The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Book 1, Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Mrs. Archer and Newland Archer make an appeal on behalf of Ellen Olenska to Louisa van der Luyden, whom Newland Archer has always regarded "as having 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 Luydens serve as "the arbiters of fashion, the Court of last Appeal," but Newland Archer speculates this is merely an aristocratic duty they are fulfilling without desire.

Contrary to her habit of delay, Louisa van der Luyden immediately summons her husband to hear the appeal himself. Newland Archer suggests that Lawrence Lefferts has spread rumors about Ellen Olenska's immorality to draw attention away from his own philandering. Mr. van der Luyden proclaims that the Mingotts' support for Ellen Olenska is sufficient reason to accept her into respectable society. He announces that he will invite Ellen Olenska to an upcoming exclusive dinner with their aristocratic European relative, the Duke of St. Austrey. The news of this invitation quickly spreads throughout the community.

Analysis

Although the van der Luydens epitomize social control, Newland Archer recognizes that they accept their power with reluctance, out of a sense of duty. They are trapped in their powerful position, bound to it by their ancestry. Here Wharton demonstrates the ways the social code demands inauthentic behavior and self-repression, even from those who are accorded the most authority. All respectable New Yorkers, whether at the top or bottom of the hierarchy, are enslaved by the same rules, which demand conformity, duty, and the silencing of personal desires.

The death imagery in Newland's impression of Mrs. van der Luyden is a repeated motif in the novel. Wharton uses images of entombment, wherein the dead are perfectly preserved in their lifelessness, to build her theme of New York society's inability to recognize, accept, or participate in change. Decades have passed since Mrs. van der Luyden's portrait was painted, and the fact that there is little difference between her current appearance and her painted likeness signifies that hers is a life devoid of change. She has not developed intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Despite the respect he has for the van der Luydens, Newland does not observe them with admiration: Mrs. Van der Luyden is "gruesomely preserved," like a corpse frozen in ice, and her husband has a similarly frozen, grayed-out appearance. Their "shrouded" house is "so complete an image of its owners." The frozen, lifeless quality of the van der Luydens is symbolic of the entire society over which they preside. The fact that Newland takes note of this signifies his increasing dissatisfaction with society and foreshadows his attempts to prevent his own entombment.

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