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Woman Issues In The Age Of Innocence English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1276 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Written in 1920, The Age of Innocence is generally regarded as Edith Wharton’s most successful work. In The Age of Innocence, Wharton tells the story from the hero Newland Archer’s point of view, focusing on how he deals with struggles of self-positioning, love and marriage. But the author also draws the readers’ attention to the untold stories of the two heroines Ellen Olenska and May Welland. Many scholars studying Edith Wharton’s literary works make researches from the feminism perspective, and the perspective of this paper is in that Ellen and May are the major concern, in Wharton’s story, the women characters are depicted as both victims of their life tragedy as well as the conspirators that determine their own fate. Ambivalence toward the woman issue can be seen from the novel.

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Two Types of Women Characters

In The Age of innocence¼ŒWharton presents two women characters to suggest two contrastive approaches to life¼ŽMay is the fair American girl with a slim, athletic body and an innocent mind. Ellen, on the other hand, is “the dark, passionate beauty with the experience of Europe”(C.J.Singley, 1996). May represents “the safe, secure world of New York gentility whereas Ellen the exotic, the original, and the unknown” (C.J.Singley, 1996)¼Ž

Through the analysis of these two female characters, Wharton’s attention to women’s liberation can be seen. For Ellen, Wharton gives her intellectual freedom, an artistic eye and feminine charms. For example, rather than wearing the virginal white tulle May wears, “Ellen dresses in more provocative styles such as the dark blue velvet Josephine-style gown”(Deter,2007). Her sitting room is ‘unlike any other women’s¼šby a turn of her hand, Ellen has transformed a shabby hired house into “something intimate, foreign, and subtly suggestive of old romantic-Scenes and sentiments”(Wharton, 2005, P76). Nevertheless, she has developed an independent and original view on life, rather than following others’ leads. Traditionally, marriage is the destination that all women are supposed to reach and the only way to be happy. For Ellen, however, an unhappy marriage is nothing more than a restriction. She values her own freedom¼Œand she will ask for a divorce when her marriage is not working in the right way, though divorce is not favored by social customs. Ellen always wants to get away from social limitations and restrictions and get to the vibrant world with cities that are filled with art and music. She looks forward for a social circle in which she can exchange ideas with friends sharing the same interests. Though she has to make some sacrifices to reach her ideal life, she has retained her intellectual liberty.

For the other female character May, when she makes her official appearance in the novel, “In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, the taIl girl looked like a Diana just alight from the chase.” (Wharton, 2005, P62) One could immediately associate her with youth and virginity. Nevertheless, in every sense, May could not be considered as vacant and simple as her fiancé Archer had imagined. May was born and raised to meet the request of the patriarchal world¼Œshe believes that she is entitled to acquire an ideal life that she longs for. It is natural for her to have an expectation to be a happy wife and to build a steady family. As a newly married bride, she is eagerly waiting for her husband to put the priority on her and the family they are about to build, and hopes that he would present her a happily- ever-after life. Also, May carries out her duty in her small family perfectly. Newland makes many attempts to change her, however she has chosen to live by rule that society has set for women, because that are what she is familiar with and does great at. She understands the code of old New York perfectly because “she has the power of a classical goddess” (Deter,2007). May has the ability to exactly hit the target—Newland.

The two female characters that Wharton created are different yet closely connected¼ŽThey represent two paradoxical views on women’s identity. While other feminists struggled to find ways out of limitations that offered by the old world, Wharton was skeptical about the belief that there was an actual exit. According to Zhang(2007), Ellen is portrayed as a symbol of Wharton’s willing to challenge social traditions, but still she does not believe in the idea that the social order should have a drastic change. As a result, in The Age of Innocence, we can still find the usual plot of happiness gained from marriage. Although Wharton makes Ellen Olenska her ideals of freedom¼Œbut in general, she sees the problems in what the society has offered, but when it comes to another option, the question remains.

Social Gender Roles

In the novel, different behaviors and manners are expected from both men and women. Professions such as banking or law, or politics were seen as more “distinguished and acceptable” for men.(Chen,2006) Women are expected to act according to society’s conventions “as innocent wives, mothers, and daughters”.(Chen,2006) In The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton puts opposite options for both men and women, one is to follow the orders of the mainstream society and the other is to revolt from the forbiddance. From this we can see that her attitude towards the old gender roles and her understanding of human life are ambivalent.

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In The Age of Innocence Wharton contemplates on marriage types in her time in America, In some occasions, a man owns a female and a female needs a man to ensure her what she wants in life. There are several qualities that the female is supposed to have in order to guarantee herself a male, which also leave her with no other power or ability at all. Women of innocence like May are trapped in their limited roles. Newland Archer perceives May as “a light under ice”(Wharton, 2005, p172)¼›she embodies “the steadying sense of an inescapable duty”.( Wharton, 2005, p183) Except for May, Mrs.Welland is also an example of socially required woman(she trains her daughter to be one as well). She believes in the prescribed gender relationship, which tells people the right and wrong. Her relationship with her husband serves for May as a model in her marriage.

While women like Ellen, although they are mostly alien to the old society, they are still fearless in fighting for what they want. In that patriarchic society women must follow the rules that are determined by men. For example, in the novel, Lawrence Lefferts is an example of hypocrisy. He himself has numerous illegal love affairs but he severely criticizes Ellen for divorcing her husband. However, the New York society treated him with tolerance only because he is a male.


The Age of Innocence centers on an upper class couple’s impending marriage, and the introduction of a woman plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness.( Wikipedia). Edith Wharton has an accurate portral of the life of the upper caste in New York of the early 1900s. The women life she depicted showed an ambivalent attitude toward women issues. For Edith Wharton, as an individual, she has put efforts to adapt herself to contemporary life and at the same time to try figuring out changes of the society that are going on around her, and this ambiguity is quite natural.


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