Old New York

Michelle Mancilla

English 004

Instructor Lynch

May 19, 2018

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” portrays a world of strict moral and social conduct through the feminism lens. Wharton’s characters are expected to live their life just as what is expected of them. Individualism is not an option for the characters in the novel. They are expected to think, act, and even dress a certain way, especially the women. Edith uses two cousins, Ellen and May, as the major concern in her novel. The women characters are portrayed as both victims of their own life as well as schemers that determine their own fate. Edith presents two women characters to show two contrastive approaches to life and the world they live in. One lives her life by the rules and norms. The other lives her life just the way she wants. Through these two characters Edith Wharton’s ideas of feminism can be seen.

Wharton portrays May as your typical all-American girl. She’s sweet, innocent, and follows the rules and norms. She is exactly what their society expects women to be. One could easily associate May with innocence, purity, and youth. “In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like a Diana just alight from the chase” (Wharton 63). May was the product of Old New York’s society. She longs for a happy marriage and having a big happy family of her own. May’s soon to be husband Newland, tries to change her. However, she fails to go against the rules society has set for women.

Wharton gives Ellen intellectual freedom, feminine charms, and an artistic eye. Ellen dresses in provocative clothes and pays no attention to the white tulle women in Old New York, like her cousin May, were expected or accustomed to wear. May was the American girl with the slim body and innocent mind while Ellen was dark, passionate, and experienced. Ellen was different from May in every aspect even in the way she was artistic. Ellen was something out of the normal. She had the ability to turn something old and shabby into “something intimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments” (Wharton, 69). Ellen also has an original point of view on life. One that many women lacked in Old New York. Ellen valued her liberty and freedom. She thought there was no point in a marriage if it is unhappy. She believed marriage was nothing more than a restriction. Ellen pretty much goes against all the social and moral codes that exists at that time. For example, marriage. Marriage was the ultimate destination for most women but not for Ellen. Ellen’s ultimate destination is being freed from restrictions. This is where we can see the feminism view in Wharton’s book. All Ellen wanted was the same rights and equality as the men. She wanted to be able to do as pleased, dress as pleased, talk as pleased, and act as pleased.

Through the feminism approach, Wharton’s story carries a theme of society and class. The world of the characters in “The Age of Innocence” revolve around their image in the society’s eye. The characters live terrorize by the possibility of being excluded. They are the upper class of New York in the 1870’s and they want to maintain the image they have created for their class, family name, and themselves. They live in a world in which appearance is everything, one in which certain families have all the wealth and are above everyone else, and in a world in which everything is governed by rules. The way you dress is governed by rules or expectations. The person and family you marry into is also governed by rules or expectations even if you are not completely in love or completely sure about marrying that person. This is what happened to Newland Anchor. He was expected to marry May because she was the perfect product of Old New York’s society. Despite how “perfect” May was, Anchor was not sure of his marriage with her. “That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas” (Wharton, 40).

 Before reading this book, I had created an idea in my head as to what the story was going to be about. The name itself gives a hint as to what the book would be about. I thought it was going to be a tragic love story. I thought it would be similar to the infamous “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. However, I was wrong. This novel was nothing like Shakespeare’s. This novel focused on the society, class, and feminism in the 1870’s. Many aspects of the novel moved me. I was the most moved by the fact that Anchor had fallen for Ellen who was nothing like the other women. She was foreign, different, and did not conform to the rules and expectations society had set for women. Despite how perfectly imperfect she was Anchor still fell for her. This aspect of the novel moved me the most because it shows how you can not force “love” to happen. No matter how innocent or perfect one might look to the society or the rest of the world, not everyone is after that. Some people are after the different things in life. Others are after the different experiences, the different economic standing, the different accents, the different attitudes, and the different views on the world. In my opinion, this is so important for both women and men to remember not only in the past but now and in the future. To many times we get absorbed in the world of appearance or the world that society has set for us to live that we forget to be ourselves. Sometimes we are to busy trying to make everyone happy that we forget to do what makes us happy. Sometimes we get so absorbed in trying to be a perfect copy of everyone else that we forget to show our true colors. The fact that Anchor fell in love with Ellen despite her being so different from every other girl he was accustomed to made me realize that you don’t always have to do as society says to find “love” or to be genuinely happy. One thing I really admired was Anchor’s ability to realize that Ellen was different, and he was not afraid to speak of how terrible their world and society was. He was not afraid to speak of women’s rights. “"Women ought to be free—as free as we are," he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences” (Wharton, 39).

Another aspect of the book that moved me in a way was definitely the whole feminist view. Personally, I do not like being expected to do or act a certain way just because I am a girl. In my culture this is common. Women are expected to be nice, innocent, clean, well dressed, and neat. Women are expected to cook, clean, and care for the whole family. But, what if I do not want to cook or clean? What if I don’t want to be neat? What if I don’t want to be nice all the time? What if I don’t want to wear dresses and skirts all the time? What if I want to wear 5-inch heels? What if I want to sit on my couch and binge watch my favorite tv show while eating a bag of chips? What if I want to do and act as I please? I felt a connection between Ellen and I. She went against most if not all the rules and norms that were expected of her as a woman. She had her own way of thinking. She was not afraid to be different in most occasions. I felt proud of Ellen in a sense.I know that if I was to be a character in a story I would be one like Ellen’s character.

Although Wharton’s twist in the story of having Anchor fall for Ellen moved me, it also did not move me in a way. I could not get past the fact that Anchor had fallen for his wife’s own cousin. Yes, I understand that love has no eyes, but I thought it was wrong. I feel that if Ellen would have been any other girl I would have been fine with it. But, she was the cousin. This caused some discomfort. I was experiencing the rules, norms, and expectations I was taught my whole life. I thought that whole relationship was wrong but at the same time I admired that despite it being considered wrong or bad they still ha the courage to admit it and be respectful about it to not only themselves but everyone else around them. Ellen had asked Anchor to continue on with his life as if nothing existed between them to prevent their family from feeling ashamed. “What's the use? You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one” (Wharton,244). They did not act on this love because they did not want to cause trouble or ruin their family’s appearance.

I feel that it is important to inhabit the world of the novel because it puts everything in perspective. When imagining you are in that world you can really understand what the author is writing. You get a deeper understanding of the novel itself. The world of the novel is important because it allows us, the readers, to imagine ourselves as a character in the book. It makes the whole book come alive. Since it puts things in perspective it provokes emotions that are impossible to have without having the world of the novel explained. Wharton’s novel consisted of a world in which society and class was everything. We can easily relate her novel to our own time or our own society and class. For example, Wharton’s novel was based in a city across the country from where I live. It was based on a time many, many, many years ago. However, there are still cultures or even societies that live by those rules. Genders have gender roles and although it is becoming more common for people to come out and go against their gender roles, rules, and norms a society like the one in “The Age of Innocence” still exists. My culture for example, still has certain gender roles and expectations. Personal experience along with the type of the world go hand in hand and make the read a much more powerful one.

All in all, I enjoyed Edith Wharton’s novel, “The Age of Innocence”. It has quickly become one of my favorite books. The way Edith portrayed a world and theme in which society and class ruled the world made it that much more enjoyable to rea. Wharton’s novel can without a doubt be seen through the feminist approach. Women were expected to dress, act, and talk a certain way. As absurd as it may sound, both women and men were expected to date and marry people within their class even if they did not agree. Failing to do so would cost them and their family everything. They would be excluded and be frowned upon by others in their class. I felt a strong connection to Wharton’s character, Ellen. I feel that this novel was worth the read and I would forever recommend it.

Works Cited

Wharton, Edith. “The Age of Innocence.” Google Books, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=3PcYAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en_US&pg=GBS.PA243.w.1.0.0. Accessed 17 May 2018.