Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence

The twentieth century poet Denise Levertov once sketched the innocence versus experience tension in verse:

There's in my mind a woman
of innocence, unadorned but

fair-featured and smelling of
apples or grass. She wears

a utopian smock or shift, her hair
is light brown and smooth, and she

is kind and very clean without

but she has
no imagination

And there's a
turbulent moon-ridden girl

or old woman, or both,
dressed in opals and rags, feathers

and torn taffeta,
who knows strange songs

but she is not kind.

Wharton's The Age of Innocence hints at these two female prototypes, the key difference being that not only is May Welland-Archer NOT entirely benighted, but Ellen Olenska (the paradigmatic "dark" woman) is hardly unkind. In fact, Ellen is at once generous, considerate, AND experientially / intellectually aware. Much like Henry James's novella "Daisy Miller," the novel is less about its female principals than its male protagonist, Newland Archer.

Archer spends his days pining for the dark woman while "devoted" to the fair.
His struggle between the two

is made all the more challenging by the societal assumptions that he both chafes against and embodies. Like many great novels, The Age of Innocence is imbued with a sense of life's enduring ambiguities. Archer is fallible but not fundamentally so, wayward in thought but rarely deed, self-aware but not so keenly aware as to grasp the totality of his limitations. He is, in short, a lot like us.

Not surprisingly, this impressive piece of fiction sometimes puzzles the critical mind. To what degree does Wharton satirize New York's Gilded Age aristocracy and to what degree does she embrace it? Does May Welland-Archer represent Wharton's wholesome embodiment of a "true and honorable life," as one writer has averred, or is she the author's vision of a "pernicious ideal" of American femininity? Does Newland Archer progress throughout the story to become a fully self-actualized man—at home with himself, his romantic aspirations, and his moral compass—or is Newland ultimately a genial, kind, respectable failure, too content with custom and habit to fully pursue his dreams?

Such questions should not surprise the reader, but the answers — when they exist — are indeed subtle.


Click on the pdf images below to read excerpts from three critical appraisals of May
Welland-Archer. In your view, which critic (or critics) most persuasively characterizes May?

Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Elizabeth Ammons

Carl Van Doren