‘Much of the novel is about people pursuing what they cannot have.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence? (2014 JC1 Promotional Exam)
In portraying the pursuit of what one cannot have, the novel urges the reader to accept a ‘partial happiness’, to compromise upon one’s dreams and visions for the ‘pleasures’ of real life and playing one’s role in society. Wharton’s purpose here is both philosophical (in the personal sense) and social: an individual’s happiness is ultimately reliant on the collective interest. To believe that one is truly free (to pursue what one wants) is but a wanton fantasy, a childhood dream stuck in an age of innocence.
(What) The structure of the novel moves along with the respective ‘pursuits’ of what Wharton’s characters can or cannot have, each eventually (however belated) coming to recognise the merits of what they do have.
- (How) Archer’s romantic adventures can be charted in a series of romanticised and theatrical encounters in various settings, from Ellen’s ‘Bohemian quarter’ in Ch 9 and 12, to The Shaughraun in Ch 13, the shore in Ch 21, the carriage in Ch 29 and finally, the melancholy museum exhibition of Ch 31. Intriguingly, the protagonist comes close to realising his ‘personal vision’ in Ch 34. Ushered to Ellen’s doorstep, Archer chooses instead to walk away, back to the ‘old-fashioned’ ways that he can have.
- (How) Even if the reader is granted only limited access to Ellen’s thoughts and feelings, the encounters between Archer and Ellen chart her initial pursuit and subsequent acceptance. Her dialogue impresses with a naivete about Old New York in Book One but makes a more mellow turn in Book Two, speaking with appreciation and understanding of why she cannot have what she desires.
(What) Archer’s flight towards fantasy (and shift from reality) presents to the reader the familiar trope of a bildungsroman — a young man goes in search of what he cannot have and so come to understand the ways of his world.
- (How) The profuse allusions to literature and the arts are used to portray Archer’s indulgence in his visions. The ‘magical’ quality with which they are presented refers the reader towards their unattainability. Ellen’s home is decorated with a ‘trick’, a ‘sleight of hand’. The books he reads open up to ‘enchanted pages’ with the face of Ellen Olenska.
- (How) Archer’s dilemma between visions and realities, desire and duty is most pronounced in Chapters 20 to 21. The narrator describes his ‘undoubted gratifi(cation)’ of being with May and how ‘he could not say he had been mistaken in his choice’, in contrast to the ‘discarded experiment’, ‘momentary madness’ of Ellen whom he desperately tries to repress. At the more poignant pier scene, the narrator brings light to Archer’s muddled thoughts, where he contemplates his reality as a ‘son-in-law’ vis-a-vis the ‘dream’ of being with Ellen.
- (How) The representation of his pursuit of Ellen as a ‘dream’, an ‘experiment’ concocted out of ‘madness’ outlines the utter impossibility of him achieving his desires. With his mind an ‘empty and echoing place’, Archer can only mourn his fate, as the reader might come to sympathise with his youthful impulses.
(What) The failure of Archer’s romantic visions coincides with the triumph of the collective interest; it will also lead him to a deeper acceptance of his reality.
- (How) The portrayal of Old New York as an ‘armed camp’ that keeps Archer ‘prisoner’ reflects their defeat of Archer’s romantic aspirations. Society’s ‘inexorable persons’ mandate what he can have — to play by the rules of the ‘family vault’ — even if his ‘passionate determination to be free’ is not subdued.
- (How) The narrator deliberately renders Archer’s sense of realisation through a series of phrases: ‘it became clear to Archer that.’, ‘He caught the glitter of victory’, ‘The discovery roused…’, ‘He understood that in a moment she would be gone’.
- (How) Archer’s final words to Dallas in the novel, ‘It’s more real to me here than if I went up’ and the act of ‘walking back alone to his hotel’ are symbolic of his acknowledgement of what he cannot have and eventual submission to what belongs to him — the old ways of his society and the ‘dignity’ of a ‘dull duty’.
(What) Ostracised by her own tribe at the start of the novel, the reader learns that Ellen craves acceptance and security from New York. By the end, she will reach a point of recognition on what she can and cannot have.
- (How) Old New York is presented from Ellen’s perspective as a ‘dear old place’ close to her heart, a ‘heaven’ (15) that is also a sanctuary from the ‘bad where [she] came from’. Later in Ch 12, she regards her ‘bring here, in my own country and my own town’ as a ‘blessedness’ (60).
- (How) In her conversation with Archer in Ch 18, she reflects how ‘stupid and unobservant’ she was to scrutiny and criticism of ‘oppressively hospitable’ New York. Intriguingly, Ellen echoes Archer’s earlier sermon on the importance of individual sacrifice to preserve the honour of one’s family.
- (How) The ‘expulsion’ of a ‘kinswoman’ is often interpreted as a sign of Ellen’s victimhood. In the light of her dialogue above, we might also see that she voluntarily sacrifices what she wants for the good of the Mingott clan and to preserve Archer’s own social standing.