Sidharth Vardhan

On Innocence

I’m not much into romantic stories – I mean how much of ‘Ellen, I love you’ and ‘Newland, it is wrong’ one can bear? More so, love triangles – and why they call it love triangles. Just look at this one – Archer has relations with May and Ellen but the two women do not love each other, so where is the third side of the triangle? Shouldn't it be called love angle or love V? In fact, if you think about it, a love triangle is only possible when at least one of three people is homosexual or bisexual … well, that is just the kind of thing I wonder about when not working on my paper on quantum mechanics involved in the motion of Nitrogen particles in low atmospheric temperatures.

Also, I don’t much like leisure classes; for me they represent half the things that are wrong with the world – they are hypocrites, full of ideas of ‘society’ and ‘common folks’, vain, sinfully rich, are always talking about useless subjects like- other equally boring people, balls, marriages, clothes (clothes! Clothes!), food etc.

The good thing is Wharton doesn't much like them either.

Different Forms of Innocence

There can be many meanings of the word ‘innocence’. The people of society pretend to have and collectively impose on themselves conformity to a standard of innocence that is more of ignorance and a willingness to stay the same -

“ the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

But in reality these things come involuntarily; you can’t shut them out when they come; although you can always pretend. And so, almost all characters of 'society' are hypocrites.

"“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

May is a typical example – she knows that women are expected to be innocent in the above-mentioned meaning of the word and so acts naive to affirm to the standard. In affirming to social expectations, she refuses to be honest with her own emotions. The only time she breaks away from social expectations is out of compassion for Ellen and Newland -

’her courage and initiative were all for others, and that she had none for herself’

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

However, her need for conformity defeats even this exemplary compassion once institution of marriage is thrown into equation.

One other meaning of the word ‘innocence’ is honesty to one’s emotions and ideas – to cry when one feels like crying, to say and do what one thinks is right and not to take society’s dictation. Far few people accomplish that - Ellen is explicitly told not to talk about her emotions. The only people in the novel who are innocent in this latter sense are either misfits (Ellen) or from so-called common people (M. Riviere). And that is why I think that the title is ironic.

Newland, the protagonist, is much more rebellious than May. For one thing, his training into matters of social form was not as closely watched; then there was all the sentimental education from novels. He struggles between social conformity and honesty to one's emotions.

And that often makes him contradict himself. Sometimes he is saying sexist things like

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

and taking offense because too much of Ellen’s shoulder is visible. At another point, he is fighting for women rights. At one point, we are told

“Few things seemed to Newland Archer more awful than an offense against "Taste,"

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

while later he will want to run away with Ellan.

In the beginning, he is revolting in that he argues for equality of sexes but only in as far as he knows his would-be wife won’t be taking those liberties. But really people are like that. A lot of people I know in real life have this NIMBY attitude – they want equality for women but only when that ‘women’ represents distant vague sections of society like people from tv or newspapers – but they lack similar initiative in their family where habit of traditionally available advantages stops them from doing that.

These themes are similar to Lawrence, when compared to his, the psychology of Wharton's characters is more believable and she doesn't preach in as obvious a manner.

In fact, there is an alternative way of looking at the novel – Archer’s oscillation between passions and conformity represented in Ellen and May; is a story of many such people; had the novel been written by a man he would have been accused of using May and Ellen as metaphors (especially given how subtly the characters of two women are developed).

"“He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an unescapable duty.”

Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence)

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