Love and War in The Age of Innocence
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton depicts the culture of New York City as a warlike and combative rather than as an elegant and refined society. New York City itself is portrayed as a high society battleground, where the great families of the city form tribes and alliances that resemble the city-states of historical Europe, always fighting, inter-marrying, and redistributing their wealth and borders. Although it appears that this society is dictated by class and order, it is really the underlying structure of a warlike and hostile New York in which families fight for standing and reputation that keeps this culture in existence.
Like any military operation, the culture of high class New York is built around a strategy. At the foremost of this strategy is the creation of tribes, otherwise known as the top tier families of the city. Within these tribes, leaders are established to guide their members and initiate them as to the intricacies of New York society. In The Age of Innocence, it is the van der Luydens, not coincidentally one of the three families of aristocratic origin, who “stood above them all” (31) and had immense social power. In the Welland clan, Mrs. Manson Mingott, “a high and mighty old lady, who, in spite of having been only Catherine Spicer of Staten Island, with a father mysteriously discredited, and neither money nor position enough to make people forget it [and who] had allied herself with the head of the wealthy Mingott line,” (7) served as the matriarch. These tribes maintain their rank by forging alliances through the institution of marriage, which creates an automatic coalition between two separate families, as seen by the way Archer is responsible for providing counsel and support for the Mingott clan as soon as his engagement to May is announced. Other positions of prominence included those who served as experts on the norms of the period, and including widely regarded “old Mr. Jackson, [who] was as great an authority on ‘family’ as Lawrence Lefferts was on ‘form’” (5).
Once these tribes are created, the most important strategic mission is to keep these tribal arrangements in place. And that is most clearly seen in the way that the a family, or tribe, if you will, holds itself together. The way that the Wellands banded together around Ellen when she returned from Europe was truly remarkable, as even Archer noted when he said that “one of the qualities he most admired in the Mingotts was the their resolute championship of the few black sheep that their blameless stock had produced” (7). In fact, it was the Wellands, the Archers, and the van der Luydens who all rallied around Ellen as she was introduced to society as a guest of the van der Luydens, an honor reserved only to esteemed members of upper class New York, after everyone refused the invitations for Ellen’s own arrival dinner as an “intended slight” (30). Even at the end, when Ellen had lost much of the respect her family had gained for her, the family came together in a show of solidarity to wholeheartedly see her off with a farewell dinner, because “there were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe” (216).
And these tribes really are excellent at assiduously ostracizing members who won’t play by the very strict and unforgiving rules. The case of Regina Beaufort is an excellent example. When her husband faces financial ruin, Regina comes begging to Mrs. Manson Mingott, her aunt, to save her, but only receives the brutal and frosty reply that her name “was Beaufort when he (her husband) covered you with jewels, and it’s got to stay Beaufort now that he’s covered you with shame” (176). She should have know that “the mere idea of a woman’s appealing to her family to screen her husband’s business dishonour was inadmissible, since it was the one thing that Family, as an institution, could not do” (177). The family is so complete in its ostracization that the only member who even attempts to help Regina Beaufort through this hardship is Ellen Olenska, the member of the family who is already being excluded herself. When it comes to the strategic value of keeping the tribe in line, the families of upper class New York are relentless, even if there are human costs.
The tribes also have the necessary weaponry and resources to wage this war. At its most basic level, this battle is fueled with money, connections, and societal rank, as everyone knows that it’s money that keeps a family within the highest circles. Another crucial tool is communication. It is incredibly important to learn to how to manipulate intel through the control, containment, or proliferation of information. Even the announcement of Archer and May’s engagement was a strategic distraction from Ellen’s arrival. The telegrams also provide a more selective way of spreading information and have tactical value, for instance when May sent a telegram celebrating the setting of an early wedding date to Ellen before Newland, with the implied message to back-off. And of course, the importance of gossip cannot be underestimated in driving motivations.
Encrypted messages are essential to these war games, and the particular language used by upper class New York is a societal code that proved “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” (28). These hieroglyphs demanded that men have a job but don’t work because “money-making was still regarded as derogatory” (82) and that women become educated in the right things yet don’t think because when a husband “ceased to provide her with opinions” she may begin to “hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works” (190).
In this societal code, it is unacceptable to acknowledge unpleasant things, let alone talk about them. This can be seen in the way that affairs, which, mind you, are “undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman,” (62) are never spoken of, because everyone knows that if something is not talked about, it certainly didn’t happen. In fact, the only real way to talk about these things is through cryptic glances, like when Archer decides to go to Washington, D.C. to see Ellen. May gives him permission, which “was the only word that passed between the two on the subject…in the code in which they had both been trained” (172). Archer, naturally, misinterprets May’s meaning, just as he does in St. Augustine.
The importance of these resources can be seen through Wharton’s choice of details throughout the novel, and none are noticeably subtle. Newland’s surname, Archer, is one example. And it is no coincidence that May’s sport of choice is archery. Mrs. Mingott is also described interestingly as having “round eyes suddenly as sharp as pen-knives” (194). These references to weaponry reinforce the battle metaphor of New York society.
The concept of love, however, is noticeably absent from this society. In this war of marrying for alliances, marrying for love would be like defecting and forgoing the strategic advantage of your potential match. Love simply does not have a place; marriage is a duty. Love faces the fate of being trodden on and forgotten. There are very few instances of love in this novel, and not one in Newland’s generation seems to be successful. In fact, the only couple that marries for romantic reasons seems to be May and Archer’s son. The notion of love is consumed by the possibility of tribal victory, and the sanctity of the family exceeds the importance of a trivial emotion like love, especially when compared to the immense power contracted by marriage. Ellen is reprimanded by the family for abandoning Count Olenski because he was so crucial to her standing in society,with the family never taking into consideration that she not only didn’t love him, but she was deeply unhappy with him, even alluding to possibly being abused by him. Archer recognizes society’s disregard for love himself, as he follows through with his engagement to May despite his feelings for Ellen and his obliviousness to many social pressures.
Newland may be ignorant of the fact that love is incompatible with high society New York, but Newland is ignorant of other things as well. He misunderstands women throughout the novel, particularly his own wife. When May confronts him about his love for Ellen, he was “lost in wonder at the prodigy of the Wellands’ daughter urging him to marry his former mistress” (97), when, of course, May was referring to a different woman altogether. Newland also misunderstands other societal rules, as seen by his dreams of running away with Ellen to India or Japan or the way that he still believes a relationship with Ellen is possible even though he just convinced May to move the wedding date forward. Perhaps most glaring of all he doesn’t realize until Ellen’s farewell party that “to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to ‘foreign’ vocabularies” (217). It is precisely Archer’s ignorance that makes him a poor soldier who needs to be reinitiated with the army mentality in the battleground of New York City.
Archer’s dedication to his family after Ellen returns to Europe shows his ability to fulfill his duty and fit back into the social conformity of New York. He remains true to the tribe by avoiding the temptations of visiting France while on vacation with the family and even when the potential ramifications of meeting Ellen are finally removed at the very end of the novel, he “got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel” (235). This agreement to never communicate with Ellen again serves as treaty that stops this particular clash of societal warfare. In the years that follow, Archer witnesses a reparation period in which the entirety of upper class New York begins to see extraordinary change. In this new period, “the young men were now emancipating themselves from the law and business and taking up all sorts of new things” (224) and the marriage arrangements were becoming much more flexible and much less scrutinized, as Archer and May’s own son was marrying Fanny Beaufort. This loosening of the rigid social customs represented the rebuilding of city after a war fought in the name of high society New York, a cultural war clearly seen in Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence.