What’s in a Name? The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This blog post is from a student on my Star-Crossed Lovers Continuing Education course:
The Age of InnocenceI find myself fascinated by the way the names given to the characters in The Age of Innocence mirror their natures and their roles within the themes of the novel.

May Welland, who represents the epitome of what New York society could create at this time, believes that all is ‘well’ in her ‘land’. She has no desire to change anything about herself or about her world. She is ‘lacking in imagination’ and ‘incapable of growth.‘ As Newland, husband, soon discovers,

There was no use in trying to emaciate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.

Her first name, to me, conjures up a bright summer’s day, flowers, blossom, life bursting into bloom. She is the Queen of the May, virginal, worshipped. May could also be understood in its verb form, as in ‘she may’. This represents the possibilities that Newland believes may come to fruition in their relationship. He will teach her about art, literature, travel, passion – ‘We’ll read Faust together… by the Italian lakes.’

When she becomes an Archer, she takes up her bow to aim at what she wants, and what she wants to keep – Newland. She outmanoeuvres him at every turn, while on the surface seeming naive and innocent, and removes Ellen, the woman she knows he really loves, from their lives. She is even given a scene as an actual archer winning a competition against the other young ladies. She is Diana the hunter goddess, pure but strong and determined and icy.

Newland Archer, on the other hand, feels that he has encountered a ‘new land’. While initially comfortable in the stifling society of New York, his eyes are opened to exciting new possibilities when he meets Countess Olenska and falls in love with her. He then sees the futility of the life he had loved and

His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.

He desperately desires to escape with Ellen –

‘I want to somehow get away with you to a world where words like that [wife, mistress] won’t exist.’

But he cannot escape his duty –

Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature.

Even twenty-six years later, as a widower, he realises that his conventional life has the comforting feel of the place where he belongs, and he chooses not to see Ellen again when he has the chance. He wants to keep her as a dream of what might have been. I feel that his character is used to show the conflict between the old and the new ways of looking at life.

The name Countess Ellen Olenska has an air of mystery and of being from foreign parts. Ellen is a conventional name, she is, after all originally from this society, being May’s cousin. But she now has an aristocratic title, an abandoned husband in Europe and is surrounded by rumours of adultery and abuse. She oozes sexuality. Everything about her is different – the way she dresses, her cluttered home and bohemian friends, and the way she ignores social etiquette to show compassion to others shunned by society, for example Regina Beaufort after her husband becomes bankrupt. She is too passionate and unorthodox for New York’s highly organised society, but to Newland, she is truly alive and causes him to question his suffocating environment. While he dreams of his ‘new land’, Ellen, a realist, knows it does not exist – ‘Oh, my dear, where is that country?‘ Because she has been outside society she appreciates its standards, its defined roles and customs, and reminds Newland that a secret affair would hurt the people they love. She represents the changes in society that are coming, as increased personal freedom changed the world forever.

The name of the book itself is highly significant. The so called age of innocence has no innocence at all. It is all part of an act to hide the ugly side of human nature under a glossy veneer of respectability.

The picture painted of this ‘age of innocence’ is exquisite in its irony, its attention to detail (in both its settings and relationships) and above all its humanity. It has immediately been placed in my list of favourite novels.

This entry was posted in 2013, Courses, Southport, Victorian and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s in a Name? The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. Pingback: Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’ | One-Minute Book Reviews

  2. Jennifer says:

    I am reading this currently and truly appreciate your comments. I too find this one of my favorite novels and am surprised that it took me so long to read Wharton. May Welland is so shallow it is as if she could be erased. Newland Archer is a hapless devotee of the easy life – his easy life. I am not sure he wanted to be with Countess Olenska at all but just wanted the thrill of not being satisfied.
    As I am a voracious reader, next on the list is Henry James. I’ve read Portrait of a Lady (I felt so sorry for the heroine) and am going to plow through his work largely because Paola Brunetti of Donna Leon’s Brunetti series is a devoted student of “The Master.” Leon brought me to Wharton and then to James ….

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