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.


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