The two female main characters in Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Seminar Paper 2000 13 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 The Characters
2.1. May Welland
2.2. Ellen Olenska
2.3. May’s and Ellen’s Representation by Symbols and their Setting in Scene in Comparison

3 Conclusion

4 Literature

1 Introduction

Edith Wharton is well-known for her heroines in end-of-the-19th-century novels, who have problems to fit into a system of an old-fashioned society and who define a new role for the women of their times.

„ Moreover, Wharton and James focus their intense moral scrutiny on similar concerns, particularly the problem of the right to individual „freedom“ as measured against the binding sanctity of the commitment to the institution of marriage.“[1]

Also in her novel „The Age of Innocence“, two very different kinds of women (the female main characters) meet, May Welland and Ellen Olenska. Although they appear in the same social class - New York’s „society“ at the end of the 19th century - they could not be more different in their whole nature, their behaviour in society and in the values they have. Also in their roles as women of these times and especially in their relation towards Archer Newland they show completely different qualities. The big contrasts between these two women also stand for the changes of the times as such and for the development of women’s status in society.

„If Ellen is outside the pale of tribal society, and if Newland, within the pale, is atypical in his perceptions and activities, May is the tribal member par excellence.“[2]

Nothing could better describe these two women and Newland’s intermediate role in one sentence. In this paper, the both female main characters of the novel will be described as well as their representations by symbols and their setting in scene. Also the function of the two heroines and their meaning for the social situation (especially the one of women) at the end of the 19th century will be discussed.

2 The Characters

2.1. May Welland

May Welland is introduced to us as a shy, tender and innocent girl, who does not know anything about the world outside of the sheltering surroundings of her family clan and has never had experiences with men or in relationships.

„As Madame Nilsson’s ‘ M’ama! ’ thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl’s cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia.“[3]

The Daisy Song seems to embarrass the young girl (she reddens) but the description of the pink mounting to her face as warm makes her sympathetic to the reader. All in all, from the first impression she seems to be a „nice“ girl, not being able to do harm to anyone, rather to be hurt herself. Even Newland realises it („‘The darling!’ thought Newland Archer...with a tender reference for her abysmal purity“[4] ) but wishes on the other hand to find a more experienced woman (who is not yet married and to whom you can usually only have a relationship).

„..he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years..[5]

But Newland as well as the reader discover soon that this purity is „so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses.[6]

In this case, which seemed to be normal at the time, the real nature of a young person had become a victim of a society’s spirit that did not allow to live one’s own ideals if they were not conform to the general „ideals“. But even worse: May could hardly ever have had other ideals, because every little sign of „being different“ was destroyed by exactly these people who can influence a child or young person most: their family. So we can see that May did not get a real chance to find her individual way of life; she never learned about another one. And if one did not, it needs a lot of creativity and courage to find another possibility for oneself.

But in the case of Newland, her lack of individuality finally costs her a lot of points in the race for his love. And she herself does not even realise it at the beginning, because she is the perfect picture of what women had to be like. No one could ever have had the idea, that something different could be wanted in the big circus of marriage. „..this creation of factitious purity...was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to...[7]

In contrast to May’s artificialness which belongs to Newland’s world, Ellen Olenska seems more human, more real, although she does not fit in the New York society system. „Far down in the inverted telescope he saw the faint white figure of May Welland - in New York.[8] “ The falseness of society - embodied by May and New York - seems to be less real and less important in the presence of the Countess - like a ghost that sometimes threatens the „different“, but finally stays a ghost.

Therefore, Newland falls in love with Ellen, what May does not really recognise in the beginning. On the contrary, she even forces

Newland to take care of Ellen, her „poor“ cousin. But the longer the love affair between those two lasts, it becomes visible to the whole society - including May - that there must be more than just friendship. When May has realised it, she first offers Newland, that he should leave her and go to Ellen. This offers a new image of May to the reader - the unselfish, generous May. But the question comes up, if she was sincere and honest in making this suggestion, when we see with which means she fights for him staying with her in the end: the whole society - and May in it - make secret plans to send Ellen back to Europe, and when Newland realises it, it is already too late, because the family clan was able to convince Ellen, that it would be the best for everyone. Then he recognises first that everyone - his wife included - had known about him and Ellen.

„He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved,... and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.[9]

In this short paragraph, all the falseness and cruelty of the New York society, which May embodies, is included.

2.2. Ellen Olenska

Already in her youth, when she first arrived at New York, Ellen Olenska had been visibly different in manners and character to the other ‘young ladies’ in New York.

„She was a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerning questions, made precocious comments, and possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl-dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar.[10]

Also in her outward appearance she looks more „like a gypsy foundling[11] “, than like a young lady of New York’s society. When she first appears at the opera, she has not lost anything of her former looks concerning its peculiarity.

She wears unfitting clothes, talks cordially to Newland about their common youth and does all in all not behave as it is expected from a countess. Later she even meets with Julius Beaufort - the incarnation of the newly-rich and of the decline in moral standards. But in spite of it all - or maybe because of it - Newland likes her from the beginning whereas to the rest of the tribe she is nothing more than ‘poor’ Ellen Olenska, the European gypsy foundling, who must be helped in order to avoid another scandal, for example a divorce.

When Newland first enters her apartment, he seems to be drawn into a different world apart from New York. „What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known.[12] “And everything in it gives him a feeling of intimacy. This charm is so strong that he cannot say anything when he sees her arrive with Julius Beaufort although he does not like it. But to him it seems that only one wrong word to her about her behaviour could destroy her freshness and honesty and makes her become like the others.

„... and to give advice of that sort would have been like telling some one who was bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that one should always be provided with arctics for a New York winter.[13]

In her presence, stressed by her rooms atmosphere, New York with all its people seems far away and not worth thinking about it („..he had called her ‘Ellen’ - called her so twice...[14] “). She gives him a feeling of being at home in her room although it is so different to the rooms he knows, and although her apartment is in New York it seems as if this cold and unreal city would be far away. And even May, his wife, the woman he is just going to marry, seems not to fit in this world, gets unreal, almost disappears like a ghost.

„Far down in the inverted telescope he saw the faint white figure of May Welland - in New York.[15] “ But when Newland finally steps out of her apartment, he no longer is under the Countess’ charm, and New York gets almost as real as is was before („As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it.[16] “) besides the fact that he now knows, how it could be different.

Also later, when Newland meets Ellen at the Patroon’s house, she draws him into an almost magic atmosphere, from which he cannot escape that easily. It is the atmosphere of a fairy tale becoming true. „The white glitter of the trees filled the air with its own mysterious brightness, and as they walked on over the snow the ground seemed to sing under their feet.[17] “ In that moment she is again „gay and vivid like the Ellen Mingott of old days[18] “, the gypsy child. And even Newland seems to return to his days of childhood, to forget all the pressure of every-day life in New York’s society.

„... and gathering up her cloak she fled away across the snow, the dog leaping about her with challenging barks. For a moment Archer stood watching, his gaze delighted by the flash of the red meteor against the snow; then he started after her, and they met, panting and laughing, at a wicket that led into the park.[19]

As he cannot get out of this atmosphere, almost seems to have forgotten that he is engaged to May, the situation finally almost ends in a kiss, but then the figure of Beaufort appears and destroys the moment, be it because Newland cannot handle his jealousy or because Beaufort’s appearing just takes him back into the real world of the well-known people, which means at the same time New York and its society.

Even in the end, when he arrives with his son in front of her house, he prefers to stay on the street to meeting her again, and keeps the memory of the Ellen of the old days in his memory, afraid that they could be destroyed, when he sees her now. Ellen now stands for all his dreams which have not become true, for all the chances he had had but did not take, as she then stood for a new life where the individual is important, the personal dreams are values and development is to be reached, not the status quo to be bared.

2.3. May’s and Ellen’s Representation by Symbols and their Setting in Scene in Comparison

At the beginning when May appears, she is sitting in the opera with some lilies of the valley, which, as we learn later, Newland sends her every day. These lilies of the valley are again a sign for her total innocence, her untouchedness, the way in which she should appear in the outward, especially to the men. When Newland leaves Ellen’s apartment, he notices that he had first forgotten to send May her flowers, but then sees some yellow roses in a shop and first wants to send them to May.

„He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her - there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.[20]

May’s image - and the lilies with her - suddenly seem to be not enough anymore for Newland. The untochedness loses its beauty and looks poor in contrast to Ellen. Also the fact that he sees Ellen as a rich person, shows that her very different personality is worth more to him, than May’s very correct but not self-chosen behaviour. In contrast to May, Ellen is a „figure, who writes her script herself[21] “, what can also be derived from her ‘gypsy’ childhood, where she had been to a lot of different places especially in Europe. „ Ellen’s past, after all, lies in the fantastic realm of Dracula: “a kind of sulphurous apotheosis“ of marriage to a „white sneering“ count with „many square miles of shooting in Transylvania“.[22] “ This fantastic shimmer around her (as also mentioned in 2.2.) makes her more real and more admirable to Newland than May, who stands for New York in all her perfect looking falseness and coolness, like a goddess, that can be admired from far, but not be touched (the Diana).

The clothes are another sign of the two different worlds which come together in this novel. Ellen always wears inappropriate dresses, be it at the opera or at dinners, whereas the whole family clan keeps to the style of society. In Newland’s eyes, these ‘inappropriate’ dresses make her even more interesting and give her again the touch of being different and a fairy-tale-like look („the red meteor[23] “).

Also her room represents her as other and experienced (also mentioned in 2.2.). Here we can find signs of her life as a voyager, e.g. „a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-piece“ or „Italian-looking pictures in old frames[24] “.

All in all we can say that Ellen is represented during the whole novel by strange and different but therefore fascinating (to Newland) elements. The reader (and Newland) always gets the impression that she does not belong to this world, but that she is at the same time more real than the other figures ,who hide behind their status in society. May, on the other hand, is less fascinating but she can been seen through easily and her actions are predictable. Therefore she is always represented by images that stress her innocence (which she definitely has for New York eyes) but let her seem not as impressing as the Countess, almost pale and uninteresting.

3 Conclusion

May Welland and Ellen Olenska are two very different characters from the beginning. „He (Newland) makes her(May) eyes transparent, blind and bandaged, and stops trying to read meaning in her silences. She remains a vacuum and a blank for him, the white page of convention, asexual, infantile, boyish, solid, cold and suffocatingly presentEllen represents unattainable plenitude. From the start, he fills her with „suggestion“ - of enigma, passion, womanliness, Europe, mysterious joys, appalling suffering, conversations, art, music, literature, expressed in the exoticism of her room, the authority in her beauty and the expression in her eyes[25].“

Although we see both figures through Newland’s eyes, which can mean that the reader is influenced by the narrative voice in the direction that May does not get a real chance to develop from the beginning, it must also be seen that she never makes a try to persuade Newland and the reader from the contrary. Surely, she has a different history as Ellen and grew up in the cage of New York’s society but also Ellen had to live with such people, but finally made her way anyway.

The biggest difference in my opinion is that May always wants to please to others and cannot concentrate on herself, whereas Ellen - although she says she wants to fit into society - finally ignores what others think about her - at least she acts like it. Her wish to hurt no one cannot be seen as the wish to please, but as honest respect of other peoples feelings. The images that Wharton uses to underline the differences between the two main characters are again presented through Newland’s eyes, but they help to create an atmosphere (as well as for Newland himself as for the reader), be it the cold and boring one around May or the exiting and magic one around Ellen, which is a tool like no other to open the characters’ world of feelings to the reader, what should make him understand not only in theory but also to ‘live’ with the figures.

4 Literature

Wharton, Edith, Three Novels of Old New York. The Age of Innocence. Penguin Books, London, 1994, S. 709-980.

Bell, Millicent, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.

Griffin Wolff, Cynthia, A Feast of Words. The Triumph of Edith Wharton. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.

Lawson, Richard H., Edith Wharton. Frederick Ungar Publishing co., New York, 1977.

Note: 2,0

Comment: Sie bringen wichtige Punkte, doch denke ich, daß Sie dir Rolle Mays unterschätzen. Begriffe wie „pleasant“ und „innocent“ kommt eineüberaus komplexe aber auch ambivalente Bedeutung zu. Bitte beachten Sie unser Handout für termpapers (Zitierweise etc.)


[1] Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words. The Triumph of Edith Wharton. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, S. 313.

[2] Richard H. Lawson, Edith Wharton. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1977, S.22.

[3] Edith Wharton, Three Novels of Old New York. The Age of Innocence. Penguin Books, London, 1974, S. 711.

[4] dieselbe, S. 712.

[5] dieselbe, S. 712.

[6] dieselbe, S. 741.

[7] The Age of Innocence, S. 741.

[8] dieselbe, S. 765.

[9] The Age of Innocence, S. 960.

[10] dieselbe, S. 751.

[11] ebenda

[12] The Age of Innocence, S. 759.

[13] dieselbe, S. 764.

[14] dieselbe, S. 765.

[15] The Age of Innocence, S. 765.

[16] dieselbe, S. 767.

[17] dieselbe, S. 806.

[18] ebenda

[19] ebenda

[20] The Age of Innocence, S. 767.

[21] Pamela Knights, Forms of Disembodiment. In: Millicent Bell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, S. 33.

[22] ebenda

[23] The Age of Innocence, S. 806.

[24] dieselbe, S. 759.

[25] Pamela Knights, Forms of Disembodiment. Millicent Bell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, S.31f.


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Edith Wharton Innocence American Literature



Title: The two female main characters in Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence