Womanhood: Fifth Avenue Versus Polk Street
The societies of both Frank Norris’ McTeague and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence have unique concepts of womanhood that are related to their respective settings of San Francisco and New York. The distinction between childhood and womanhood, the restriction and/or empowerment allowed by feminine roles in society, and the treatment of women who do not conform to these roles are all lenses through which the underlying forces behind these societies can become apparent. A comparison of these two systems yields not only insight into fundamental differences between the two worlds but also an unexpected level of commonality stemming from the oppression inherent to societal notions of womanhood.
In McTeague’s Polk Street, the epitome of the ideal female figure in the microcosm is Trina Sieppe. Our first impression of Trina in McTeague’s dentist office is that of a little girl, “innocent infantile,” (18) “… without sex. She was almost like a boy, frank, candid, unreserved” (19). This condition is only transient, however, as Norris characterizes the exact moment when Trina is transformed into a woman when she submits to McTeague’s brute, animalistic strength by allowing him to kiss her: “McTeague had awakened the woman, and whether she would or no, she was his now irrevocably…” (70). This clearly shows how the advent of womanhood in this world is catalyzed by submission to manhood. This image of force-catalyzed transformation ties in well with the initial description of Polk Street in chapter 1 that uses warlike imagery such as “a little army of workers” and “schoolchildren invading the street” (5). In fact, throughout the novel brute strength is extremely important to Polk Street and California, as witnessed during McTeague’s fights with Marcus and the brutality of the gold rush in Death Valley.
The definition of womanhood on Polk Street is in many ways antithetical to the definition in The Age of Innocence’s world of Fifth Avenue. As the families of this world are at the top of the social totem pole and collectively have none of the financial woes that are relevant on Polk Street, there is no obligation for either men or women to do any work, professional or domestic. The social scene and its associated gossip are thus the primary concerns on Fifth Avenue, and women are key players in this social game. Women are to be socially active while maintaining exceptionally subtle interactions, using stock phrases to verbally communicate as little as possible while leaving social cues and unspoken implications. To attain this ideal, women are forced through a social machine designed by their elders from a young age to operate as proper social beings. Newland Archer cynically laments the nature of this cycle: “And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses” (37). Here on Fifth Avenue, the distinction between girl and woman is not defined through submission to a man but rather through a gradual acquisition of social competence. Newland Archer’s sister Janey represents the immature woman, while May Welland is the prototypical socialite.
The sense of empowerment and restriction associated with both definitions of societal womanhood is another interesting focal point for understanding the two societies. Both Trina and May have methods for exerting influence over their husbands while not grossly betraying their social roles; nevertheless in the end both characters are suffocated by the ultimate lack of flexibility that their roles allow.
Once Trina marries McTeague, her role as a woman becomes intimately linked to domestic duties. Trina immerses her energy into cooking and cleaning, becoming quite skillful at these roles as she manages to substantially improve McTeague’s crude tastes. However, cracks in their seemingly functional marriage appear long before the McTeagues enters financial crisis. When Trina realizes that she can derive power over McTeague through domestic dominion, she becomes addicted to money, power, and deceit. Trina gradually learns how to how to work the system- how to control her husband while maintaining the shadow of a normal feminine role’s submission. For example, she would feed her addiction to money by being thrifty in order to embezzle small amounts of money. Though Trina gained a personal sense of satisfaction, McTeague began to resent her change in attitude and physically abuse her. Tragically, Trina’s derivation of pleasure from being physically dominated or abused is a force that she cannot escape. In the end she sacrifices her beauty, vitality and life because she cannot reconcile her societal role as a dominated woman and her lust for domestic domination over her husband.
Similarly, May Welland falls prey to her societal role as a woman as she simultaneously derives power from it. May Welland is forced to silently watch her husband have an obvious love affair while she is unable to express her knowledge because she must maintain the appearance of blissful ignorance. Her family works together to ensure that Newland is unsuccessful in his attempts to woo Ellen Olenska, so in the end she ends up winning in the sense that she maintains the order of the prized Fifth Avenue family unit. Yet, it is debatable whether she is actually better off proudly carrying the secret of her knowledge of Newland’s betrayal to her death rather than dying defiantly like Trina. This is especially questionable since we find out through her children that the values of the next generation of Fifth Avenue society are wildly different than those May upheld.
These social expectations of women are stringent and not attainable by everyone. What happens to women who do not conform? These women- of which Maria Macapa from McTeague and Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence are prime examples- are perpetual outsiders in their societies yet are oddly coveted by a few people for their innate inability to conform. They illustrate the difficulties of transitioning social roles under such stringent definitions of womanhood.
Maria Macapa sticks out in her world for several reasons. She is “ a strange woman of a mixed race” (37) in a white world, operates as a rogue, aggressive woman, and is clearly somewhat insane, as shown by her repeating her fairy tale about gold plates. Yet, she clearly longs to belong on Polk Street, as she “[spends her money on clothes] trying to dress like the girls who tended the soda-water fountain in the candy store on the corner” (27). When Maria receives a marriage offer from Zerkow, she finally has a chance to attain societal normalcy by submitting to him. Once they are married and she births (and then loses) a child, Maria magically sheds her insanity, forgets her tale about the gold plates, and even befriends Trina. Maria conforms to her gender roles in order to attain normalcy, but Zerkow only “loved” her for her insanity and ends up killing her for conforming.
Ellen Olenska’s plight with Newland Archer parallels Maria’s experience. Not only is Ellen tragically “foreign,” but also she possesses a character that does not at all conform to the standards of Fifth Avenue. Instead of being silent and passive she is blunt and forward, especially in her dialogue with Newland Archer, who becomes obsessed with her. However, obsession is founded solely on her deviation from the archetypal New York woman. Ellen pays a price for her veracity: she is perpetually in the out-group, and loses support from her family because of the threat to New York society that she represents. At the end of the story she has no choice to but to give up on love and base her life in Europe, a place where she can be accepted for being herself.
It is interesting to point out that in both The Age Of Innocence and McTeague, men have negative reactions upon gaining insight into societal womanhood. The moment McTeague conquers Trina and transforms her into a woman by kissing her is the same moment that his feelings for her begin to waver and “their undoing had already begun” (71). Similarly, Newland Archer is discouraged by the fact that May Welland cannot betray the social environment she grew up in after they are married and emotionally abandoned his marriage to her even though he was aware of her identity beforehand. Neither McTeague’s nor Archer’s emotions are rational but they are too powerful to be stifled. It is only when McTeague and Archer view their respective women as girls that they experience true feelings of admiration and awe towards them. It is when Trina is doped with ether, “unconscious, helpless and very pretty… absolutely without defense” (23) that McTeague’s primal urges are strongest, too strong to be suppressed. Newland Archer, too, fawned over May Welland and appeared to truly love her before he became acutely aware of her façade after they are married. Early in the novel, “Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more than her resolute determination to carry to its utmost limit that ritual of ignoring the “unpleasant” in which they had both been brought up” (21), yet he despised that quality immediately following their marriage.
It is clear that differences in these social concepts of womanhood are products of the fundamental cultural differences in New York and San Francisco. Fifth Avenue society is grounded in the strength of the family unit to the point where marriages are not as much a union of two people as they are a union between families. Women have important roles but are bound to their societal roles and customs. In contrast Norris’ San Francisco necessitates greater individualism. As the departure of the Sieppe family immediately after Trina’s marriage illustrates, the constant motion that up-and-coming San Francisco demands renders the family unit volatile. Rather than social rituals, brute strength is emphasized as the mechanism by which the city is governed.
And yet, though womanhood in these societies is very different, many parallels can be drawn between the two relating the way women are oppressed by such social constructs, and the constant struggle to exist through this oppression. Be it as silent as May Welland’s façade or as violent as Trina Sieppe’s fate, women will find ways to live despite dysfunctional conditions. And whether women choose to live through these definitions or not, resilience is their key to survival.