later chapters as more of an observer, handcuffed by the structure of society to which he is bound.  After Ellen’s departure, he and May settle down to a 25 year marriage, three children, and his career in politics shapes up and life is good.  So how does innocence play a role?  I think his innocence was represented in the fact that he thought he might be able to secure Ellen as a mistress, and still remain married – but not much further than that.  He was innocent in this train of thought, not realizing the real-world implications a situation like this would have brought upon himself and the family.  But on the other hand, Archer seems too much of an observer to be completely innocent.  To me, the bottom line is that he was going to conform to the dictates of society, no matter how conflicted he may have felt in regards to both of the women in his life.  And while he detested people like the philandering Larry Lefferts, he was willing to throw these ideals away when they were juxtaposed against his own being.  And that is where I think you have to draw the line on how innocent he really was.  It falls right in line with innocence being a scapegoat for the culturally elite of this time period.  The same goes for Ellen, if we are analyzing this in depth.  She was well-versed in the edicts of New York society, although not altogether betrothed to them.  There were no stark innocent characteristics attached to her character, she acted in her own way – fully aware of her behavior, thoughts, and ramifications.  And as evidenced earlier, one can definitely say that May Welland Archer does not come across as being innocent whatsoever – she really becomes a very controlling and manipulative figure in the end, knowing all the way until her death that her husband gave up “the thing…most wanted” (Wharton 214). 

One character not mentioned, but by no means forgotten, is society as a whole during this historical period of the 19th century.  Old New York – in all its pomp and rigidity and uppity-ness, remains a central character in the novel.  My analysis of how old New York behaves in terms of innocence is vital to any discussion.  Represented by characters such as the philandering Larry Lefferts mentioned earlier, and Julius Beaufort, who has repeated affairs, the society is anything but innocent.  In fact, it is completely opposite.  Wayward husbands aren’t seen as anything incredibly obtuse; nothing like a failure at banking would be considered.  The ability of society to cover up these indiscretions under the guise of innocence is what makes Wharton’s title so appropriate.  As Lefferts and Beaufort demonstrate, the degradation of values seems in stark opposition to the moral code they pretend to uphold.  This is not accidental, for Wharton was well-aware of the indecencies of this social set, and her title mirrors her knowledge.  Yes, there is some representative innocence within the pages of her work, but the overwhelming evidence points to a group of people devoid of that ideal in their very actions. 

To conclude, The Age of Innocence is a novel which stings in its criticism of the social ways and means of New York in the late 19th century.  Edith Wharton has come up with a beautiful title for a complex story that is anything but innocent in the end.  The irony, however, is that it no real innocence comes to be realized as the novel ends.  Archer makes a trip to Paris with his adult son, but refuses to go up to meet Madame Olenska, some 26 years after her departure from America.  While the meaning and relevance of this ending has been debated, to me it smacks of a complete lack of innocence.  I think Archer knew deep down that he couldn’t make the trip up to see his former partner in their affair.  An “innocent” character wouldn’t have given it a second thought, being oblivious to the consequences.  For this, I give Archer credit – he showed a strength I’m not sure I could have shown.  As to Ellen’s response, we will never know, but I am sure she knew what he was thinking, and to some extent agreed with it.  And there can’t be much innocence in being as knowing as that.  In the end, innocence doesn’t reign supreme, but is depicted as a value lacking in both the individuals and society as a whole.  Wharton knew this, exposed it, and spun this idea into an extremely effective social criticism.