The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Symbols



In Chapter 2, Newland Archer goes to the Blenker house in Newport, driven by a longing to see the place where Ellen Olenska is staying. On a trellis outside the shabby, overgrown house, Newland notices a "wooden Cupid who had lost his bow and arrow but continued to take ineffectual aim." This "ineffectual" Cupid symbolizes Newland's position with regard to Ellen Olenska and to his larger life: his romantic and existential impotence. What chance Newland might have had of being with Ellen is gone. She has remained married to her husband as a result of his own legal advice and has moved to Washington. In the previous chapter, Newland sees her from behind; he has orders to summon her but doesn't. He just stands and watches, and carries away with him the material for a vision that will fruitlessly consume him and draw him away from his real life. He has no means of getting to Ellen but continues to seek her. Similarly, he will never step out of his life in New York and reach the new land that his first name suggests and his heart imagines to be better than the world he knows. His last name indicates that he is, archetypically, an archer, but the Cupid without bow or arrow reveals that he is an archer without any means of hitting his target, destined forever only to imagine hitting the target.

May, however, is an archer who hits her target. She hits it literally in Chapter 21, winning the Newport Archery Club competition and being awarded a diamond-tipped arrow. Newland repeatedly compares her aloofness with that of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt (and of fertility), who is depicted carrying a bow and arrow. In Chapter 33 May metaphorically hits her big target, with a single arrow that traps Newland as it sends Ellen fleeing. Her pregnancy—invented, and later real—is the weapon that strengthens the symbolic connection between May and Diana. Newland underestimates his wife, thinking he is the better archer because he imagines her to lack intellectual and emotional depth. But for all Newland's grandiose existential dithering, it is May who hits the bull's-eye.


In her first conversation with Newland Archer since they were children, Ellen Olenska describes the gulf of experience—a lifetime's worth—that has separated her from the New York society she was a part of when she was a child. Ellen says she's been gone "so long ... that [she's] sure [she's] dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven." Newland Archer, immediately suspicious of Ellen, reads disrespect into her characterization. But Ellen still believes that she will be receiving a warm welcome by her kinfolk and New York society: her characterization is poetic yet sincere. The sanctuary it seems to offer seems unreal to her. In Chapter 9, she describes her little house in New York as "heaven," specifically because of "the blessedness of its being here, in my own country and my own town; and then, of being alone in it." New York feels safe, it feels like home, and she is newly free of her abusive husband. Ellen believes New York society makes its members "feel cared for and safe," which is what she wants.

But Ellen has already realized that heaven comes with conditions: unpleasant truths must never be spoken of, as Mrs. Welland frankly tells her. Overcome with emotion at the loneliness this entails for a woman who has lived through a great many things considered unpleasant, Ellen cries. When Newland is shocked by her tears, she asks, "Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there's no need to, in heaven." In Chapter 15 Ellen is upset, having realized society believes her "helpless and defenseless ... women here seem not—seem never to feel the need: any more than the blessed in heaven." It is not clear to Newland what need Ellen is alluding to. He assumes something has happened, but Ellen asks rhetorically, "Does anything ever happen in heaven?" The symbolic meaning of New York as heaven shifts, from a sanctuary and place of happy rest to a place where repression makes life dull and lonely. Mrs. Manson Mingott alludes to this double meaning of heaven when she speaks of Ellen's "boredom" and describes the rest of the family's idea of Fifth Avenue, the center of the New York world: "They think Fifth Avenue is Heaven with the Rue de la Paix thrown in" (Chapter 33).


In Greek mythology, Gorgons are winged female monsters whose hair is made of snakes, sometimes cast as creatures of the underworld. Medusa, the most famous of the Gorgons, was killed by Perseus, but her decapitated head turned anyone who looked at it to stone. This symbol appears in a conversation between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in Chapter 29. Ellen explains she's had to look at the Gorgon—the ugly realities of life. Newland suggests the Gorgon is "just an old bogey like all the others," and Ellen counters, "She doesn't blind one; but she dries up one's tears." Ellen explains that the Gorgon ends a person's innocence, "so that they're never again in the blessed darkness."

In this sense, Newton lives in an age of innocence. His life has cushioned him from ugly truths, and he lives in a society that scrupulously avoids confronting as well as speaking of all that is "unpleasant." Ellen, who has left her cruel and unfaithful husband only to be snubbed in New York as an adulteress because of her husband's allegations, has viscerally experienced life's darkness. Her illusions have been destroyed by her experience—unlike Newland Archer, who lives in a world of illusion and fantasy. He casts his society's conventional treatment of looking at unpleasant things as wrong and posits that to look at the unpleasant is no harm at all, but this is because of his innocence. Ellen sets him straight: experience comes with a price, and with a certain amount of experience one can never again imagine the world to be a fair or kind place.


In New York society, windows are a thing to be elaborately decorated with fashionable curtains—that is, they are to be covered rather than opened, to keep one's attention within the space of the room rather than to encourage one to look out of the room upon the world. For Newland Archer, windows symbolize the opportunity to step out of one's comfort zone into the world beyond. Yet Newland can never do more than gaze through the window. He makes just this one step toward breaking from his society, and the distance between his perspective and the narrator's allows Wharton to show the reader both what a great step it is and how limited he remains behind his window.

As a young man, Archer repeatedly fantasizes about being part of the world beyond the narrow New York society he lives in. This desire is concentrated within the person of Ellen Olenska, who comes to New York and is herself a figurative "window" into the fascinating artistic and intellectual European way of life that Newland Archer imagines to be so much preferable to the dense, ritualized atmosphere of New York. In Chapter 30, Archer looks at May and realizes she will never surprise or delight him with cleverness or depth; his reaction is to feel stifled, and he opens the window. The view of a world outside, larger than his marriage or his life, calms him, but he and May proceed to quarrel about the open window. May wants the window shut; she fears that he will "catch [his] death," and Archer insists that he must be able to be open windows if he is to be happy. However, May prevails and Archer shuts the window—just as May prevails in eventually separating Ellen and Archer, effectively turning him into a dutiful husband who is attentive to his domestic duties, rather than held enraptured by a vision of another place triggered by a window.

When the widowed Archer visits Paris with his grown son Dallas in the novel's final chapter, Dallas surprises Archer by announcing that he's arranged for them to call on Ellen Olenska. Archer declines to enter Ellen's home with his son, and instead waits outside, looking up at the windows with their half-drawn awnings. His mind conjures up rich details of an imagined scene inside Ellen Olenska's living room, and Archer finally realizes that the experience is "more real" looked at from the outside than if he were to actually enter. When a servant at last draws the awnings, Archer goes back to his hotel. The shutting of the windows makes Archer's choice for him: he'd rather preserve the vision of his imagination, of the world he imagines exists on the other side of the window, than to actually step inside it and perhaps be disappointed.

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