The Problem Of Conformism In Age Of Innocence

“Ah, that’s not what I meant. “If you knew how much I hate being different!” (Wharton, 69). Ellen Olenska is Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. Newland archer considers her to be an example of a New York aristocratic rebel. Her mysterious European past and the scandalous tales she brought with her to New York intrigue him. Newland sees May Archer as something he doesn’t like about Ellen Olenska. May is sweet, innocent, and does not hide that she desires to be a part this society. Newland’s thoughts and actions around the women make them seem very different. However, Newland is not always in sync with the ladies’ actions. He only wants the best for them. Ellen’s behaviours, attitudes, motives and actions are compared with May. This makes Ellen’s story more like May’s.

Ellen’s reactions to Ellen’s divorcing is one of the first signs that Ellen has a tendency toward conforming to society. Ellen talks to Newland about the divorce and he mentions Ellen’s married life. This raises questions as to Ellen’s firm conviction. Newland may have an exaggerated view about Ellen’s miserable marriage. He is taking on a lot (68-69). She stated that she wanted to “get rid of all [her] old lives, and be just like everyone else [there]”. (68). Ellen clearly states that she wants to be freed from any stigma and to fit in with the New York aristocratic community. Ellen’s reaction after Newland warned that her husband could spread rumors that could cause her harm is an indication that she may not fully understand the scandals that might come with it (70). Because she is free from her scandalous past, she may be eager to get divorced. Ellen finally agrees not to divorce. However, she understands now how society would see her decision. Even though she does not like certain rules of society, this does not mean that her actions are against them. Newland views her as still adhering to them in order to fit in. May shares Ellen’s concern about avoiding scandal. May agrees that Ellen must be talked to by Newland. This is Newland’s obligation to his future children. As May and Newland return from the archery competition, their opinions are clear. May claims that Ellen would have been a great friend. But then, Archer asks May about the cruelty of her comment. Both women have the same goal: to avoid scandal. This is very much in accordance with New York’s social norms.

Another commonality between Newland archer’s young ladies is their reaction and knowledge to the language used in flowers. Ellen becomes quickly angry after Beaufort gives her a bouquet. Ellen quickly becomes angry when Beaufort presents her a bouquet. Why would you want a bouquet of flowers? Why is it tonight? “I’m not going for a ball, I’m no girl engaged to get married,” (101). This scene shows Ellen’s vast knowledge of flowers. It was an essential requirement for young girls in New York’s aristocratic society (342). As May is an expert in flower language, it’s the same. Archer’s daily gift of lilies to May signifies “purity,” “future joy,” and “sweetness” (Campbell). Both women know the significance flowers have in their lives and are affected deeply by them.

The best way to see the women is through their interactions with Newland. This is especially true when they are not living up to the Newland-identified personality. Ellen would describe this as being in the carriage where she displays a strange coldness that is rooted in her past experiences. It is obvious when Newland informs Ellen about M. Riviere, that Archer believes Ellen’s behavior is unconventional because of the way he treats her. This is not due to the way Ellen acts. Newland asks Ellen about this and she replies, “Yes, I owe him great debt.” (173) This was the untethered and low-emotional way that the New York aristocracy of the 1870s preferred to handle such unpleasantness. Newland’s reaction to the statement was that “once more she had managed to make him stupidly conventional just as he thought he would be throwing convention to all winds”. (173) He is now more aware of the society to which he has been a part all his life. Ellen is a good vessel to expose this truth to him.

May is similarly unaffected and indifferent when it comes to discussing her husband’s affairs. Newland observes May’s pain. He comments that if May were to speak her emotions, he would have “laughed at them away.” Instead, she is “trained to hide imaginary wounds under Spartan smiles” (176). This proves that even though the New York ladies were aristocratic in 1870s New York, they had to deal with difficult topics in the same natural and indifferent way that Ellen did. May also asks Archer about his lie about going to Washington. Archer gets annoyed and becomes flustered. Newland “[blushes] at her unwonted abandonment from all traditional delicacies”. It is clear that the society thought it was wrong for a wife or husband to lie to her, or press too hard for details about their lives, even though she knows he has an affair (170).

Ellen and Archer were riding in May’s carriage at the same time when Ellen was revealed to be a woman full of experience and a secretive past. Ellen’s view on scandal, however, is very much like May’s. Ellen does not reveal the excitement Newland associates it with. Instead, she tells Archer about the pain she’s experienced in her life and how “she [has] dried up [Ellen’s] tears.” (173) Ellen is older than most young New York aristocratic female products. She has had more trials in life, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. Ellen does not want to change into a mature young girl in New York society, or abandon her desire to do good things. She does not want to end the relationship, but wants to “near Newland” when she and her husband are apart (175). Ellen could have done more to protect her family than she has claimed. It is evident that, despite her noble intentions, Ellen is selfish in wanting to be accepted into New York’s society. Ellen is aware that Archer and her would be in a “hole-and cornerer love affair” (174), which would make it impossible for her to ever be truly accepted into society. She is already plagued by scandals and she knows that it would damage any relationship with Archer (175) and her only chance to be accepted into the aristocracy. May agrees with Ellen about scandal. It is obvious that both women want to avoid it. May works behind the scenes with Newland to ensure Ellen is gone before she disrupts her family’s lives. Archer’s son tells Archer his wife’s story. His mother said that Ellen knew they were safe together, and would always be. (214).

May’s scheme for Ellen to leave her husband and she to keep him, presents another chance to make comparisons between the women. Ellen and Newland will also be able to finalize their relationship. These two pivotal moments are crucial in Newland’s relationships with the ladies. May returned from Ellen’s “long” conversations and was “really happy” to be back. She is now “breathless,” flushed, and “sparkling” with unwonted motion (188-89). These traits are not indicative of an unthinking individual, but rather an animated, independent-thinking person. This is an example of how one could be passionate about something and still be a member of the New York aristocracy. Wharton herself was a dedicated member and thinker, but this reminds me of her life. Wharton lived the life of a typical woman, but had her own thoughts and desires. For example, she believed that think layers of “window garniture…[symbolized] the superimposed layers of under-garments worn by the ladies of the period” (236). Wharton decided not to allow the windows of her new house to display them when she was in it. Wharton believed the society she created was important, even though it had nonsensical guidelines (249). Ellen’s passion for independent thought and a few moments of independent thought was not a sign that she wanted to be part of that society.

Newland learns that Ellen is back in Paris when May tells her (194). She is keeping the tough outer shell that is required of a lady in the 1870s New York society. Newland learns that she had lied about her pregnancy to Ellen. It is revealed that she truly loves Newland. She wants him there with her even if they are not married. Ellen and May are merged in this story. May was originally motivated to keep her husband. She would still want him to stay with them even if she was not pregnant. This was both because she knew that divorce would be devastating for her family and also because she felt selfishly attached to the man she loved no matter his past.

Ellen also had to balance her feelings towards Newland and her desire to be a part of an aristocratic society. At the Art Museum she admitted that she came to New York partly to escape “afraid Newland’s” arrival (186). She also believed that New York would be a “horror” for other New Yorkers. Shortly after, Newland announces that he thinks that plan “a thousand-times worse”. She then reveals that her selfish confession is that she agrees. Ellen was trying to hide the guilt that she felt in her love affair with Newland, making it seem as if this was her only noble reason for ending their marriage. Wharton was aware that Ellen also knew this in her own experience. Ellen was aware that she would bear the brunt of the blame if the affair was revealed.

Newland is caught in the middle of May’s plan to end her husband’s affair and her cousin’s affairs. However, she may have felt justified because she gave him an opportunity before they were married to be with another woman if he liked her more. After initially insisting that there was no another and that it was his desire to marry her, she discovered that there was indeed another woman. Divorce is not an option for May, so she believes she is doing all she can to help everyone. Ellen’s selfishness is revealed, just like May. She admits she did not agree to stay with Catherine solely for the sake her elderly Granny. Instead, she admits that she felt it would protect her from irreparable harm. She then says, “Don’t let us all be like everyone else!” (187). Here, selfishness is mixed with the desire for compliance with social norms. It is obvious that this was the popular view of the time.

May’s plan works out and Ellen is able to return to Paris with her husband. May and Archer keep their lives together. They have three kids and live an extraordinary life. Archer often thinks about Ellen, but they never speak of the affair. Archer, 57, loses May. Archer and May never had a deeper relationship or better understanding. This was very common among those in the society. It meant that many couples lost what could have ended up being a beautiful relationship. Newland leaves May’s funeral and travels to Paris along with his son. Ellen is not interested in meeting him, so he walks away. This is a difficult situation to understand how Newland could love Ellen after all these years. Maybe Newland Archer was too busy mourning his wife and not paying attention to the imperfections of the world around him.