Fire and ice in The Age of Innocence

Fire and ice in The Age of Innocence

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Fire and ice in The Age of Innocence
DeBorde, Alisa Mariva
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[Tampa, Fla.]
University of South Florida
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Edith Wharton
New York
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
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theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: This study will explore the dichotomy of culture and psychological landscape in Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence. To lay the foundation for this study, I first consider how Ms. Wharton often employed dichotomy in her own life: her role as socialite and author, woman of old New York and European maverick, and her life as spouse or beloved. Compartmentalizing her lifes roles prevented her from having to compromise the distinct qualities of each paradigm. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence, Ellen and May are completely opposite representations of life and culture in the 1870s who cannot happily coexist together. Wharton draws this contrast by painting their psychological landscapes, relying heavily on the motifs of water and fire, elements that if combined are mutually destructive. Ellen is unpredictable, uncensored, and exotic even Promethean; Wharton uses images of fire to convey this mindset.Conversely, Mays character is often cold, controlled and pale; she is a sculpted product, not a creator. In rare moments, May is radiant, even warm, but she never approaches Ellens heat. Wharton emphasizes then that there is no true bridge between Ellens and Mays ways of living through Newland Archer who fails to cross from his world to Ellens even though his love for her is true and enduring. My writing will argue that Newland fails to consummate his love for Ellen because Wharton has drawn a character who lacks the ability to choose. Although he admires the fire he sees in Ellen, it is something he must do from afar, for he is a man ultimately made of water.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2005.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Alisa Mariva DeBorde.

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Fire and ice in The Age of Innocence
h [electronic resource] /
by Alisa Mariva DeBorde.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
b University of South Florida,
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2005.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 37 pages.
ABSTRACT: This study will explore the dichotomy of culture and psychological landscape in Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence. To lay the foundation for this study, I first consider how Ms. Wharton often employed dichotomy in her own life: her role as socialite and author, woman of old New York and European maverick, and her life as spouse or beloved. Compartmentalizing her lifes roles prevented her from having to compromise the distinct qualities of each paradigm. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence, Ellen and May are completely opposite representations of life and culture in the 1870s who cannot happily coexist together. Wharton draws this contrast by painting their psychological landscapes, relying heavily on the motifs of water and fire, elements that if combined are mutually destructive. Ellen is unpredictable, uncensored, and exotic even Promethean; Wharton uses images of fire to convey this mindset.Conversely, Mays character is often cold, controlled and pale; she is a sculpted product, not a creator. In rare moments, May is radiant, even warm, but she never approaches Ellens heat. Wharton emphasizes then that there is no true bridge between Ellens and Mays ways of living through Newland Archer who fails to cross from his world to Ellens even though his love for her is true and enduring. My writing will argue that Newland fails to consummate his love for Ellen because Wharton has drawn a character who lacks the ability to choose. Although he admires the fire he sees in Ellen, it is something he must do from afar, for he is a man ultimately made of water.
Adviser: Dr. Philip Sipiora.
Edith Wharton.
New York.
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


Fire and Ice in The Age of Innocence By Alisa Mariva DeBorde A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Philip Sipiora, Ph. D Ruth Banes, Ph. D Nicholas Samaras, Ph. D Date of Approval November 18, 2005 Key words: water, elements, Edith Wharton, New York, 1870s Copyright 2005, Alisa DeBorde


Acknowledgements I would like to thank the prof essor who gave of their knowledge and time to make this thesis possible, notably: Dr. Sipiora, Dr. Banes, Dr. Hatc her, Dr. Nickinson, and Dr. Samaras. Thank you, especially, Dr. Sipiora, who was my first professor at USF and who instilled in me a type of literary curiositya desire to analyze te xts through different lensesand just a genuine appreciation of an authors craft. That was several years ago, but I still remember your teaching well. Th ank you also for promptly responding to my every inquiry and helping me to remain on ta sk throughout my thesis project. Dr. Banes, thank you for sticking with me and for notici ng where things weren t quite lining up. I am thankful for and appr eciative of all of you.


i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 An Operatic Division 8 May Wellands Sculpted Identity 12 Ellen Olenskas Psychology of Fire 19 Newland Archers Im possible Departure 23 Conclusion 27 Works Cited 28 Bibliography 31


ii Fire and Ice in The Age of Innocence Alisa M. DeBorde Abstract This study will explore the dichotomy of culture and psychological landscape in Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence. To lay the foundation for this study, I first consider how Ms. Wharton often employed dichotomy in her own life: her role as socialite and author, woman of old New York and European maverick, and her life as spouse or beloved. Compartmentalizing her lif es roles prevented her from having to compromise the distinct qualities of each paradigm. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence Ellen and May are completely opposite represen tations of life and culture in the 1870s who cannot happily coexist together. Whart on draws this contrast by painting their psychological landscapes, relying heavily on the motifs of water and fire, elements that if combined are mutually destructive. Ellen is unpredictable, uncensored, and exoticeven Promethean; Wharton uses images of fire to convey this mindset. Conversely, Mays character is often cold, contro lled and pale; she is a sculpt ed product, not a creator. In rare moments, May is radiant, even wa rm, but she never approaches Ellens heat. Wharton emphasizes then that there is no true bridge between Ellen s and Mays ways of living through Newland Archer who fails to cr oss from his world to Ellens even though his love for her is true and enduring. My writing will argue that Newland fails to consummate his love for Ellen because Wh arton has drawn a character who lacks the


iii ability to choose. Although he admires the fire he sees in Ellen, it is something he must do from afar, for he is a man ultimately made of water.


1 Introduction In some divine transcendent hush Where light & darkness melt & cease, Staying the awful cosmic rush To give two hearts an hour of peace (Wharton, Senlis lines 13-16) In this excerpt from Senlis, a poe m found in Edith Whartons love diary, A Life Apart Wharton reveals her longing for a pla ce where two opposites, light and dark, dissolve into each other. Of course, the specific reference here is to her desire to be alone with her paramour, Morton Fullerton, with whom Wharton enjoyed a brief period of intellectual and physical pa ssion in the summer of 1909 1 Still, Whartons acknowledgement of and grappl ing with dichotomy was a common theme in Whartons life and writings. Wharton frequently divided he r life into phases and roles that, in her estimation, could not merge and still maintain th eir discrete values; thus, in Senlis, a place where opposites melt and cease is divine and transcendent. It is a heavenly place, one not experienced on earth. In several ways, Whartons life informs her tendency to dichotomize her characters and their situations. Ediths mother, Lucretia Jones, did not plan the birth of Edith Newbold Jones. In fact, Ediths unantic ipated birth, eleven years after her youngest 1 The dating of the exact timing of this affair varies. Cynthia Gri ffin Wolff dates their meeting in 1907 and the ending of the affair in 1910 (186). Linda Wagner Martin dates the affair from 1908 to 1910 (xiv). Shari Bernstock cites the passionate affair as the summer of 1909, but acknowledges that the exact chronology of the affair is speculative (226).


2 brother, created the suspicion that Ediths mother had had an affair with her brothers tutor or a Scottish nobleman. Thus, from the very beginning Edith was viewed as a sort of outsider and even as an embarrassment to he r family (Singley 5). The decade-plus gap between her brothers and her naturally led to a striking difference in sensibility between Edith and her clan (5). Furthermore, Ediths early interests in liter ature, languages, and art alienated her from her peers and from her family. In A Backward Glance Wharton articulates the sense of divisi on she felt from her social circ les. She recalls her closest companions were the great voices that s poke to me as I read books. Ms. Jones was devouring Faust, the Old Testament and the works of Keats and Shelley (70) while not one of here peers had any intellectual in terests (89) and her parents were far from intellectual, for they read little and studied no t at all (48). R. W. B. Lewis records that She was clothes-conscious and money-consci ous, but she was also addicted to books and ideas and the world of the imagination. A growing sense of that fact deepened her sense of loneliness and gave her an air of unpredictability (35). Cl early, her love of words and imagination sequestered Ms. Jones. Ediths parents viewed this l ove as a deterrent to potential suitors; thus, to hasten her marriage, they introduced her to societ y at the age of 17one y ear earlier than the customary debut (Wharton, BG 78). Indeed, her husband, Teddy Wharton rarely partook in her literary endeavors for he was greatly fond of the elite social life, and while Whartons literary outpouring stalled for the first few years of their marriage, marriage was not a lasting impediment to her writi ng. When Wharton did achieve some literary success, no family member except for a distant relative ever spoke of her work (Singley 5). Wharton openly comments on her familys indifference:


3 My literary success puzzled and embarrass ed my old friends far more than it impressed them, and in my own family, it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. N one of my relatives ever spoke to me of my books, either to praise or blamethey simply ignored them; and among the immense tribe of my New York cousins, [] the subject was avoided as if it were some kind of family disgrace. (Wharton BG 144) Thus, Whartons family first introduced her to the need for compartmentalization where her earliest roles contrasted those of young socialite and burgeoning writer. As an adult, Wharton continued to expe rience the tension betw een her contrasting roles. For years, she maintained the social schedule expected of her class while also writing regularly; however, Wh arton did not mix high soci ety with the literary and artistic. Grace Kellogg labeled Whartons writing life, her p arallel life (225). [Wharton], Linda Wagner-Martin notes, caref ully compartmentalized her time so that she continued to lead what appeared to be a busy social life even during her most intensely creative periods (23). In Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton, Kathy Fedorko provides a potential reason for this separation: Writing is a fearful, naughty thing to do for it involves hone sty of feelings, asser tiveness, and noticing and talking of things not polite to acknowledge (5). Wharton well understood this tension between the honest and the socially acceptable. A telling anecdote from her youth involves her describing her dance teacher as an old goat. Her mother chastened her for this unkind portrait, which threw young Edith into a conundrum: her mother had empha sized Gods standard of honesty, yet here her mother was scolding her for speaking just so. Whartons recognizing the


4 impossibility of simultaneously meeting Gods standard of honesty and her mothers standard of politeness left Ms. Jones feeling desolate (Fed roko 3). Wharton was not able to successfully navigate between social c onvention and her creative expression until in 1899, at age thirty-six, when she published her first work, a collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination Still, even after that publica tion, Wharton expressed that her literary pursuits separated her. She recalls f eeling lonely, even deni ed encounters of all [social] pleasure until her novel The Valley of Decision was well received in the literary community. Those friends encouraged her wr iting and for the first time, Wharton found herself in communication with a company of people who shared her taste. Yet, while this communion penetrated Whartons agoni zing shyness, it did so by enlarging her literary world; it did not merge her so cial circle with her literary set. Compounding the angst between socialite and writer was the opposition between educated, independent woman and submissive dependent woman. Wharton was critical of the old mores that restricted womens fr eedoms, but she was also skeptical of new dispensations that left wome n without secure boundaries (S ingley 9). She valued the order that supported, even cared for women, but disparaged a code that undervalued her sexs intelligence and strength. This was a true paradox for a woman who thwarted convention by divorcing her husband and by choosing to live as an expatriate for much of her life. Wharton recognizes these conflicting expectati ons of women in The Age of Innocence where two strategies for womens surv ival are presented: false innocence, resulting in inclusion in a female power network or honest expression, leading to exclusion from society. May Welland plays the innocent, but she is actually calculating. On the other hand, Ellen Olenska reveal[s] her own subjectivity, her own


5 thoughts, at the cost of exclusion for the symbolic system (Davis 7). May conforms; Ellen creates. Wharton herself felt caught be tween these two ways of living and saw no easy blending of the two, for while a convergen ce was desirable, much would be lost in the union; hence, it could be argued that like Ellen, Wharton gene rally chose a life excluded from the female power network. Wharton recalls only meeting three women in her life of whom she respected their convers ation and indeed, the majority of her close friends were men (Wharton, BG 134). Wharton dichotomized her life in many ot her areas. Indeed, much could be said about her American and European personas, her penchant for distinguishing between the public and the private, or her allegiance to the values of the New York of her parents day versus her need for the acceptance and crea tivity of a new order; however, one other dichotomy most clearly illuminates the love triangle of The Age of Innocence : The Edith Wharton before and after romantic love. Wharton herself recorded that before Morton Fullerton, she had never in [her ]life know n what it was to be happy [] even for a single hour (Wharton, LA 672). Cynthia Griffin-Wolff estimates that the ultimate effect of Whartons encounter with Fullerton was a more complete understanding of human experience than she had even had before, (185) accounting for th e clear distinction between the writings of the Wh arton who married out of obligation and the Wharton who engaged in a love affair for personal satis faction. Even though Wharton found immense pleasure in her relationship with Morton Fulle rton, because she was still married at the time of the affair and because of Fullertons engagement (and his ever-changing and eclectic sex life), the pair enjoyed only a temporary union. Again, any lasting convergence of Whartons two worlds was im possible. Many critics argue that Wharton


6 was a passive recipient of Fullertons pa rting, but Shari Benstock in her biography No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Wharton proposes that Wharton chose to enjoy what she knew was ephemeral satisfaction because Wharton would not risk her reputation, literary work, or marriage for Fullerton (226). This view on the Fullerton-Wharton breakup aligns with Whartons desire to k eep many of her worlds separate. In Whartons fiction, much of the plot involves characters trying to reach the idealized world by merging opposites. In Ethan Frome Wharton aligns Ethan, the novels main charactera man captive to the eternally snow-covered Starkfieldwith a winter landscape and Ethans de sired love, Mattie, with heat and summer. Ethan dreams of consummating his love for Ma ttie, yet his dream is the very thing that imprisons him, keeps him from ever realizing the divine union of summer and winter. In The House of Mirth Lilly Bart is intrigued by Seldons republic of the spir it, yet she cannot reconcile the cultural expectations of her day with Seldens self-created standards; thus, the republic of the spirit is ne ver reached. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence Newland pins his hope on a place where categories...wont exist. Where we shall simply be two human beings who love each other, who are th e whole of life to each other, and nothing else on earth will matter ( 251). Wharton draws Newland as a character who desires convergence but instead needs to choose between two very distinct ways of thinking and of living. However, because of his social conditioning, he is incapable of making that choice; thus, Newland broods over the imagined while by default he dutifully performs in the real. The two worlds that Newland fails to combine are represented through Ellen Olenska and May Welland. It must be noted, ho wever, that the representations of Ellen


7 and May are conveyed through Newlands pe rspective. The narrator is a limited omniscience who gives us only the thought s and motivations of Newlandit is Newlands thinking about May and Ellen that we are privy to, so it is his view of these characters that we come to understand. Ne wlands view becomes increasingly significant to an understanding of Wharton s dichotomies when one consid ers that critics, including R.W. B. Lewis, often interpret Newland as a male Wharton and that as Newlands choices, May and Ellen symbolize Whartons di alectical ways of thinking about culture and relationships (431). They are, as Judith Fryer interprets, Archers two ways to deal with reality (109). These two ways can be better examined by exploring the opposing psychological landscapes of her main ch aracters, May Welland, Nelwand Archer and Ellen Olenska; in them, Edith Wharton defines the changing culture of her pivotal age and reveals that the worlds of Ellen and Newland are as incompatible as fire is to ice even to the extent of one destroying the other.


8 An Operatic Division I felt for the first time that indescri bable current of communication flowing between myself & someone elsefelt it, I mean, uninterruptedly, securely, so that it penetrated every sense & every thought& said to my self: This must be what happy women felt (Wharton, LA 673) Surely when Wharton cast the opening to her novel in an opera, she did so while remembering the above momenttaking place in an opera boxbetween Morton Fullerton and her. It is significant that Whar ton first felt a real communication with another in the opera box. The sensations of this communion rendered the lack of passion in her life as a rule-abiding socialite even more pronounced. In the first scene between Newland and May, Wharton demonstrates how the standards of her society often precluded authentic communication and emotion. The opera required elite New Yorkers to observe many conventions: arrive a bit late, sit only with ones same sex, dress appropriately, and feign complete engagement with the story line while one is actually mesm erized by the story of the social season. Newland is the poster child of the opera patr on, for he does the th ing and arrives late, he wears the appropriate dresscomplete with flower in his lapel and as soon as he is in the club box, he turn[s] his eyes from th e stage and scan[s] the opposite side of the house (5). Carmen Skaggs saw the division operatic expectations would create in a viewer: The artifice of opera allows its participants to express their imagination and passion; however, the artifice of the conven tional behavior of the elite stifles its


9 conformist (2). The many expectations of opera performance truncated, even completely cut off any real communicat ion between Newland and May. Newlands inability to merge these two operatic r ealmsconvention and imaginationshifts the choice to his real life. By contrasting the operawhere the artifice of form collaborates with the creativity of the artist (4) to transform convention in to originalityto the patterned, strictly conventi onal behaviors of the old Ne w Yorkers, Wharton subtly divides: Ellen and the stage performerswho create real emotionare authentic; May and her clan know only artifice for forms sake. Because Newland cannot merge the realms of imagination and conven tion, he tries to bridge them. The opera house itself also suggests se veral other reasons for dichotomizing. First, upper class society of the 1870s was st rongly divided concer ning the building of a new opera house (Skaggs 2); hence, the site of the storys beginning is imbued with an emotional conflict that well pr efigures the class conflict of the plot. Secondly, Whartons readers knew that simply having an opera seat spoke loudly about a persons social status. The Academy of music, where Ages first opera scene occurs only boasted thirty very coveted opera box seats (2). When Lawrence Lefferts the novels moderator of form, exclaims, Wellupon my soul! (7), My God! (8), and I didnt think the Mingotts would have tried it on (10), he is voicing the thoughts of Whartons readers: How did an outsider, dressed unusually, acquire one of thes e coveted seats? Lefferts is the first to draw these lines of class, but his male company quickly concurs. The Newland-centered narrator immediately notes Ellens dress. He describes her brown hair as loose curls and her dar k blue velvet gown that is caught up theatrically by a large old-fashioned clas p (8). This description of Ellens


10 appearance, of course, striki ngly contrasts the descripti on of Mays clothes and hair. Mays fair hair is braided and her dress is ma de of tulle tucker (5). Ellens clothes depict her personalitythey are flowing a nd dark. May, however, has painstakingly followed the convention and done all to appe ar completely innocent. She wears white, her hair is firmly in place and she even blus hes at the appropriate moments in the libretto. Furthermore, Mays attire is proper and draw s just the right amount of attention for someone of her class. Ellen, however, innocen tly departs from the dress code by wearing her simple, dark dress and jeweled headpiece. In the eyes of Larry Lefferets and his entourage, Ellens flair for the different, for unique adornment reveals her otherness. Finally, that Wharton begins specifically with the opera Faust perhaps most importantly emphasizes the idea of divi sion and of choice. John Dizikcs in his Opera in America: A Cultural History explains that Faust marked the end of the second period of American operatic history a nd opened the next (175). Faust the character and Faust the opera stand between two worlds (Skaggs 3). The connection to Newlands placement between the two worlds of May and Ellen ca nnot be ignored. Clearl y, Wharton is placing Newland in a Faustian position. Even Newlands entrance is accompanied with song that when translated to English foreshadows his vacillation: He loves mehe loves me not (4). However, unlike Faust who was willing to choose at the cost of facing eternal perdition, Newland never demonstrates such backbone. Why? Wharton positions Newland to choose, but creates a character who cannot. She uses his choices May and Ellento heighten the sense of irreconcilable worldsold an d new New York. If, in the end, Newland is more old New York than ne w, he not only lacks the individuality of thought necessary to make an unconventional choice, but by his natu re, who he is cannot


11 live if his life blends with Ellens. Thus, the novels operatic opener affords readers their first window into the division of 1870s New York, preparing them for the dichotomized presentation of character to come.


12 May Wellans Sculpted Identity And now the sea is between us, & silence & long days, & the inexorable fate that binds me here & you there. It is over, my Heart, all over! (Wharton, LA 681) Whartons details are not simply cultural or age markers, but they are culturally significant objects and interactions in orde r to let her work convey a stable moral message (Wagner-Martin 41). Crit ics often give attention to Whartons use of detail in architecture as a means of re vealing character. Jill M. Kress asserts Edith Wharton uses cultural possessions such as houses [] to build the interior life of particular characters. [] Wharton erects houses as definitive repr esentations of the self and its place in society; that is Wharton produces a concept of the self through me taphors of drastically interiorized structures and perfect enclosur es (132). Yet, few critics have commented on the elemental motif Wharton employs to develop her character s psychological landscapes. Specifically, the elements of water and fire create char acter depth in three ways: in physical description, in character situation, and in the characters thoughts and actions as revealed through the Newland cente r of consciousness. To begin, an analysis of the New York elites alignment with th e water motif will lay a foundation to compare Whartons three main characters. Gina Taglieri urges the Age reader to see each of the key figures as representative symbols, often in conflict with one another, and that as a symbol May represents the apotheosis of the 19 th -century uppercrust domestic virtue whose


13 behavior often reveals her as subtly canny and calculating [] (229). To develop Mays symbolic role as this controlled socialite, innocent, yet conniving, Wharton connects her and her clan to the water. W hy water? The symbolism of water works on several levels with May and her social group. Water, one of the four elements essentia l to life in western philosophy, frequently represents life, cleansing, and cohesion but it can also represent destruction as in flooding, eroding, or drowning. Water is powerfu l enough to abrade ev en the densest of stones and flowing water often represents ch ange (Brown, Smith, and Jaffe). Water in Age often reveals characters w ho are caught in a currentin this case, the current of aristocratic convention. While this water does provide support, even life, it often indicates a characters being drawn into a su ffocating vortex. Its sw irling waters ensure the white, clean, innocent appearance of New Yo rks elite. Also, ice imagery frequently identifies the older socialite set of late nineteenth century New York. Their water is no longer fluid; change, for them, is im possible. Finally, water appears in Age as a muffler of sound. A strong character tra it of old New York is the ab ility to communicate without speaking. When characters, even Ellenthe embodiment of European ideals and new New Yorks acceptance of suchare near wa ter, they seek to communicate tacitly. As arbiters of the old guard, the va n der Luydens are clearly depicted as characters who have been in the water for t oo long, and they are all that May has been and is being sculpted to represent. In chapter 7 Newland visi ts the van der Luydens as an advocate for Ellen. The narrator shares Newla nds impression about the pair: [Mrs. van der Luyden] always indeed, stuck Newland Ar cher as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a pe rfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies


14 caught in glaciers keep for years [] (45) and when Mr. van der Luyden enters the room minutes later, Newland notes that he has the same look of frozen gentleness in eyes that were merely pale grey [] (47) Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden are completely frozenperhaps, here, in time. They will cli ng to the ways of the 1900s because the way its been done is the only acceptable course. It is because of this that Newland is easily able to convince them to invite the Counte ss over for dinner. Larry Lefferts shall not be permitted to intervene because, under Mr. van der Luydens rule, This kind of thing must not happen in New York; it shall not, as long as [he] can help it, [Mr. van der Luyden] pronounced with sovereign gentleness as he steered the cousins to the door (50). Mr. van der Luydens firm, sovereign wo rds mirror his frozen state. He is the one in control in this scene and after pronouncing Larrys conduct inappropriate; he closes the meeting by steering Newland and his mother out. Whartons diction recalls, steering a ship, and places Mr. van der Luydens in the captains seat. As a young woman shaped by the ideas the van der Luydens champion, the terrifying product of the social system (36), May is frequently described in terms of water. When looking into her eyes, Newland and she figuratively float away on the soft waves of the Blue Danube (20). In fact, earl y in the novel, Newland postulates that life with her promises to be a haven of bl ameless domesticity (32). Later Newland mentions her swimming blue eyes: once before he leaves for Jersey city and again in chapter 31 after she has tried to explain her fa milys negative feelings toward Ellen to Newland. In this moment, she looks paler than usual, and she trembles when she hugs him. Wharton commonly connects May to water by describing her in terms of pale, snow-like colors. The invocation of water as snow or ice can accounts for the tremble


15 she feels in this scene, but it also serves a dual purpose, as do the other images of May. Each of these pictures of May is a brief glimpse into her mind afforded by a self-centered Newland consciousness. Yes, she is part of the eliteshe ha s been raised in the water but here the imagery shows her pain or even her struggle with having been so shaped. Compared to Newlands own indul gent expressions of his grie f, Mays watery eyes seem nearly irrelevant. Indeed, it is easy to read the novel and forget that May is the betrayed party. Yet, Wharton doesnt allow this. She ar tfully utilizes Mays descriptions as, at once confirming her sculpted upbringing and revealing her pain. Her eyes are swimming because they are t eary. She feels Newlands attr action to Ellen and it causes her to quaver. Through these glimpses into he r struggle, Wharton rev eals that she is not vapid or thoughtless, as Ne wland has falsely interpreted her to be. The water has superficially cleansed her, but she is deep nonetheless. Still, Wharton presents moments when May seems to be trying out the other side. Where May is characteristically associated with water and cold, Ellen is conspicuously associated with fire and heat, even electricity; thus, descriptions that employ both heat and cold to describe May complicate her characters dichotomy. The day after Newland first orders yellow roses for Ellen, when he is taking an afternoon walk with May, the weather is [calling] out her radiance, and she [burns] like a young maple in the frost (71). Later after thei r engagement, Newland finds that kissing his finance is like drinking at a cold spring w ith the sun on it [] ( 123). In both of these instances, May has a surface quality of warmth, but underneath that veneer lies, a cold maple, perhaps her family tree, and chilled water drawn from the family well. The narrator paints a woman who is full of contradi ction: May is either not yet iced enough


16 to be statuesque or perhaps her love for Ne wland is encouraging her to try to be warm, yet her upbringing make this impossible to sustain. Whartons ambivalence about the age May represents may illuminate these lukewarm descriptions. Jean Witherow argues that Wharton was familiar with the repressive characteristics of old New York though she was still nostalgic for the strict integrity found in business and private (2). Ju dith Fryer s locates Whartons ambivalence toward May in her own sense of identity: While Wharton recognized the in consistencies in old New York, she championed its fundament al order as essential (129). She was well aware of the repression of the self in the old ways and the fragmentation of the self in the new (129). Additionally, in A Backward Glance Wharton captures this duality: When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ev er again be poured. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be savored by a youthful palate; and I should tr y to atone for my unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance (5). May and her cla ss are surely part of that fragrance. Miss Welland may try on fire, but in the end she is much more water. After arriving home from his mothers Thanksgiving dinner where Ellen has been pejoratively discussed, Newland senses tens ion between May and him; still he has decided to meet Ellen in Washington. He calls May to his study, and immediately bends over to lower the wick. With a gesture that appears wifely and concerned, Wharton symbolically reveals Mays power to decr ease the influence of Ellen. Throughout the nearly silent scene, Mays hand remains on that wick. With a small pinch, she can smother the flame at any moment. Archer th inks he is control of the situation. He


17 imagines that he is secretively planning to skirt off to Washington for a liaison with Ellen; however, May knowsshe holds the flame. The strength of her position is heightened by her last ac tion in this exchange: Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last work of his mute message reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on the sulky flame. They smell less if one blows them out, she explained with her bright housekeeping air. On the threshold, she turned and paused for a kiss. (232) Archer misses it completely, but Wharton has made clear that May dislikes and fears the fire and that she is far more in control th an Newland realizes. Si milarly, right after May informs Newland of Ellens intention to return to Europe, A lump of coal [falls] forward in the gate and May immediately rises to push it back. She will not allow the fire to cross into her arena. Her wo rds even have the power to extinguish(72) communication. In Newlands eyes she is the enemy of fire ; Mays vigilant patro lling of her circles boundaries effectively prevent Newland from foraying into Ellens world. If May and her set fear fire, they are draw n to the cooling safety of the water. The Wellands vacation in St. Augustine and the va n der Luydens take re fuge from New York at Skutercliff, their Italian home on the H udson River. In these locations, it seems that water muffles or distorts communicati on and emotion. When Newland, here a representative of Mays stratum, visits the Chiverses (also on the Hudson), the talk is superficial until a young lady professes he rself broken-hearted at having her engagement announced. This secr et is tellingly delivered as the pair chats in the corner of a firelit hall (112) Wharton uses fire to draw out communication and water, here


18 snow, to stifle it. Likewise, when Newland cat ches up with Ellen at Skutercliff, he finds her walking in the snow, dressed in a red cloak, and refusing to tell him what she was running away from (114). As if Ellens feet cannot abide the cold, she races across the snow (Newland follows) and serendipitously finds a fire flickering in the old patroon house. Fire embodies the qualities of Ellen and her ability to speak freely. In the presence of the shining firelight with a b ig bed of embers still [gleaming], Newland resists the temptation to say more, but his urge to speak honestly to Ellen nearly wins: I shant be here long he rejoine d, his lips stiffening with the ef fort to say just so much and no more (116). Newland nearly utters his pent up words, the fire nearly melts his resolve, but, he stiffens, he freezes again, ju st in time to maintain his watery silence. In the same scene, while Newland entreats Ellen to tell him who she was running away from, his eyes remain fixed on the outer snow. Archer cannot even make eye contactthe heat is too hot for him, so his gaze rests on the symbol of his American, old New York identity: the snow. In this moment Newland also breaks from the reality of the situation. He imagines Ellen embracing him, but the connection with the cold effectively stifles his ability to live in the moment and to openly communicate.


19 Ellen Olenskas Psychology of Fire I have drunk of the wine of life at la st, I have known the best worth knowing, I have warmed through & through, never to grow quite cold again till the end (Wharton, LA 680). In these lines from A Life Apart Wharton likens her affair with Morton Fullerton to an agent able to warm her through & through. Prior to her affair, even though she did not realize this until Fullerton and she parted, she was unfeeling and empty (Wharton, Life Apart 672)she was May, but afte r Fullerton, she was Ellen; she had been enlivened and warmed by their passion. Several critics acknowledge this referential connection between Wharton and Ellen. Linda Wagner-Martin explains that if May is the youthful Whartona pre European Wharton even, it follows then that Ellen is the more sophisticated, Europeanized, adult (67). Gi na Taglieri observes that Ellen strongly resembles the worldly and droll Wharton (scr een 1), R. W. B Lewis calls Ellen a sketch of the intense nonconformist self, the young hawk [] that had escaped though only into a miserably unhappy marriage (431), and Judith Fryer labels Ellen the European kind of threat to the offi cial innocence of May (113) Newland neatly categorizes these contrasts; simply, if May is water, Ellen is fire. In chapter 8, the narrators brief biogr aphy of Ellen, prior to Newlands second meeting with her, establishes her connection to fire, which is often invoked by shades of red. As a child, Ellen had dusty red cheeks and wore crimson beadsin a period of mourning nonetheless. Then in adult hood, she married the Polish nobleman and


20 subsequently she disappeared in a kind of sulphurous apotheosis (52). Sulfur is used to make gunpowder. Here Ellen seemingly disapp ears in its smoke and takes on a god-like, legendary status. This unorthodoxed behavior of her youth is consistent with her behavior at the van der Luyden dinner given in honor of the Duke. There she converses with the guest of honor before he has spoken with th e elderly ladies pres ent and to Newlands shock (56), she crosses the room to in itiate conversation with a man. However, Newlands shock soon gives way to awe, for Ellens comments illuminate (56) his New York aristocratic peers. Through her caref ul diction Wharton imbues Ellen with the characteristics of fire. Relating Ellen to fire draws on several sy mbolic meanings. Fire is known to warm and illuminate, and while it is often the sym bol of hell and damnation, it is also a source of purification. Freud saw fire as a symbol of hidden passions and many cultures view fire as a sign of enlightenme nt, of wisdom and knowledge. Fire is the only one of the four elements that man is able to produce on his own (Brown, Smith, and Jaffe). This ability to create fire, of course, recalls the myth of Prometheus, the man who was not afraid to create or to share. Finally, fi re is also largely uncontrolla ble and free; its direction is unpredictable. Ellen was an il luminator who inspired passion and truly created her own unpredictable path. Wharton often situations Ellen near fire when she and Newland are to broach private matters. When Newland first meets Ellen at her home, he is led through the narrow hall into a low firelit drawing room (60), and while he waits for Ellen, he stretches his feet to the [burning] logs, and communica tes with Ellens maid in language put together from a phrase out of Dante (61). Ellen calls New York heaven.


21 Considering these descriptions of her home then and the idea that she is the opposite of all concerning New York, it is not implausible to read her home as a type of Hades; Newland traveled a narrow hall to arrive in the room lit by fire and once there, he is understood only when he speaks the language of Dante, the author most famous for his depictions of the inner strata of hell. Ellens dark and orient al home is Hades in the sense of a Greek afterlife, of an Is le of the Blessed or Elysian Fields. It is a rest for the banished, those on the periphery of society, and Newland has arrived in obedience to her previous days pronouncement that she will expect him at her house the following day after five. Newland finds that the fiery enviro nment of Ellens house causes his selfconsciousness to vanish in the sense of adventure (61). When Newland is with May, form not adventure prevails, yet in this mo ment, when Ellen [sits ] down near the fire (64), Newland is so relaxed that he calls the countess Olenska by her first name. This social faux pas is burnt into his consci ousness (68). The Newland-centered narrator continues to be impressed with Ellens fiery qualities throu ghout the scene where Wharton repetitively empowers Ellen with fire : Ellen smokes (57), glows (56), and emits electric shocks (63). However, the pow er of Ellens fire is truly ephemeral. As soon as Newland exits her home, he is met with a wintry night and New York again [becomes] vast and imminent, and May Wella nd the loveliest woman in it (69). Upon entry into the chilled night, Newlands thought s of warm Ellen vanish. Newland is back in his natural environment and th ere fire does not long survive. Newland meets with Ellen at the fire again when he visits to a dvise her to divorce the count. At this meeting she sits at a right angle to the chimney, wearing a red velvet


22 robe (91). Directly after Ne wland admonishes her to remain married to a man who was obviously beastly, a log symbolically [breaks] in two and [sends] up a shower of sparks (96). It is as if Ellens fiery spirit is being crushed by his words. The symbolism continues, for near the end of Newland s counseling session, right before Ellen announces that she will comply, the fire [has] crumbled down to greyness, and one of the lamps [makes] a gurgling appeal for atten tion (98). Newlands trying to force Ellen into the mold of his society douses her vim. Even Ellens hands have become cold and lifeless (98) now that she has consigned hers elf to obey the pack. The reader wonders if Ellens fire would be completely extingui shed if she had inde ed followed all of Newlands advice. Finally, Wharton informs the pairs most passionate moment, the only time they kiss, with a firelit environment. She sank down on the sofa again, [] and the young man by the fireplace continued to gaze at her without moving []. Looking at her, he saw the same burning flush creep up her neck to her face (147). As with the other moments where Ellen and Newland are near fi re, the conversation is forthright even taking unexpected turns. Newland here has th e courage to ask Elle n about her husbands insinuating letteran indelicat e question he would not normally pose, yet the fire of Ellen melts Newlands rigid need for propriet y. In the novels end, Newland is not able to live with Ellens fire, but his final image of he r is couched in the glow of flame: sitting beneath Ellens apartment, in the light of her window, Newla nd imagines Ellen sitting in a sofa corner near the fire, with azaleas ba nked behind her on a table (313). Because fire cannot survive in his world, it will live only in his memory.


23 Newland Archers Im possible Departure Even so, my soul would set a light for you, A light invisible to all beside, As though a lovers ghost should yearn & glide From pane to pane, to let the flame shine through. Yet enter not, lest, as if flits ahead, You see the hand that carries it is dead. (Wharton, Ame close Lines 10-15) Whartons naming her hero Newland Archer significantly relates to his being the failed bridge between Mays and Ellens wo rlds. Understanding the names symbolism requires knowledge of the anti phonal relationship between Henry Jamess Isabel Archer and Whartons male, center of consciousness. To begin, the very titl e of Whartons novel invokes a well-known portrait of a young girlit is, in essence, a portrait of a ladythe very title of Whartons favorite James novel. Thus, by her title alone, Wharton begins the dialogue between her novel and Jamess. C ynthia Griffin Wolff clarifies that the invocation of Jamess work is not a coincidence: There is no mistaking her intention, for at the same time that she conve rted the working title of Old New York into the Age of Innocence, she also changed th e name of her hero to New land Archer, an American who elects to remain at home in the New World only to have Old World temptations and knowledge come to him (304). The similarities between Isabel and Newla nd begin with their last name: Archer. Both characters have been said to be an arch a bridge between American and European values (Mosely 160). Newland would like to be this nationalistic bridge by marrying


24 Ellen who inspires in him the illusion that freedom, love, and art can be found abroad (160). These similarities do not imply that Isabel and Newl and are exact counterparts in any fashion, but rather that Wharton plays on Isabel Archers experi ences to [convey] a sense of moral seriousness and a similar ity of concern (Griffin-Wolff 304). Additionally Archers first name, N ewland, adds another layer to his characterization. When interpreting his character phonetically, one finds a new land archera man who arches, bridges to a new land. In Age this new land could be the transcendent merging of opposites, his and Ellens world, or it could simply be the world that Ellen represents. In either case, Newlands arching is a failure. At the opera, when Newland admiringly observes May, he recogni zes that what he desires in his future marriage is a miracle of fire and ice, yet he has no idea how such a situation was to be created and sustained. In fact he has held this view wit hout analysis (7). From the beginning, Newland desires what is a scientif ic impossibilityfire and ice do not coexist May, a daughter of water, cannot be infuse d with fire and in the end, Ellen, the hot European, will not allow her purity to be tempered. Thus, Archer is at first painted as an impractical dreamer, a dreamer who thinks he can combine elements, a dreamer who thinks he can embody both elements and survive. Why does Newland entertain this idea, th e coexistence of fire and ice? Because Wharton has fashioned him part fire. In chap ter fifteen, Newland clea rly finds delight in Ellens fireness. When Ellen races across the snow, Newland looks on, delighted by the flash of a red meteor across the snow (114). Ellen is the meteorand to Newland she is exotic and passionate, something beyond his normal trajectory: a solar body. Again in chapter eighteen, Newland reveals his ki nship with fire. Newl and confronts Ellen


25 about her husbands accusations while he is leaning against a chimneypiece. Then, he moves to hold her hand, but Ellen rebuffs him, symbolically moving to the other side of the hearth (146). Momentarily, she keeps th e fire between them, perhaps because she knows that Newland cannot cross to the other side or perhaps because she is stronger than he and wants to save him from going be yond to the place where the Gorgon dries one tears (252). In fact, in this scene Newla nd and Ellen reverse roles briefly. When Ellen breaks down in tears, Newland is stock-still; he remains stationed at the fireplace. His intense desire for Ellen at this moment makes staying in her world seem possible; however, Ellen has learned from Newland. As Griffin-Wolff phrases it, she has learned from the good man he will become even if he is not yet that man (324). Because of Newlands prefigured example, she will not allow her happiness to be bought by disloyalty and cruelty (149). Not only does this scene reveal the bit of fire in Newland, it depicts Ellen as a woman on waters edge. Wh en Newland holds her face to kiss her, he sees a wet flower (148). This descripti on, one hardly romantic, temporarily includes Ellen in Mays word; consequently, Ellen momentarily plays the rigid character; she will be the one to enforce societys code. Still as much as Archer desires to be free, he is largely a man of solid ice. He is clearly drawn to Ellen, but in an ambiva lent fashion. Her fire, by its sheer novelty, compels him. Ellens ways at once mesmeri ze him and repel him. He enjoys her honesty, but when she takes what he feels is a flippa nt tone about old New York, likening it to a place where Being [there] is likelikebeing taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all of ones lessons (6 4), he dislikes it. Later when she wears a fur inside, Newland finds it perverse and pr ovocative [...] with an undeniably pleasing


26 effect (91). Newlands ambivalence toward Ellen can be accounted in the elemental motifsif he enjoys Ellen too much he will either evaporate or melt. For in the final measure, Newland is old New York, so much so that his very thoughts are expressed in terms of water. His convictions about Ellen drift dangerously through his mind (36), his feelings dampen when he thinks of his faraway wedding day (59), his work plunges him into a mood wh ere he chokes and sputters (82), he keeps his thoughts on the surface in the old New York way (83), a wave of compassion sweeps over him when he thinks of Madame Olenskas plight (97), a vision is as soothing as a lazy blue river(123), his imagination sp ins like a vortex (211), and he feels that Ellens heart is a full cup he might spill (270). In each of these instances, Wharton aligns Newland with old New York, with characters in the van der Luyden vein. Newland cannot bridge the worlds because he is not bridge material. He cannot join Ellens for her world would destroy him. He is left with one recourseto endure the best society has to offer.


27 Conclusion Wharton structures a plot that seems to be all about choice between extremes: It opens with an opera about choice, develops the mindset of characters who either waver on the abyss or submit to their cultures sculpting, and ends with new age characters who will marry without a thought to whose worlds are unitin g, the novel is not so much about bridging two worlds as it is about recogn izing that true growth is accepting what is goodmarriage and two childreninstead of demanding the impossiblethe combination of fire and ice, in Newlands case, adulterous love that does not leave Newland wishing for the honor and structure of his past. Growth for Newland occurs when he faces his responsibilities, ceases trying to mix water with fire. Wharton is comfortable with the outcome of Newland s choice because she too had her fire and ice. If Wharton indeed saw each part of hers elf as being in diametrical opposition to the others, as having the power to cancel each other out, her physica l placement of the characters makes great sense. Ellen is ab road in Europe far away from the dousing influence of America, May is safely harbored in the family sea, and Newland sits in the light of his lost lovehe sa ves his fantasy. Each quality livesand perhaps it is not divine and transcendent, but as Wharton found as she ag ed, she was above all else a member of society and there, settling, not transcending is often the order of the day.


28 Works Cited Beer, Janet. Edith Wharton. Salisbury, UK: Northcote House, 2002. Benstock, Shari. A Brief Biography. A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton Ed. Carol J. Singley. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 19-50. ---. No Gifts From Chance A Bi ography of Edith Wharton New York: Scribner, 1994. Brown, Geoff, Jamie Smith, and Eric Jaffe. Dictionary of Symbolism. University of Michigan Fantasy and Science Fi ction Website. 2001. 22 October. 2005.>. Bussey, Jennifer. Critical E ssay on the Age of Innocence. Novels for Students 2001. 16 October. 2005. . Davis, Linette. Vulgarity and Red Blood in The Age of Innocence. The Journal of the Modern Language Association 20.2 (1987): 1-8. Dizikcs, John. Opera in America: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Fedorko, Kathy A. Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton. Tuscaloosa: Alabama UP, 1995. Fryer, Judith. Purity and Power in The Age of Innocence. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 99-116. Kress, Jill M. The Figure of Consciousness William James, Henry James, and Edith Wharton New York: Routledge, 2002. Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton A Biography. New York: Fromm, 1985.


29 Moseley, Edwin M. The Age of Inno cence: Edith Whartons Weak Faust. College English. 21.3 (1959): 156-160. Singley, Carol J. Introduction. A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton Ed. Carol J. Singley. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 3-18. Skaggs, Carmen Trammell. Looking thr ough the Opera Glasses: Performance and Artifice in The Age of Innocence . Mosaic: a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 37 (2004): 49-62. Taglieri, Gina L. The Age of Innocence of Edith Wharton. Encyclopedia of the Novel. Ed. Schellinger, Paul. 2 vols. Chicago: Fitzroy Pub, 1998. Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Age of Innocence A Novel of Ironic Nostalgia. New York: Twayne Pub., 1996. Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. 1920. New York: Penguin, 1962. ---. A Backward Glance. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1934. ---. The Life Apart: Text and Contex ts of Edith Whartons Love Diary. American Literature 66 (1994): 663-688. ---. Senlis . The Life Apart: Text and Contexts of Edith Whartons Love Diary. American Literature 66 (1994): 678. ---. Ame Close. The Life Apart: Text and Contexts of Edith Whartons Love Diary. American Literature 66 (1994): 678. Witherow, Jean. A Dialectic of Deception: Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 36 (2003): 18 pages. 10 Oct. 2005 <>.


30 Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words The Triumph of Edith Wharton. Reading: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1977.


31 Bibliography Canby, Henry Seidel. Our America. Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray 287-289. Godfrey, David A. The Full and Elaborate Vocabulary of Evasion: The Language of Cowardice in Edith Whartons Old New York. The Midwest Quarterly. 30 (1988):27-44. Hadley, Kathy Miller. Ironic Structure and Untold Stories in The Age of Innocence Studies in the Novel. 23 (1991): 262-72. Knights, Pamela. The Social Subject in The Age of Innocence. The Cambridge Companion to Wharton. Ed. Millicent Bell. New York: Cambridge UP, M[ansfield], K[atherine]. Family Portra its. Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray 291-292. Parrington, Jr., Vernon L. Our Literary Aris tocrat. Tuttleton, La uer, and Murray 293295. Phelps, Wiliam Lyon. As Mrs. Wharton Sees Us. Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray 283286. Price, Alan. The End of the Age of Innocence Ed ith Wharton and the First World War. New York: St. Martins, 1996. Tursi, Rennee Rev. of The Figure of Consciousness: William James, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, by Jill M. Kress. Studies in the Novel Spring 2005. 2005: 101105.


32 Tuttleton, James W., Kristin O. La uer, and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992. Van Doren, Carl. An Elder America. Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray 286-287. Watson, Frederick. The Assurance of Ar t. Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray 292-293.


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