The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

One January evening during the late 1870s, Newland Archer, a prominent young member of New York's high society, arrives fashionably late to a performance of the opera Faust at the old New York Academy of Music. Earlier that day, he became engaged to the beautiful and highly regarded May Welland, a member of another prominent family. As Archer watches May Welland, who is sitting in the box of her grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, holding the bouquet of lilies of the valley he sent, he thinks of how he will mold May, whom he regards as naive and innocent, into the "worldly wise and ... eager to please" wife he desires.

Newland Archer sits with a group of society "gentlemen" who are engaged in "turn[ing] their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system." Among them are Lawrence Lefferts, "the foremost authority on 'form' in New York," and Sillerton Jackson, whose knowledge of New York's complex web of family ties, as well as its scandals and mysteries past and present, is unparalleled. The arrival of an unusually dressed young woman, later revealed to be Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter Ellen Olenska, causes a stir among the gentlemen, and Sillerton Jackson remarks critically, "I didn't think the Mingotts would have tried it on."

Analysis

In this first chapter, Wharton introduces the reader to the three main characters: the protagonist, the fashionable yet contemplative Newland Archer; his fiancée, society darling May Welland; and her unconventional cousin, Ellen Olenska. Wharton gives significant attention to the characterization of Newland and May as well as minor characters such as Lawrence Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson, but she leaves Ellen unnamed, describing her only in terms of her appearance. This signifies that Ellen, although clearly part of May's family, is also a stranger.

In using the opera as the setting for the novel's opening, Wharton portrays the values, social mechanisms, and customs that define the society of a small band of wealthy, aristocratic New Yorkers during the 1870s. For the members of this society, attendance at the opera is regular and important. Significantly, they attend not to watch the opera, but rather to watch one another. This society values appearances and conformity, and the opera is a place to see and be seen, to judge and be judged. In particular, it is a place where men watch and judge women.

The opera, composed by Frenchman Charles Gounod, is Faust (1859), the story about a man who sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles for a variety of pleasures. In return, he gains wealth, food, women, and knowledge, none of which please him as well as he thought they would. Ultimately, he is dragged off the stage to his eternal damnation. The novel ends with the same opera, symbolizing the way in which Archer sells his soul to New York high society through his engagement to May Welland, the unsatisfying pleasures he earns thereby, and the fate to which he is doomed.

The men watching instantly judge the appearance of the unconventionally dressed young woman as an unacceptable breach of custom. They are astonished—or at least feign astonishment. This moment encapsulates the novel's central conflict as well as some of Wharton's primary themes. Ellen Olenska signifies individuality and change in a society that condemns both. The stir at the opera is merely the beginning of the complications that her presence will cause in New York society. By describing the men watching and judging Ellen from afar, as well as situating the narrative from the perspective of Newland Archer, Wharton underscores the primacy of the male gaze in this culture. In patriarchal Victorian-era New York, men are the judges and women are the objects of judgment.

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