“As Long As The Tunnel Isn’t Built Yet” – Newland Archer’s Refusal to Accept Real Change
Edith Wharton’s expatriation from the rapidly shifting social politics of New York allowed her to write, often scathingly, of the disappearing society in which she was raised. The post-Civil War New York upper class civilization was a testament to manners and the nuanced social practices of a wealthy leisure class. Wharton spent most of her adult life away from New York, but spent her career immortalizing the collapsing societal structures of late-1800s “Old New York” in prose. In this, she was an American expatriate writer in the truest sense: she left America to write about America.
In The Age of Innocence, Wharton explores the hypocrisy and tribal nature of an upper class way of life that is on the brink of radical social change. In the novel, Newland Archer’s world is vastly changed by the arrival of Ellen Olenska, the outcast European cousin of his conventional New York bride-to-be. Ellen opens Newland’s eyes to a different, more modern and individual sort of morality that is not embraced by the tribe of traditionalist New Yorkers. Ellen Olenska can be seen as a metaphor for the forces of a shifting society that eventually usurped and crowded out the antiquated Victorian sensibilities. The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s love letter to all the things she hated about the society she was so resistant of letting slip away. In a review published in the same year as The Age of Innocence, Carl Van Doren asserts that “In lonely contrast to the many who write about the fashionable New York, she knows her world…Mrs. Wharton’s triumph is that she has described these rites and sacrifices and burdens as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them,” (qtd. in Wharton 362).
In another homage to the long-gone society that is the subject of the novel, although The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, the language in the book is decidedly not modernist. Wharton defied the language and stylistic choices of her younger literary contemporaries, choosing instead to retain the realist style and language that she favored for most of her career; language that people of her breeding would have been most comfortable with. Wharton avoided the idea of economy of language, preferring to litter the novel with intricate descriptions and passages. Van Doren notes that “Mrs. Wharton’s structure and methods show no influence of the impressionism now broadening the channel of fiction; she does not avoid one or two touches of the florid in her impassioned scenes…” (qtd. in Wharton 362). These choices in language and style help set the scene for looking back at a society that, by the date of publishing, was fifty years old and considered a bygone era worthy of scorn by Wharton’s contemporaries – and to some degree, Wharton herself.
The Age of Innocence is Wharton’s peak achievement in describing “Old New York” with a sharp edge of irony. Her descriptions of the “tribe” is less a classic description of social rules and more an anthropological look at the hierarchy of the clannish leisure class. Wharton’s masterful use of irony in the text is what makes her scathing critique of high class culture so successful. “That The Age of Innocence represents Wharton’s last major achievement suggests that it represented the limit of her development as an author. It marks the point in which her irony comes full circle to implicate herself,” (Evron 49). Wharton’s irony is perfectly distilled through the eyes of the protagonist, Newland Archer – who eventually becomes self-aware enough to comprehend the ridiculous nature of his tribe’s social politics, but not brave enough to criticize them to the point of excluding or alienating himself.
“She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded,” (Wharton 59)
Wharton’s wit is biting when it comes to describing the mindlessness with which the upper classes accept their self-imposed complex social guidelines. Newland’s true understanding of the elaborate façade of his society comes with his love of Ellen Olenska, and “…it is her own honest perceptions of that society that prick the bubble of Newland’s complacent acceptance…” (Lawson 20).
The relationship between Ellen and Newland is one that reflects upon the insincerity and overwhelming sense of duty that existed in the clan of upper crust New Yorkers. Ellen is incredibly European in her tastes and attitudes; she is passionate and has a mind of her own, and is unafraid to express this. She lives apart from her husband instead of tolerating his abhorrent treatment of her. She is mocked and ridiculed by the society she has been so long absent from – she has forgotten the rules and her place. She intrigues and entices Archer, but is realistic about the entire situation, especially once May announces her possible pregnancy. Newland, on the other hand, is entirely swept up in the idea of Ellen; she is the antithesis to May and the social structure his marriage is built on.
To Newland, Ellen is more of an idea – an escape from the strict rules of his life. In the scene between the two where they are alone in May’s carriage, Newland says to Ellen that he would like to get her to a place “Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter,” (Wharton 284). Ellen responds by laughing and criticizing his idealism. She knows, as well as some deep part of Newland knows, that he will never give up his duties of his life – his marriage, his tiresome law profession, his enjoyment of being a dilettante intellectual. She responds that they can never be together, can never be themselves;
“Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of people who trust them.”
“Ah, I’m beyond that,” he groaned.
“No, you’re not! You’ve never been beyond. And I have,” she said, in a strange voice, “and I know what it looks like there.”
Ellen’s refusal to play into his desires and unrealistic plan causes Newland to leave the carriage and walk off. Her blunt truth, as well as her rejection, wounds his sensibilities; no one in his circle communicates so openly and bluntly, instead talking around the issue and entertaining flights of fancy the way he does with the idea of a relationship between himself and Ellen.
The morals held by Newland Archer do not let him follow what he believes to be his true wishes: to run off with Ellen and escape his stuffy life. Ellen represents what Newland and his tribe truly fear the most – the social change that threatens to usurp them. Faced with this quickly changing world, they retreat into their Victorian morals and procedures.
“But this complex set of prescriptions and prohibitions is explicitly made to seem as binding and, indeed, as morally relevant only for the denizens of that world. For the reader, who hover alongside the ironic narrator on the other side of the Great War, Old New York’s morality – like its broughams, its archery clubs and its heavy Eastlake furniture – appears as simply yet another of that world’s picaresque cultural quirks,” (Evron 46).
At the close of the book, we have Newland Archer reminiscing over his life. Indeed, once Ellen was gone, Newland’s life went on the way it always would have done – he was involved in public and philanthropic life; “He had been, in short, what people were beginning to call “a good citizen”,” (Wharton 328). Newland reminisced over Ellen during his life, but with the passing of time she truly became what she had been to him all along – “she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed,” (Wharton 329). Ellen’s true nature as an embodiment of a shifting society is only realized by Newland at the end of the book, when he decides to cancel their meeting again after all those years separated.
“True to his generation, Newland, despite his social development and despite his adaptability, in a manner affecting him intimately, feels more comfortable with illusion, with the mores of his own generation, that with reality, with contemporaneous mores. So, undoubtedly, did Edith Wharton,” (Lawson 25).
Newland Archer being the same age at the end of the book as Wharton when she was writing the book draws the obvious comparison of their similarities in the sense of their attitudes towards their society. For Newland, it was meeting with Ellen Olenska after all those years; for Wharton, it was returning to New York. As Newland puts it at the end of the book, “”It’s more real to me here than if I went up,”,” (Wharton 340). For Wharton, the society that she had existed in and clung to was more real in her mind than it would have been if she were to return to New York and see her society in wreckage; Wharton and Archer are relics of a different era, clinging to their ways, all the while realizing their obsolescence.