Edith Wharton’s books are considered, by some, merely popular fiction of her time. But we must be careful not to equate popularity with the value of the fiction; i.e., we must not assume that if her books are popular, they are also primitive. Compared to the works of her contemporary and friend, Henry James, whose books may seem complex and sometimes bewildering; Wharton’s The Age of Innocence appears to be a simplistic, gossipy commentary of New York society during the last decade of the 19th century*. Instead, it is one man’s struggle with the questions of mortality and immortality. Wharton’s characters, settings and the minutiae of social rituals, manners, speech habits, dress and even flowers help her expose the mortal and immortal. But her adroit contrasts and comparisons with mythology elevate her fiction to the heights of sophistication.
It is Newland Archer who is caught in the struggle man feels between living an ordinary and mortal life; or what his society consider an extraordinary and immortal life. It is he who is tested, who is tried and convicted by his society. It is he who gives in to the immortal manipulations of his wife, family and friends. It is he who gives up his chance for freedom, for love, and to be mortal. Wharton’s skill raises her characters to the level of myth for they, like the Greeks, are unforgettable and hence immortal.
Looking at the book as a whole, Edith Wharton’s New York society of the late 19th century can be weighed against the society of Greek (and Roman) mythology. They are both mortal and immortal. She utilizes mythology to present us with a sophisticated comparison of New York society and the pantheon of the Greeks in the age of antiquity.
As the myths tell us, the Greeks were constantly involved in societal conflicts and intrigues; these intrigues are similar to Wharton’s New York society with its bickering and manipulation. Urns and wall paintings tell us about the mythical characters’ predilection for a sensual life; this compares to Wharton’s characters’ penchant for their own hedonistic life of carousing, sexual cavorting and dizzy social calendars of parties and operas. The Greeks, mythical and real, were masters of architecture and decoration, which to this day, attest to their immortality. Wharton pays great attention to the mansions and embellishments of the New York houses. Her society attempts to be immortal in its own buildings; and by amassing ornate bits and bobbles from ages past and paintings and decorations, the society feels it will live on forever:
Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so
that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to
it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista
of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and
the botron d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres
reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the
depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns
Wharton’s characters, albeit mortal beings, are made immortal and some can even be compared with mythical characters. We’ll begin with the lesser characters.
Newland Archer’s sister, Janey who: “was subject to starts and aberrations of fancy welling up from springs of suppressed romance,” might be compared to the mythical character, Cassandra. We remember that Cassandra: “a pathetic figure in the Trojan saga, was another of Apollo’s loves and a prophetess. When she agreed to give herself to Apollo, as a reward the god bestowed upon her the power of prophecy.” But Cassandra refused to be kissed when approached by Apollo so he spat in her mouth. Forever after her prophesies were not believed. Just like Janey, Cassandra was not taken seriously. As a character, Janey has all the fallibilities of a mortal but her likeness to Cassandra suggests immortality.
We continue with Catherine Mingott, the matriarch of the New York pantheon. Wharton aptly describes her rotund figure but explains that Mrs. Mingott’s plumpness keeps her skin pink, smooth and wrinkle-free. So despite her older years, her size is a trophy. She escapes the signs of aging. She appears immortal.
Newland Archer thinks that if it is possible for Catherine to fall from immortality, he, too might be able to leave their society and live with Ellen Olenska in a mortal existence; for it is Catherine Mingott who does, indeed, fall from immortality. And she is the only of Wharton’s gods who seems to do so. Catherine is conscious of her presence within New York society. She places herself within walls that display a grand painting of the Olympiad. She also delivers edicts like a god, reproaching Ellen that she has erred and her life is ruined. Catherine has the ability to judge, condemn and bury. After she has finished with Ellen, she aims her barbs and condemnation at Mrs. Beaufort. But a stroke quickly follows soon after her rejection. She is mortally ill, and as a mortal, she may die. She has fallen from her state of godliness. She is no longer immortal. Her body provides evidence for this fall. It begins to age and deteriorate. She is pale and dark shadows appear in the crevices of her fat. Even her temperament changes. She takes on mortal traits, becoming compassionate and leaving behind her disapproving nature. She feels remorse for her previous judgements and thinks she may bring Ellen back to New York. Her focus has changed to humanity. She sheds her godly concerns. She realizes that she was too fast to condemn Ellen. She feels guilt because she stopped Ellen’s allowance. She knows that by denying Ellen a divorce, she misunderstood Ellen’s plight.
Catherine is mortal. She privately invites Newland Archer to her home. Even though Newland compliments Catherine, she refutes it by commenting that Ellen is more beautiful. This is the first time that any of the gods of their New York society has admitted to Ellen’s beauty. She asks Archer to reinstate Ellen’s allowance and says that Ellen must stay in New York. She refers to Ellen as a bird that must not be caged. She would have begged Ellen to stay had she been able to see the floor. This is as amusing as it is ironic. Because of her size, Catherine probably could not see the floor; it also attests to the fact that in her existence of a god of New York society, her feet were not on the ground. She has not been living in reality. Catherine’s character proves it is possible for a god to relinquish his position and choose to be mortal.
Another pair of the minor characters who are both mortal and immortal is the van der Luydens. Mr. van der Luyden, although living, can also be seen as dead. His home is like a mausoleum, a place for the dead. When Newland Archer rings the van der Luyden’s bell, it is answered by a butler who has taken his time to get to the door as if: “he had been summoned from his final sleep.” The van der Luyden’s home always looks grim even in the beauty and sun of the summer. The van der Lyudens and indeed their home are alive yet dead, they are also immortal.
Mrs. van der Luyden remains immortal by hanging on the wall in the form of a portrait. It was painted by the artist, Huntington and bears a perfect likeness to her; the portrait, however, was completed twenty years earlier. Wharton suggests that one might look at Mrs. van der Luyden sitting beneath the portrait and think she “might have been the twin-sister of the fair and still youngish woman drooping against a gild armchair before a green rep curtain.” The juxtaposition of the youthful portrait and the aging Mrs. van de Luyden is an eerie concept. Newland Archer thinks she has: “been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.” The van der Lyudens’ state of immortality is emphasized as they are also considered Ellen’s protector, like deities.
And now we’ll turn to the more pivotal characters in Wharton’s tale.
First, we’ll discuss Newland Archer’s fianc?e, then wife, May Welland. She might be compared to another character from mythology, the huntress Diana: “Horace neatly embodies the triple functions of Diana (as Artemis, mistress of animals; Lucina, goddess of childbirth; and Hecate, goddess of the Underworld).” To sing her praises and underscore her importance, he wrote the following hymn to her:
Guardian of mountains and woods, virgin, you who, when
three-formed goddess, let the pine that overshadows my
villa be yours, to which I will gladly sacrifice at the end
of each year the blood of a boar as it prepares the sideways
slash [of its tusk].
Diana is immortal. She is a woman’s woman; revered and extolled; even songs of praise were written for her. May, too, is a woman who wants all the trappings of her female circle; she wants an appropriate engagement, a wedding, a marriage, and children; she expects the same reverence from a faithful husband. But unlike Diana, May is wilful and cunning. She sets her sights on Newland and does everything in her power to acquire and to keep him. She is far from innocent; she uses mortal means to maintain her immortal place in society.
When we first see May she is dressed in white and fingers white lilies of the valley with her white gloves. We assume she is pure and innocent; but Wharton’s comparison of May Welland to Diana is meant to emphasize her skill and cunning for her hunt of Newland Archer. We are treated to another glimpse of May’s cold personality when Newland visits her at St. Augustine. He is feeling unnerved by his feelings for Ellen and needs to re-pledge his commitment to May. He finds her in the garden:
Across the warm brown of her cheek her blown hair
glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too looked
lighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity. As she
walked beside Archer with her long swinging gait
her face wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete.
Wharton describes May as a marble statue; she has made her immortal and cold, a goddess. Newland’s guilt about his growing feelings for Ellen Olenska are peeked when May asks for assurances of his faithfulness. He thinks she is superhuman, immortal.
She is one of the most immortal of Wharton’s immortal characters. She maintains her icy nature even throughout her honeymoon. Her true nature is exposed when she advocates that Ellen, rather than divorce, live with her husband in New York. Newland is outraged by the suggestion. He can’t understand how his pure, innocent May could think that Ellen would want to live with an abusive husband. He realizes that watching the sorrows of their peers is considered sport by members of their society; he is incensed that May has joined their ranks. She is like a god, looking down from above, enjoying the destructive results of her pronouncements.
The archery tournament provides Wharton’s most vivid instance of May’s godliness and hence her immortality. When we see her emerge from the tent, she carries herself with the same aloofness she presented when she entered the Beaufort ballroom on her engagement night. Wharton reiterates her Diana-like qualities. She stands apart from the others, a nymph who has defied the aging that usually comes with years. Another attribute of her immortality, is her determination to never show emotional pain. Newland is convinced that she has many grievances. He thinks that if she expressed them, he could help her laugh them away. But they never share this mortal, emotional experience. May has been trained by her many years in the New York pantheon to conceal her wounds. She even escapes the aging process entirely by dying soon after the birth of their second child. She has managed to remain always young, always innocent and immortal.
Ellen Olenska is mortal. Her mortality stands out in absolute contrast to May’s immortality. Ellen grows older, she sheds tears and expresses her feelings. Right at the beginning of the book, Wharton states that New York society commented that Ellen had lost her looks. Newland noticed that she was not as radiant as she was in her youth. Her rosy cheeks were paler; her figure had become thinner and she looked her age. Ellen is about 30 years old in the book. Ellen and Newland are the only of Wharton’s characters who cry . She reveals her sadness and frustration to Newland. She is lonely and cannot cope with the people who surround her: demanding that she pretend. She also displays sympathy and humanity toward others. This is not characteristic in the New York society of gods in which she is placed. For instance, Ned Winsett is astonished that Ellen rescues and bandages his little boy. Without regard for herself or her appearance, she rushes in to help him when he falls down; she exhibits great sympathy. Even his wife was impressed by her behaviour; so much so that she was unable to ask her name. Ellen is perceived as a beautiful human being and this is first put into words by Ned, another mortal. Newland, of course, recognizes her inner beauty, as does Catherine Mingott after her stroke. Ellen’s ability to grow old and to be a sympathetic humanitarian put her in direct contrast with immortal beings that make up New York’s society.
Newland realizes that he and Ellen stand out from the pantheon of New York society. He recognizes that they are mortal humans with real human feelings. He knows that as time passes, he is aging and getting farther from the happiness he wants in life. His emotional bond with Ellen is mortal. They share human fallibilities and a warmness and compassion that the rest of his peers do not. But even though he is pulled toward a life of love and happiness, he remains within the walls of the pantheon and becomes, like the others, immortal.
And here is Newland’s struggle. He realizes that despite the immortal characteristics beget by the New York pantheon, his mortality is real, especially in the company of Ellen. We understand that Newland recognizes evidence of his mortality in the literature he reads. He begins to feel trapped in the pantheon when the Wellands urge him to be dutiful and visit each of the families to announce their engagement. He knows that he is an animal who has been taken from the wild. May, or Diana, the huntress has trapped him. He makes an excuse for himself. He decides that his anthropological readings are changing his point of view.
Newland and Ellen find this sense of mortality looking to the future. They speak casually about the telephone and the incredible writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Newland also recognizes his mortality in his study of relics and contemporary inventions. Newland compares the New York society with the hieroglyphic world. Both are obscure and ancient. Newland understands that the codes of the New York society will someday seem as obscure and baffling as hieroglyphs.
Newland and Ellen understand the importance of the future even though they are surrounded by the ghosts of the past; their peers are the immortal souls that surround them. By comparison, Ellen and Newland seem transient. They are mortal because together they are born and if they choose a future together, they will age and die. But Newland is unable to publicly reveal his love for Ellen. He will not protest against the code of New York society. He chooses to remain jailed in the rules of their immortal society. And in so doing, he permits Ellen to be exiled and to live alone; we assume that Ellen’s aloneness will be lonely. He chooses to lose their freedom. It is ironic that his immortal life is paralysing yet he realizes that a mortal life would be liberating.
Newland and Ellen meet for the last time at the museum. The setting highlights the figures of two mortals enveloped within the walls of immortality. They speak while viewing a relic from a past society; and realize that some day they will be as unimportant to any future society that might find a relic of their past. Their relationship was as important to them as the relic was to its own society. The museum makes them realize that their forbidden happiness might also become a relic to be exhibited in a museum.
Newland lived out his paralysis with his wife and children. Despite their struggles that seemed so important to he and Ellen, the world continued. And even later in his life, when he has the opportunity to meet again with Ellen, his shame forbids him to do so. He also realizes that their situation is merely a speck in the scheme of the world; to start their relationship up again would mean nothing. He is in a jail of immortality not unlike a soul trapped in a statue of an ancient mythological character.
And here is where Wharton brings myth back into the story. His reluctant attachment to May (Diana) makes him comparable to the mythical character, Actaeon. Actaeon saw a naked Diana and was forever punished when she:
“made the horns of a long-lived stag rise on his head where
the water had struck him; his neck grew long and his ears
pointed, his hands turned to hooves, his arms to legs, and
his body she clothed with a spotted deerskin. And she made
Actaeon was made unattractive. May, like Diana, made Newland unattractive, at least to Ellen. The fact, albeit a lie at the time, that he was about to become a father, was enough to urge Ellen away. And just like Actaeon, Newland’s: “mind remained unchanged.” He was trapped forever in the question, ‘what if’ and forced to leave behind his love, his freedom and hence his mortality. Newland Archer becomes a hero because of his differences; yet he is also an anti-hero because of his paralysis. He is a god in the pantheon. He is a mortal man and an immortal god.
Wharton has juxtaposed mortality and immortality with great skill. Newland Archer as the hero struggles to understand his own mortality. Yet as the anti-hero, he is a coward; he denies his mortality and accepts immortality. He lives within the pantheon of the gods yet by rejecting their societal rules, he is a thinking human mortal being. But as a mortal being he lacks the strength to change and recreate the New York pantheon. He is forever trapped within the walls of its mausoleum.
*One story about Wharton and James goes like this: Wharton drove up to James’ house one day in a brand new, beautifully large car. She got out and said that she had purchased the car with the proceeds of her last book. James pointed to a wheelbarrow and replied that that was what he purchased with the proceeds of his last book and with the sale of his next book, he would paint it. I think this is an appropriate story about popularity and fiction and the perceived value of that fiction.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton