Edith Wharton was an American author and Pulitzer Prize winner whose personal life and passion influenced her writing (Cliffsnotes, 2018). Edith Wharton was the author of the novel of “The Age of Innocence” which was published in 1920. In this novel, many issues were brought up in which people still go through to this present day, such as society expectations, women empowerment, divorce and lives of the wealthy. In this novel, “The Age of Innocence” there are two very different kinds of women who are the complete opposites of each other, May Welland and Ellen Olenska, who are the main female characters of this novel. Even though they come from the same social class, their character and behaviour in society is completely different. The roles in which they have as women are both very different especially during the times that they were in and with their relationship to Archer Newland their mindsets are also shown to be different. They both show different qualities and attributes. The difference between these two women also show changes between past and present times and how women’s status in society has broadened.
One of the leading male characters, Newland Archer was seen as “what was called a faithful husband”(Wharton 1920, p.287) but before he got married to May, Archer had an affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworthy. Men were not looked down upon for having relations with women before marriage, whereas women were expected to be innocent and pure and were not allowed to have previous relations before marriage. “It was his duty as a ‘decent’ fellow to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal.” (Wharton 1920, p.32) After Archer got married to May, he fell in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Archer was oblivious to the fact that society knew about his feelings for Ellen which shows his innocence. Archer’s character is shown to be shameful as well as innocent.
Many characters spoke about importance of innocence within society, but they were the ones who were not innocent at all, which is very hypocritical. For example, Larry Lefforts was looked up upon as New York’s authority on form and the way he dressed, and was also seen as a role model for young men. He also spoke a lot about chastity and morality, however, he kept having affairs with other women behind his wife’s back, but his wife was completely blind towards it and had no idea about what he was doing.
May Welland is shown to be the most innocent character out of all the characters. May has all the qualities that were expected from society. She was seen as shy, innocent and naïve to the world around her. The Daisy song which embarrasses May as she has “a warm pink mounted to the girl’s cheek”(Wharton 1920, p.2) which shows the reader that she is a sweet girl who can’t do any harm to anyone. Newland would also send her lilies everyday which was a sign of her innocence and purity. However, later on in the novel we find out that she is not really who she seems to be and is sly and cunning as she fakes a pregnancy so that Ellen and Newland leave each other. May is shown to be unknowing of the relationship between Newland and Ellen when in reality, she knows what is going on and makes a plan to stop the relationship. May is not the innocent girl everyone thinks she is but has to continue to act this way so that she is not seen as someone who goes against societies norms and expectations.
Lastly, the character Ellen Olenska is shown be as the least innocent of them all, as the novel always focuses on how she dresses, her actions and opinions. But in reality, I believe she is the most innocent of them all as she has no idea about the social mistakes that she makes and she is not a fake person like the others. She shows who she really is and doesn’t put an act on. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by her aunt who was an independent woman. This differentiates Ellen from all the other characters of those typical New Yorkers in The Age of Innocence. Ellen receives “expensive but incoherent education” (Wharton 1920, p.44) which makes her incompatible with society and this is why she is separated from the old New York society. The novel shows us that Ellen is a strong-minded and independent woman with individuality. “She was a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerting questions, made precocious comments, and possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl-dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar.” (Wharton 1920, p.44) Ellen tries to get freedom by leaving her unfaithful husband and goes back to New York, however, her actions cause a lot of shock and bad rumours as this isn’t acceptable in society’s ‘norm’. “It was not the custom in new York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another.” (Wharton 1920, p.47) She is shown to be shameful and not innocent within society, however, “the countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule” (Wharton 1920, p.47). Ellen is shown as innocent as she expresses herself and does not hide anything. Ellen ignores what society thinks about her and doesn’t seem to care about what people say whereas May lives her life to try and please society.
In the society, how a person seemed to be and how they really was were completely different, as if they had two personalities. As we can see many characters seemed to appear innocent when really this was not the case at all. The novel shows us that most of the characters have some type of scandalous behaviour which they hide from society. Most of all the characters appear innocent within the society, but they are actually hiding the scandalous behaviours. Out of all the characters in the book, Ellen is the only character who does not hide who she truly is and is her true self, this makes her the most innocent character of them all. As she grew up in Europe, which was different to living in New York, she had no idea about any mistakes she would make in the New York society. The novel shows that those who are shown as innocent are really the ones who are not and those who are shown as being scandalous are really the innocent ones. “Innocence’ can be interpreted in many ways. Wharton’s use of the term is frequently ironic, and at the very least, its meaning shifts according to one’s viewpoint.” (Novel Guide, 2018).