Today we are discussing Edith Wharton’s classic novel The Age of Innocence. The novel, recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman, takes place in late 19th century New York City. The plot centers on the marriage of Newland Archer, a lawyer hailing from one of New York’s best families, and May Welland, a beautiful young socialite. When May’s cousin, the exotic, worldly Countess Ellen Olenska, returns to New York, her appearance causes a scandal: Ellen has separated from her European husband amidst a number of scurrilous rumors, and she even wishes to divorce. May asks Newland to be kind to Ellen and help smooth her acceptance by New York City’s rigid, rule-bound society, but in the process Archer becomes enchanted by the mysterious Ellen, whose intelligence and willingness to live by her own rules makes him doubt his love for the conventional, traditional May.

Below, I’ve asked a couple of specific questions regarding the novels themes, with particular emphasis on how these themes intersect with our own contemporary Mormon culture. Feel free to answer either question, or both, or to simply share your general thoughts on the novel. And don’t forget: our next book club pick is Room, by Emma Donoghue, one of the most talked about novels of 2010, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, May 19th.

Now on to the discussion!

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“[Archer] delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed [May], in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.) She was straightforward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chiefly proved by her laughing at his jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Question: Is May as innocent as Archer believes her to be? How does this perceived innocence both attract and repel him? In our own 21st century Mormon culture, do we continue to engage in the “conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses” to create what Archer sees as a “factitious [female] purity,” or is our idealized version of womanhood different than the one embodied by May Welland in the novel? If there are similarities, how does this idealized version of womanhood affect modern-day LDS marriages?

“I say, father: what was [Ellen] like?” [Dallas, Archer’s adult son, asked].

Archer felt his colour rise under his son’s unabashed gaze. “Come, own up: you and she were great pals, weren’t you? Wasn’t she most awfully lovely?”

“Lovely? I don’t know. She was different.”

“Ah—there you have it! That’s what it always comes to, doesn’t it? When she comes, she’s different—and one doesn’t know why. It’s exactly what I feel about [my fiance] Fanny.”

His father drew back a step, releasing his arm. “About Fanny? But, my dear fellow—I should hope so! Only I don’t see—”

“Dash it, Dad, don’t be prehistoric! Wasn’t she— once—your Fanny?”

Dallas belonged body and soul to the new generation. He was the first-born of Newland and May Archer, yet it had never been possible to inculcate in him even the rudiments of reserve. “What’s the use of making mysteries? It only makes people want to nose ’em out,” he always objected when enjoined to discretion. But Archer, meeting his eyes, saw the filial light under their banter.

“My Fanny—?”

“Well, the woman you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t,” continued his surprising son.

“I didn’t,” echoed Archer with a kind of solemnity.

“No. But mother said—”

“Your mother?”

“Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone—you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”

Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sunlit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: “She never asked me.”

“No. I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! . . . ”

. . . After a little while [Archer] did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, some one had guessed and pitied. . . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably. Dallas, for all his affectionate insight, would not have understood that. To the boy, no doubt, the episode was only a pathetic instance of vain frustration, of wasted forces. But was it really no more?

Question: Did Archer make the right decision in marrying, and staying married to, May? Would he have been happier with Ellen? The publisher’s reading guide asks this question: “Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one’s happiness? Is duty to one’s community more important than duty to oneself?” What parallels to you see between the society Wharton depicts in this novel, with its emphasis on early marriage, long-term commitment, and duty for the sake of family and community, and Mormon culture today?

Let us know what you think!

27 Comments

  1. Zina

    February 17, 2011

    I stayed up unreasonably late refreshing my vague college-era memories of the book, so I feel a little unfit to form a coherent thought–but since no one else has commented yet, with this blank slate I feel more free to comment poorly with impunity. 🙂

    I don’t think Archer would have been happier married to Ellen, but I do think he’d have been happier making that discovery for himself–or at least, if not “happier,” at least more satisfied or fulfilled somehow. I do think there’s some suggestion in the passage you cited that he gets some twilight satisfaction in realizing that his wife recognized his “sacrifice” in giving up Ellen, but to me it’s a little less meaningful of a sacrifice in that events were manipulated by May and his family such that for a very long time he didn’t have much sense of having made a choice.

    I’m trying to decide whether I think there are any parallels between Old New York society and modern Mormon society. I’d say that ideally there aren’t many, but in practice there probably are quite a few.

    For example, while in my case modesty and purity before marriage didn’t couple with ignorance and naivete, nor did they translate into frigidity after marriage, the popularity of Laura Brotherson’s book “And They Were Not Ashamed” shows that it’s not at all uncommon for that to be the case. (But the book’s popularity also shows that many LDS women aren’t resigned to that status quo.) The Church doesn’t want women to be naive and frigid, nor (I think) does the Gospel teach them to be, but in practice a lot of Church members don’t know how to teach purity and modesty without also inculcating undesirable traits.

    I also think that in general the Church encourages everyone to be as prepared as possible to make a sincere, whole, “eyes-wide-open” commitment in marriage, but it is also true that we believe in a self-sacrificing “eyes-half-closed” approach once we’re in it. (This would be with the hopefully very clear exception for abusive relationships, although an understanding of this exception is also often lost in practice.) And, again, the Church doesn’t tolerate hypocrisy in the name of maintaining an appearance of marital fidelity, but in practice our culture might encourage it, or anyway, individuals can be tempted to hypocrisy when their wishes run counter to strong social mores. Again, this is not the Church’s wish nor (I think) its fault, but it’s still a not-unlikely outcome in a society with very clear expectations for behavior.

    All in all, my own understanding of the Gospel and idea of how Church society should be don’t at all involve the willful blindness, rigidity, or hypocrisy that accompany New York society’s mores as depicted in the book. But my mores certainly do include modesty, purity, marital fidelity, and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, and these values can and often do correlate with all of the undesirable traits I listed, in our imperfect world.

  2. KLS

    February 17, 2011

    I think that, removed from context, Archer and Ellen are capable of having a happier marriage than Archer and May. But there’s no escaping the context. If Archer left May for Ellen, he wouldn’t be the man Ellen fell in love with, and the baggage of his prior relationship (both his own feelings about it, and his family/community’s feelings) would forever be part of his second marriage. And Ellen wouldn’t be the same person to him, either, because the intensity of the emotion in the affair is fueled by its forbidden nature. Once the relationship comes out of the closet it will become far less titillating and far more complicated.

    I don’t think Archer would have been happier married to Ellen, but I do think he’d have been happier making that discovery for himself–or at least, if not “happier,” at least more satisfied or fulfilled somehow.

    An outstanding point. I think he does figure this out in the end, but knowing it sooner would’ve made the loss easier to bear. Not easy, but easier.

    Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one’s happiness? Is duty to one’s community more important than duty to oneself?

    I think the story proves these questions to be fallacies. The point is that happiness won’t be happiness if it requires you to betray yourself and others, and that duty to community cannot be separated from duty to self.

  3. Melissa Y

    February 17, 2011

    I agree, Zina, that it felt like the choice was made for him. That’s what troubles me–it does feel like he sacrificed himself for “the community,” that he was acted upon rather than acting, and that it was the right thing. Seeing it as a choice in hindsight is little consolation.

    Do you think it is the hindsight sense that he did make the correct choice that prevents him from going to see Ellen in the end? I sort of wish he would have given the relationship a shot; it wouldn’t have been the same, but it still could have been good.

  4. Zina

    February 17, 2011

    Regarding what Kathryn said, I’ve joked before that I’m protected from the temptation to adultery by the fact that the men I’m attracted to are men who support marriages and families and who would never try to lure me away from my marriage nor betray their own wives. (I don’t really believe myself impervious to temptation without proper vigilance, but there’s still a lot of truth in my joke.) I think Ellen mistakes Archer to be such a man, and then to keep her affection he has to live up to the not-entirely-real image of himself he’d portrayed to her.

  5. KLS

    February 17, 2011

    Yeah, Ellen points out the conundrum of extramarital romance: “I can’t love you unless I give you up.”

    As for the ending, I think Archer realizes their love affair was built on fantasy, and that this fantasy was better than any possible reality. He’d rather keep the fantasy intact than initiate a real-life relationship with Ellen. “It’s more real to me if I don’t go up,” he says.

  6. Angela

    February 17, 2011

    Great comments, everybody.

    One thing I really love about this book is how complex and multi-layered all the characters are. Even May, who manipulates and controls her own destiny with a skill that her innocent exterior belies, is more complicated than one would think at first blush.

    But I particularly like the complexity with which both Archer and Ellen are portrayed. Ellen is much more than an exotic temptress; she truly cares about her family and about doing what’s right, despite the fact that she falters in this resolve at certain points in the narrative. And I think it’s true that Ellen and Archer probably did have more of a deep “soul” connection than Archer could ever have with May.

    Of course, one never knows how things would have worked out in the end if Archer had left May for Ellen, and the narrator tells us that Archer ““was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization.” I think this might be the reason why he doesn’t go to see Ellen at the end of the book. He prefers the construct of her in his mind, the idea of what their relationship “could have been” rather than what it really would end up being in the day to day.

    I also think Archer *thinks* he’s something of a revolutionary when he’s really quite conservative; he prizes the values May stands for more than he thinks he does. So perhaps marriage to the unconventional Ellen wouldn’t have been what he wanted after all, especially at the expense of hurting members of the very society constrained (but also loved) him.

    I think Zina hit it on the head with the idea that Archer’s problem was he felt that he didn’t make the decision to stick with May; that it was made for him by the community, or the expectations of the community. How many Mormon marriages suffer from the same line of thinking: “I was so young. I only married him because he was nice and a returned missionary and everybody else was marrying a nice returned missionary,” etc. The real pain in these situations (both with Archer and with real life contemporary examples) is that people feel as if they’ve made a choice with “incomplete information,” or for immature reasons, and are then forced to live with the consequences of those decisions out of some sense of duty.

    I like how Kathy said, “happiness won’t be happiness if it requires you to betray yourself and others, and that duty to community cannot be separated from duty to self.” Archer would never have been truly happy w/ Ellen if he’d won her at the expense of hurting and betraying so many other people. I wonder if Archer’s seeming contentedness at the end of the novel, then, stems from the fact that he’s stopped blaming society, or his own naivete, for his decision to marry May and instead embraced the choice the best way he knew how? He no longer felt victimized, but instead claimed his life and its choices for himself. Interesting to think about . . .

  7. KLS

    February 17, 2011

    It seems like external forces made the decision for Archer, that he was acted upon rather than acting for himself. But no community can keep a member captive against his or her will. It’s true that Archer’s family and associates intervened in ways that made it much more difficult for him to leave, but if his feelings for Ellen meant more to him than his social and family values, he could’ve made that trade. Maybe he would’ve if Ellen had wanted him to.

    I think Archer is, in many ways, more innocent than May. Ellen laughs at him for thinking their relationship could work, that they’d actually be happy together. He has very naive perspectives, and he suffers for them. Late in his life he’s reached a point of maturity where he’s resigned to the realities of life.

    “Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery… When he thought of Ellen it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed.”

    …Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it.”

    The real pain in these situations (both with Archer and with real life contemporary examples) is that people feel as if they’ve made a choice with “incomplete information,” or for immature reasons, and are then forced to live with the consequences of those decisions out of some sense of duty.

    That is indeed the fate of many people who marry young and/or out of a sense of social obligation. And you have to live with the consequences even if you eschew duty and end your first marriage for a more desirable/compatible one.

  8. Tiffany W.

    February 17, 2011

    I truly enjoyed reading the book and the film was just beautiful in so many ways. The questions Angela proposed are provocative and have made me think.

    First, I would argue that Archer did choose, over and over again, May over Ellen. At several points in their courtship, May offered Archer a way out. Each time as he sensed his feelings growing deeper and more complex for Ellen, he rushed to May and pressed his suit more fervantly.
    In the end, his family and his wife did manipulate him to end his relationship with Ellen. But he chose first. And I do believe that, while he didn’t necessarily owe something to his community or extended family, he owed something to May.
    Archer’s character is that of a dreamer and a thinker, but not with a bent of truly changing things or developing more empathy. Thus the reality of his relationship with Ellen and the reality of her would never compare favorably to his fantasy. I think that Edith Wharton shows that by his friendship with Ned–the writer and even the secretary. He finds their company interesting and enlightening, but their friendships never develop depth or lead to more empathy on the part of Archer.Nor does Archer ignore the social barriers between them. For example, there is a passage in the book where Archer is oblivious to what it means to have clean evening clothes which are more comfortable and thus feels that Ned is always complaining, never realizing that to be clean and comfortable can be a luxury. Archer never overcame his social barriers and couldn’t happily live with Ellen because she transcended those barriers.

    I liked this comment from Angela.
    “I think Zina hit it on the head with the idea that Archer’s problem was he felt that he didn’t make the decision to stick with May; that it was made for him by the community, or the expectations of the community. How many Mormon marriages suffer from the same line of thinking: “I was so young. I only married him because he was nice and a returned missionary and everybody else was marrying a nice returned missionary,” etc. The real pain in these situations (both with Archer and with real life contemporary examples) is that people feel as if they’ve made a choice with “incomplete information,” or for immature reasons, and are then forced to live with the consequences of those decisions out of some sense of duty.”
    But I would add that no one marries with complete information. I married young, at 20, to a man I had known all my life. Yet, after 13 years of marriage, I am just starting to get a more complete picture of him. My point is that people hide themselves in a myriad of ways. One never knows how one’s spouse will react to circumstances like disease, unemployment, accidents, financial difficulties, etc. It is only through experience that we gain a more complete picture of our choices. (That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t gather information to the best of our ability or use wisdom in choosing a marriage partner.)

  9. Tiffany W.

    February 17, 2011

    Did anyone find it ironic that Beaumont could have a mistress (frowned upon but not ostracized by society) but having his business fail was more dishonorable? And with that thought (though I don’t condone this) why was Archer not allowed to pursue Ellen as he wished? Was it that Ellen was family? Would have been allowed to pursue a mistress outside of the family?

  10. Angela

    February 17, 2011

    Kathy, great quote. Love it. I agree totally that Archer and his expectations are “innocent,” too — after all, Ellen has been married, she’s had a variety of wordly experiences that Archer hasn’t had, which is why she’s so attractive to him.

    But isn’t it interesting that those very qualities would probably turn sour for a traditional man like Archer very quickly? Although he claims to be disturbed by May’s innocence, he also relished being able to “teach” her, to show her the big, wide world and inculcate her with his perspectives on it. Ellen, on the other hand, already realizes that she has a more refined and experienced sensibility than Archer. Imagine how that would have worked out once they tried to settle into domestic life? Even if there had been no May, it still would have been very difficult for a man like Archer to navigate, no matter how much he though he wanted a cosmopolitan woman.

    And Tiffany, I totally agree with you that *no one* marries with complete information. Marrying older, with more time and experience (and damage and betrayals and cynicism) under your belt comes with its own set of difficulties. And marrying someone who is comfortable with your family and in your social milieu comes with many important benefits, even if this person isn’t as exciting or stimulating as you want him/her to be.

    And I think the reason people looked the other way with Beaufort but wouldn’t with Archer has a lot to do with May. May is the insider’s insider. She’d be like marrying a General Authority’s daughter. 🙂

  11. Melissa Y

    February 17, 2011

    I’ll have to read the book again with an eye for these things–it’s been too long. Love the discussion.

  12. Emily M.

    February 17, 2011

    Archer says at one point that Ellen lives a real life, implying that the world of New York is not real. And Ellen begins the novel thinking that New York is a kind of safe haven, when the whole world is gossiping about her. Each of them thinks the other person has some kind of reality they themselves lack.

    I don’t know if that answered any questions, just something I was thinking.

    Angela, it reminded me of interviews I’ve read about Bound on Earth: you wanted to explore what happens when people stay, instead of leaving. And this is a bit that way as well: even if Archer was manipulated into staying, he still stayed. He could have left everything, and he chose not to.

    And he ended up with a decently happy life. Not exciting and exotic, but then he wasn’t ever really seeing Ellen clearly anyway, and life with her might not have been so fantastic as he fantasized about.

    I think there’s a price to pay for a stable community and a stable world. There is a price to pay when you stay–you give up whatever you fantasized leaving would be like. You give that up and you replace it with the realities of a sometimes dull marriage, of a boring job, of regular life.

    And you get a stronger community, but also, I think, a stronger self. [total tangent: this is why I didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love: I felt like her version of finding herself through escaping reality was deceptive, self-centered, and ultimately flawed]. You know you’re committed to the people and the community around you, and that brings a kind of peace that abandoning them does not have.

  13. Sage

    February 17, 2011

    I was saddened by Archer’s belief that he was in love with Ellen. I think he was just afraid of becoming what he saw other men in his community being; the way he describes Larry Lefferts as a womanizer and even his father-in-law with his funny habits and physical neediness, and then he become a man that lacks true loyalty to his wife and a man boxed in by his habits.

    It was especially sad that his own son recognized how shallow May and Archer’s marriage was. He said they didn’t ever ask each other anything or talk to each other. That to me is the tragedy.

    That anyone is married to someone they feel trapped into marrying is an excuse not to love and come to know another person, if they feel duty bound to stay in the marriage (which I think they should, barring abuse or adultery).

    I think Archer and May could have found great happiness together if he hadn’t been deluded into thinking he “loved” Ellen. He made assumptions about May and seemed to never seek out her true self throughout their marriage.

  14. Kathryn Soper

    February 17, 2011

    I don’t think Archer’s love for May at the time of their marriage was any more legitimate than his love for Ellen. In both cases, he didn’t really know them and therefore couldn’t really love them. And May is just as culpable for the shallowness of their relationship.

    It’s possible that his assumptions about May keep him from ever knowing her. It’s also possible that his realization of how passionate and intimate he’s capable of feeling with a woman (Ellen) would make him more likely to seek that passion and intimacy with his wife, not less. In either case, both partners need to be willing to do the difficult and dangerous work of establishing deep intimacy.

  15. Angela

    February 17, 2011

    I agree that Archer didn’t really love either May or Ellen at the beginning of the novel. Both were infatuations, albeit infatuations with different reasons behind them. All romances begin as infatuations and then either deepen and develop or stagnate or even die.

    I also still believe that as far as real compatibility is concerned, although Archer and Ellen would have had some cultural and familial issues to overcome, they could have had a very satisfying relationship based on passion, a shared sensibility, a deep friendship and meeting of the minds. That’s why this novel is so interesting to me: it’s not the story of one man almost making a terrible mistake with a temptress. It’s the story of a man who has two choices: stability, righteousness, community, and honor, or romance, passion, excitement, and deep connection. But he couldn’t have both at the same time.

    This isn’t to say that in real life, some of us don’t have both; it’s the ideal. It’s what we all want (isn’t it?). And while the mundanity of everyday life can take a lot of the zip out of any relationship, the truth is that all of us want to love someone who makes us feel both safe and excited. In this novel, though, as well as in many people’s actual lives, a choice must be made between the two.

    I also agree with Kathy that establishing intimacy can be “difficult and dangerous” work. I wonder if it’s possible for someone like May (and of course, I’m extrapolating here, since we only see her as a young girl, not as the mature wife of Archer at the end of the novel) . . . but is it possible for a woman who is so bound up by ideas about propriety and the appearance of innocent femininity to feel free enough to explore the difficult and dangerous waters that intimacy often requires? And would Archer even expect (or want?) that from her, or believe it if he saw it? I do think that this is one of the unfortunate consequences of putting women on a pedestal: they’re too much like a sculpture or a work of art, not enough like a flesh and blood human being.

  16. Sage

    February 17, 2011

    I wish we had a deeper picture of May. We see her shooting her arrows with expertise. I like this view of her as an archer. Pun intended by the author?

    And we get a glimpse that she might have greater depth in her willingness to give Newland an out before their marriage. I also feel that Newland gave up on his idea of teaching May about the world because of his fascination with Ellen–at least that’s how it came across to me in the novel.

    I have to admit I didn’t enjoy this book very much. I guess I want to see someone seeking intimacy with their spouse, no matter how difficult. It seems like a greater, more mature challenge as some commenters have noted.

    I would have liked the book better if over the years we saw how Archer begins to see May and find ways to appreciate her. But I was satisfied with the ending. I was glad he chose not to see Ellen.

  17. cristie

    February 17, 2011

    yes…it was right for Archer to stay.
    yes…sacrifice for the greater good was required.
    yes…i’d hate to be him; but sometimes in small ways i am.

    his heart strayed yet he was noble in his resolution to “man up” and be loyal to his commitments.

    yes…may was much more sophisticated in heart matters than Archer had ever guessed.

    a great story.

  18. Darlene

    February 17, 2011

    Sage said, “That anyone is married to someone they feel trapped into marrying is an excuse not to love and come to know another person, if they feel duty bound to stay in the marriage (which I think they should, barring abuse or adultery).”

    I have to agree. I agree with Kathy that Archer didn’t really love May when he married her. But I don’t think that has anything to do with whether he could have developed love for her after. He never bothered to. He chose to believe in the construct he’d created and labeled “Ellen,” instead of learning to truly love and know another person (either woman).

    I used to like the romance of this book, the self-denial. This time I hated it. What a horrible waste caused by Archer’s imagination of what “true romance” could be with Ellen. It reminded me of what Marilla says to Anne: “You’ve tricked something out of that imagination of yours that you call romance.” We see inklings that there was much more to May than Archer ever realized–that, to me, is the sign that he could have been deeply satisfied with her had he allowed himself to truly come to know her. But he never bothered.

  19. Sage

    February 17, 2011

    I had a bias against this story to start with because I thought it was about adultery. Before I was married I didn’t think that much about adulterous affairs in movies and books. I knew they were fiction and usually found something interesting in the stories. But when I was first married we were with some friends and they wanted to go see a movie. (Might have been Bridges of Madison County). My husband said he didn’t want to watch something that promoted adultery. at first I was inclined to protest not getting to socialize, then I realized my husband didn’t want to think about the idea of adultery as being acceptable. I decided I liked that idea.

    And after twenty years I’ve learned a few things about loving another human being. He may not be as exciting a person as I might meet along the way, but marriage is about learning about yourself and this other person. True love is deeper than just immediate friendship or depth of understanding. It is even more than admiration and connection. That’s why this book was so tragic for me, I wanted more for these people.

  20. Angela

    February 17, 2011

    I guess I’m kind of surprised that Archer is getting such rough treatment here, especially given the end of the novel. Yes, he made some really dumb choices during the course of his infatuation with Ellen, and yes, he failed to see May for who she really was and didn’t give her enough credit, and yes, he idealized the type of life he could have had with Ellen, a life that wouldn’t have been a realistic one (which Ellen was wise enough to point out to him).

    But I agree with Tiffany: he did choose May, over and over again. The reasons were complex, but he did, in the end, choose her. I think the end of the novel supports this especially. The picture we have of their life and marriage together is not a sad one, in my opinion. I think they did find some satisfaction. I think he did “bother.” Of course, we don’t have much information to go on, but I think we can tell a lot by May’s dying words, which were ones of gratitude, love, and understanding: “She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”

    Are we not to believe May, that Ellen was someone he truly wanted? And not just in his imagination, but someone who might have, in fact, been better suited to him? Who knows if this would actually have turned out to be the case . . . but it is true that some people are better suited to us than others, and that sometimes, people marry those who aren’t as well-suited to them as somebody else could have been, and they have to make a choice about whether or not they are going to stay committed in the face of this knowledge. Archer stayed committed and still ended up with a satisfying life and a wife who loved him and was grateful for him. I guess I read this more positively than some of you did.

    In my opinion, the novel that Wharton wrote is one where we’re supposed to believe that the romance between Ellen and Archer — while ill-timed, ill-advised, even a sin — *was* a sacrifice to give up, not just an illusion in a romantic’s head. Of course, aspects of the relationship were an illusion, but there was real substance there, too. In the end, though, Archer did choose May, his community, his family. I think he deserves a little credit for that.

  21. chanson

    February 18, 2011

    And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

    I think the above statement is more about finding the customs and assumptions of his society repellent than it is about finding May personally repellant.

    I don’t think the “innocence” in the title refers to the traditional YW-value-virtue-type innocence. By my reading, Newland starts out seeing the customs and values of his community as being self-evident, and through the course of the first half of the novel becomes disillusioned as he comes to understand more clearly how his social world is constructed and how it works. Ellen turns Newland’s world on its side by showing him alternate possibilities. She sets up a house for herself in an unfashionable part of town. She frequents and befriends people who are interesting but are looked down on by the polite society (old money families) of Manhattan. Worst of all — those top aristocrats that are revered by all of New York — she dares to find them dull. It’s Newland who has lost his innocent perspective and hence doesn’t want to squeeze back into the box of the New York high society small-town mentality.

    I’ve discussed this in relation to a couple of other popular leisure-class novels here.

  22. Amira

    February 18, 2011

    Quoting Angela here: “In my opinion, the novel that Wharton wrote is one where we’re supposed to believe that the romance between Ellen and Archer — while ill-timed, ill-advised, even a sin — *was* a sacrifice to give up, not just an illusion in a romantic’s head. Of course, aspects of the relationship were an illusion, but there was real substance there, too. In the end, though, Archer did choose May, his community, his family. I think he deserves a little credit for that.”

    Exactly. I think the credit might have been easier to give if we’d had more of the 26-year gap filled in. I don’t think Archer spent that entire 26 years wishing for what might have been. And May’s dying words are powerful. It sounds to me that she completely trusted Archer, and that kind of trust means a lot, even if other aspects of the relationship were lacking.

    I just wish Archer had clued in sooner that May knew more than he thought she did. But maybe it was better that he didn’t till after she died. And that he learned it from the child who was the reason he didn’t leave.

  23. Zina

    February 18, 2011

    There are a couple of passages (forgive me for not locating and quoting them) where Archer catches a glimpse that May has more under the surface, and he likes and is attracted to that in her, but in both cases she promptly returns to her former way of behaving once the need has passed and (at least in Archer’s view of her) she has no motive to be more real or intimate with him in any but the direst need. I’m not sure if her reticence is Archer’s fault, or May’s, or society’s, or all of the above, but it does seem to me that their failure to attain greater intimacy is at least partly May’s failure. I’m not sure that if Archer had clued in sooner she would have reciprocated with greater openness.

  24. Sage

    February 18, 2011

    Angela, you are right to point out Archer’s actual choices. As I said before, I thought the book was about adultery, but it wasn’t. It was about how a man, despite his conflicted feelings, chooses not to physically engage his romantic inclinations (and that choice was influenced by Ellen herself, May’s pregnancy, society’s expectations and maybe even the inconvenience of it).

    So, the Age of Innocence might refer to the social time period that kept their behavior in check as well as their immaturity. That relates to our Mormon culture for sure. Our behaviors are definitely kept in check by what our parents, church leaders and neighbors think, but only if we choose to care what they think. In the novel Newland began to care less because of Ellen’s example, but not so little that he could throw caution to the wind.

    And I see that, despite their shallow marriage as described by their son, there was trust and loyalty in their marriage. But that might be why I also longed to see true intimacy develop. I’m a sucker for a happy ending (or maybe what I wanted was a happy middle!)

  25. cristie

    February 18, 2011

    ohhh, like like like what Chanson has to say. xox

  26. Tiffany W.

    February 18, 2011

    I really want to discuss this:
    ” In our own 21st century Mormon culture, do we continue to engage in the “conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses” to create what Archer sees as a “factitious [female] purity,” or is our idealized version of womanhood different than the one embodied by May Welland in the novel? If there are similarities, how does this idealized version of womanhood affect modern-day LDS marriages?”

    But alas, I’m frantically packing for a family trip. I hope to take it up again in a few days. Hopefully, people will still be engaged in the discussion so I can chime in with my thoughts and opinion.

  27. Angela

    February 18, 2011

    Chanson, great points. I enjoyed reading your blog post as well. I agree, too, that it’s not necessarily May herself that Archer finds repellent, but the society that requires her to betray herself in order to appear a certain way.

    Interestingly, one of the reasons Archer gives for the formulation of this “factitious purity” is for the purpose of allowing men, with their wordly experience, the pleasure of smashing it. That’s one place where I think the purity and innocence spoken of in this novel diverges with what you called the “YW virtue” type purity that’s prized in our own culture. I don’t think contemporary Mormon men (generally speaking) are nearly as invested in “shattering” their wives’ carefully constructed purity as the men of Archer’s age. After all, one interesting difference is that we DO expect that men remain as pure and virtuous, at least sexually, as women before marriage, whereas the men in Archer’s circle were expected to sow their wild oats before settling down with a nice, virginal girl.

    But I do think there’s something factitious about the way *some* Mormon females believe they must behave in order to win a man, and at least some of it is an echo of the culture we see at work in this novel. It’s not a particularly Mormon phenomenon, of course. Women all over the world act a little dumber than they are, a little more helpless, more focused on external beauty and social prominence than is healthy, all of that. But we do have our brand of it, a brand that has been satirized so hilariously on Seriously So Blessed. (So sad that blog is finito!)

    And Zina, I loved your insight about May’s culpability in the problems she and Archer experience. Although her guard comes down occasionally, she does revert back to the artificial construct she’s been taught by her culture that she must be. And although the type of Mormon woman that is satirized on Seriously So Blessed is an obvious exaggeration for comic effect, I do think that any good satire contains an element of truth, and that some Mormon women suffer from the same kind of “factitious” construction of self that May suffers from. Such behavior is partly the fault of culture, partly the fault of the individual, but that kind of inauthenticity certainly does adversely affect relationships and marriages.

    Tiffany, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this when you get back!

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