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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Themes


The Subjugation of Women

The subjugation of women to male authority is a prominent theme in the text. Wharton's choice of Newland Archer as the sole character whose thoughts, feelings, and observations are revealed to the reader draws attention to the imbalance of power between the sexes in Victorian-era New York. The reader doesn't have access to the inner lives of May Welland or Ellen Olenska and must understand these women in terms of Newland's perceptions of them. This narrative technique mirrors the position of women in Newland's New York: they are passive objects, in need of the protection, guidance, and judgment of men. However, Newland Archer is not the narrator, and this is an important distinction. The distance between Newland Archer's perspective and that of the narrator allows Wharton to insert her own critique of patriarchal society.

At the start of their engagement, Newland regards May as a blank slate. She is a marriageable young woman because she is both physically beautiful and completely lacking in opinions, experience, and desires. He takes for granted that he will shape May according to his own desires, by means of his "enlightening companionship." As the narrator points out, his ideal wife is a contradiction in terms: she is both "worldly-wise and ... eager to please" (Chapter 1). When May's interests fail to align with his own, Newland decides May is completely devoid of an inner life. Because she does not reveal her thoughts or feelings to him, Newland assumes she has none. He sees her as "a type rather than a person" (Chapter 19).

Newland's attitude toward Ellen is also marked by his assumptions of male superiority and female inferiority. His very attraction for her is itself a product of these assumptions. Newland is blown away by the mere existence of a woman who speaks frankly and displays a capacity for intellectual and reflective thought. She exists so far beyond his conception of femininity that he finds himself utterly controlled by a desire to possess her, much like one might desire to possess an exotic object from a faraway land. At various times, he feels the need to enlighten her, to save her, and to protect her from her actions.

Newland doesn't see Ellen as an equal, despite his empty proclamation that "women ought to be free—as free as [men] are" (Chapter 5). This is evident when Newland automatically assumes the truth of Count Olenski's accusations of adultery. Although he is acting as her lawyer, Newland does not give Ellen a chance to respond to the accusations. He proceeds to give her legal advice based on the assumption the accusations are true, without ever revealing to her that his belief in her adultery is the reason for this counsel. Because this is a society in which women are what men say they are, Ellen's side of the story is simply irrelevant. Newland bolsters his belief that Ellen is an adulteress by considering his stereotypes about women: they are less truthful then men, being "subject creature[s] ... versed in the arts of the enslaved" (Chapter 31). Newland is a hypocrite because he condemns female adultery only when he does not stand to benefit from it. His long premarital affair with the married Mrs. Thorley Rushworth, as well as his willingness for Ellen to commit adultery by sleeping with him, are evidence of this.

Despite his male privilege and misogynistic assumptions of superiority, Newland is ultimately denied power over both May and Ellen. By lying about being pregnant, May not only prevents Newland from having sex with Ellen, she also ensures Ellen's permanent return to Europe. When she finds out later she actually is pregnant, it becomes impossible for Newland to follow Ellen to Europe as he planned. May's pregnancy, symbolic of an innate feminine power beyond the understanding of any man, allows her to get what she wants: a faithful, dutiful husband. It provides Ellen the impetus to return to a happier life among people who understand and accept her, out of Newland's reach and with her self-respect intact. By rendering Newland passive and erasing his illusions of power and freedom, May's pregnancy inverts the usual power dynamic between the sexes.


In polite New York society, duty, not personal desires, needs, or preferences, guides the actions of individuals. To disregard one's duty is to bring dishonor not only upon oneself, but upon one's entire family. Different social positions bring with them different duties, but one duty underlies all others: the duty to conform.

Newland Archer's most ardent desire is to possess Ellen Olenska, but to do so would require him to abandon his duty to May Welland and their families. There are several instances when Newland Archer is prepared to renounce his duty and act upon his desire to be with Ellen. Each time, duty calls him back—and he answers the call. Although Newland is inwardly critical of society, he does not possess the strength of character to reject his duty and live a more authentic life. He becomes an actor, outwardly dutiful but inwardly miserable.

Newland is not the only character who struggles with the idea of duty. When Ellen Olenska first arrives in New York, she fails to understand that, as a woman separated from her husband and accused of adultery, it is her duty to behave as inconspicuously as possible. She is determined to attain the freedom of a divorce. However, New York considers it a wife's duty to stand by her husband no matter what. After Newland counsels her in his capacity as a lawyer, Ellen realizes she has a duty to her family. Realizing how her divorce would hurt and scandalize her family, Ellen decides to sacrifice her personal freedom to fulfill her duty to them, and she ceases pursuing divorce. However, she is unwilling to endure abuse in the name of duty. She draws the line at returning to her husband, even when her family believes it is her duty to do exactly that.

When Julius Beaufort's crooked dealings cause his bank to fail, his wife, Regina, asks Mrs. Manson Mingott for the social support of the family. Mrs. Manson Mingott blames her subsequent stroke on her shock at Regina Beaufort's apparent willingness to cast aside her duty. Regina is expected to bear her husband's dishonor as her own, and husband and wife are expected to acknowledge their shame through self-imposed exile. Regina ignores this duty and remains in New York, where she becomes friends with Ellen Olenska—another woman considered by society to have shamefully failed at her marital duties.

Wharton's treatment of the concept of duty is critical yet nuanced. Duty is constricting, but as Ellen Olenska realizes, it also contains "things so fine and sensitive and delicate" that unrestricted freedom seems "hard and shabby and base" by comparison (Chapter 24). For Ellen, the fulfillment of duty brings limitations but also the peace of knowing she is not hurting those who care about her by acting selfishly. At the end of the novel, after May's death, Newland looks back on his life and reconsiders the concept of duty anew. He no longer equates duty with imprisonment, as he did during the height of his feelings for Ellen. Having spent the previous 20-plus years being a dutiful husband and father, Newland sees there is "dignity" in fulfilling one's duty with integrity. However, this dignity comes at a price. Newland realizes he has lost the capacity to step outside his habits: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else" (Chapter 34). When at age 57 he finds himself living in a world where duty no longer matters, a lifetime spent in service to duty has rendered Newland unable to claim the personal freedom he dreamed of embodying in his youth.


At the start of their engagement, Newland Archer considers May Welland's innocence a mark of her fine breeding and a sign of her suitability as a wife. In the first scene, Newland observes May at the opera, reflecting she is a "darling" who "doesn't even guess what it's all about." She is a "product of the system," which is devoted to producing women who are "nice," meaning they lack experience and do not speak their minds. Her family is dedicated to shielding May from all knowledge of the more unpleasant realities of life: Mrs. Welland speaks of her husband's "horror" that May would learn "such things" as divorce "were possible" (Chapter 16). Newland considers himself more worldly and enlightened than May and anticipates the pleasure he will experience in turning her "abysmal purity" into something "worldly-wise and ... eager to please." (Chapter 1). He responds to her innocence with a pleased paternalism.

However, Newland's feelings about innocence begin to shift. He soon wonders if May's innocence is "only an artificial product," because "untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defenses of an instinctive guile." May appears to him as a "creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured" that he "might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow" (Chapter 6). Newland begins to feel disillusioned with the virtue of innocence as he contemplates how it is not a natural quality of May's personality but rather a pretense she has adopted to conform to expectations. His interactions with Ellen Olenska, who foils May with a worldliness and frankness that Newland comes to regard as authentic and compelling, help bring about this shift in Newland's attitude toward innocence.

The more Newland observes May and her mother, the more he comes to regard the innocence both women demonstrate as a kind of blindness. In Chapter 16, Newland thinks he does not want May to have the kind of innocence her mother has, "the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience." After their marriage, Newland decides May is nothing more than the constructed innocence she displays. Because May is rarely authentic or vulnerable with Newland, he decides she has no inner life and little capacity for intelligent perception or judgment. A year and a half into their marriage, Newland thinks that since their engagement, "not a thought seemed to have passed behind [May's] eyes or a feeling through her heart." May is decidedly "nice," but Newland wonders if her niceness is only "a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness" (Chapter 21). Ellen Olenska, who is not "nice" because she defies social norms and speaks for herself, has become Newland's feminine ideal. Ellen is not innocent in the way May is: she has experienced the reality of suffering, which she says has permanently opened her eyes and deprived her of "the blessed darkness" (Chapter 29).

Although Newland continues to consider May to be defined by a quality of innocence, even as his definition of innocence shifts and he starts to conflate innocence with blindness and emptiness, May repeatedly demonstrates she is not as innocent as Newland thinks. "You mustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices—one has one's feelings and ideas," May tells him in Chapter 16 after she correctly senses he has feelings for someone else. As Newland becomes more and more drawn into his clandestine affair with Ellen Olenska, he wrongly assumes May's ignorance. Just because May does not show her inner life to her husband doesn't mean she doesn't have one.

In the end, Wharton shows that Newland's idea of May's innocence is a misperception and an underestimation of her perceptiveness and cunning. Newland is entirely caught off guard when May cleverly succeeds in ending the affair between Newland and Ellen by lying that she is pregnant. At Ellen's farewell dinner, Newland realizes he has been, in effect, the innocent one: he has long thought he was deceiving May about the affair, but May has known he was engaged in something improper with her cousin. While displaying a silence and placidity that her husband failed to question, May has secretly been manipulating the situation to produce the outcome she desires. In the end, May gets what she wants, and Newland is forced to acquiesce to her superior power. He never leaves New York or has a relationship with Ellen Olenska, but remains by May's side, a faithful husband and father, until her death.

Wharton's exploration of the idea of innocence is indeed multifaceted. Innocence is associated with artifice and blindness, but also with hidden cunning and guile. Newland displays innocence in assuming May is incapable and ignorant when she is not, and refusing to alter his perception of her despite the evidence. It is perhaps Ellen Olenska who emerges as the most innocent of all, for despite her worldliness and experience, she comes to adopt a moral code that requires her to restrain her own desires for Newland in order to not cause harm to May and her family. The culture Wharton depicts is itself innocent, not in the sense of being pure, but because it innocently believes its own insular customs and traditions to be of supreme value, while they are in fact irrelevant to the larger world.


Wharton expresses the inevitability and constancy of change by showing how, despite its obsession with tradition and its virulent rejection of outside influences, the New York of Newland's youth passes away and is replaced by a completely new way of life in the space of a single generation. Wharton uses the opera house as a symbol to establish this theme in the novel's first paragraph. "The world of fashion" values the old Academy of Music because it "keep[s] out the 'new people' whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to." Nonetheless, there is a "new Opera House" rumored to rival the great opera houses of Europe already being built in another part of town.

Members of this conservative society frequently comment on change and express their certainty that change always represents degradation, not progress. Since Newland Archer's childhood, his mother has addressed the topic of how New York has changed an "annual pronouncement ... enumerat[ing] the minute signs of disintegration that his careless gaze had overlooked" (Chapter 26). After Julius Beaufort's bankruptcy, Lawrence Lefferts presents the case as a cautionary tale. Lefferts says when society begins "tolerating men of obscure origin and tainted wealth the end [is] total disintegration—and at no distant date" (Chapter 33).

Ellen Olenska foreshadows the coming death of "the world of fashion" as she contemplates the "Cesnola antiquities" in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gazing at the "shelves ... crowded with small broken objects," she remarks: "It seems cruel ... that after a while nothing matters ... any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people" (Chapter 31). The social pressures and prejudices shaping Ellen and Newland's destinies will soon be nothing more than unrecognizable and useless relics of a dead culture.

A quarter century later, Ellen's prophetic remark comes true. In the final chapter, a 57-year-old Newland asks himself, "What was left of the little world he had grown up in, and whose standards had bent and bound him?" The old rules are already regarded as incomprehensible absurdities by members of the new generation, like Newland's son Dallas. Those who upheld the old ways have at last passed away, after a lifetime spent "gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence" (Chapter 7).

Questions for Themes

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