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Judging a Book by Its Cover

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New York City society places a high value on innocence in Edith Warton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, forcing its characters to abide by the strict social codes of the 1870s or face scorn. Any deviation from an innocent lifestyle appears scandalous and inappropriate and subjects the offender to malicious gossip and rebuke. However, Wharton illustrates that society’s definition of innocence in characters fails to accurately portray their true character. Wharton uses Ellen Olenska, Archer Newland, and May Welland to highlight the hypocrisy of innocence in New York City.

Wharton depicts Ellen Olenska, May Welland’s cousin who moves back to New York, as an outsider to New York society who fails to grasp expected societal norms. Madame Olenska outwardly appears the least innocent character in the novel, as her clothing, public behavior, and opinions create scandals. However, her scandalous behavior mainly results from her innocence. Shortly after returning to New York, Madame Olenska’s introduction into New York society occurs at a production of Faust in the Metropolitan Opera House. Newland Archer spots her and remarks, “a little more shoulder and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing,” (Wharton, 57), noting that society judges her before she even engages in a conversation. Oblivious to the fact that her European style breaks social standards, she continues behaving in uncharacteristic ways for people in high society. At the van der Luyden dinner party, Madame Olenska walks away from a conversation with several gentlemen and walks across the drawing-room to join Newland in conversation, who remarks, “it was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman to seek the company of another” (92). This bold behavior compels one to categorize Ellen as rebellious, but Newland further reveals that “the countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule” (92), which contradicts this label. Since European customs differ from New York, her behavior more closely reflects innocence than rebellion. Ellen refuses to hide her opinions and beliefs and states her mind. She proclaims the Duke is, “the dullest man [she] ever met,” (93) and believes the only reason for the van der Luydens power is because “they make themselves so rare,” (103). Although society secretly agrees with her opinions, speaking them aloud, is daring and careless, again illustrating her naivety to societal norms. By failing to protect herself from society’s judgment, the reader realizes her innocence. Those who understand the harsh realities of society, know that one must put on a mask to protect themselves. Ellen’s actual innocence contradicts society’s opinion of her, as her public flaws result from a failure to grasp social norms and failing to put up a facade of innocence in public, not a reflection of rebellious behavior.

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Newland Archer, May Welland’s husband, constantly judges others’ behavior based on their adherence to social norms, yet his lack of self-awareness strips him of the innocence he believes society sees in him. Archer clearly grasps the social etiquette at the time as, “few things seemed to Newland Archer more awful than an offense against “Taste,” (44) and he criticizes other men in his social circle like Sillerton Jackson, Lawrence Lefferts, and Julius Beaufort for not adhering to societal codes. Archer fulfills society’s expectations by having an affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworthy before his marriage and concealing it from May, as it is his duty as a decent fellow to keep his past from her (73). However, after his marriage to May, Archer continues to engage in relationships outside of his marriage, yet fails to conceal his emotional affair with Madame Olenska. Society condemns this scandalous behavior as, “no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering after marriage” (327). Archer disguises his feelings for Ellen in an attempt to escape criticism, however, he remains unaware that all of society, including May, knows of his love for Ellen. While his behavior is scandalous, Archer displays his innocent as he fails to recognize that society knows of his relationship. Archer Newland critiques his peers for not following societal norms and believes society views him as an innocent and righteous man, which highlights his true naivety and lack of self-awareness, as society sees through his facade.

Unlike the public portrayal of Ellen Olenska, Wharton depicts May Welland as a pure and ideal young woman of the time. Newland often refers to May using symbols of purity and she wears conservative white clothing, all symbols of innocence. Newland describes May as, “straight-forward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humor (chiefly proved by her laughing at his jokes)…” (75). Despite outward appearances, May is arguably the least innocent character in the novel. Archer believes that because May laughs at his jokes, she, therefore, has a sense of humor, however, one can argue that May’s sense of humor is for self perseveration and she laughs at his jokes to maintain her cover of innocence. She understands that only through false appearances and abiding by social norms can one survive in this rigid New York society. Despite her outward appearance, May demonstrates her lack of innocence while working to salvage her marriage. May uses her pregnancy to force Archer and Ellen to end their affair of the heart, despite being publicly oblivious to their relationship. May reveals the news to Archer with, “her blue eyes wet with victory,” (363) when she realizes her plan stops Newland from leaving her for Ellen. These actions demonstrate that although May’s initial appearances of innocence and her lack of acknowledgment of Ellen and Archer’s relationship are convincing, they are facades to protect herself from society. While May Welland portrays herself as a perfectly innocent and pure woman in society, she effectively uses this facade to manipulate those around her way to get what she wants.

Wharton’s inclusion of innocence in the novel’s title underscores the hypocrisy of society’s focus on innocence. In an age of supposed innocence, most characters lack innocence, even though society lauds them for it. Wharton disguises the least innocent characters in society as the ones that seem to conform to societal norms and put on facades and hides the actual innocence of those who fail to conform. Perhaps Wharton writes this novel to lash out at a society that harshly judges her alleged transgressions and expose the hypocrisy that society employs to keep its members in line. 

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