Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

            Ellen Olenska is a captivating woman. Unlike May, she not afraid to speak her mind, and she frequently spends time with people that the high-class New York society might consider to be “less than desirable”. Newland Archer is intrigued by the way her mind works, and he is in love with the womanly courage she possesses. Instead of abiding the rules set for her, Countess Olenska chooses to make her own decisions, such as leaving her husband, the rich Count Olenski, even if it means facing social consequences. Her decision leads to coldness from her own family, whispering, and gossip on her “foreign” behavior. However, Ellen Olenska is not a “beautiful” or “pretty” woman in terms of the traditional standards of aesthetic beauty during that time period. When he is reintroduced to her at the opera after years and years of not seeing each other, Newland Archer views as a run-away wife that has become washed out and old in comparison to the young and vibrant May Welland. He finds her dress to be in bad taste, and the low-cut top to be scandalous. “He hated to think of May Welland's being exposed to the influence of a young women so careless of the dictates of Taste.” (Wharton) But as the story progresses and Archer increasingly gains affection toward this character, Ellen Olenska’s physical description changes. Rather than a critical analysis of her physical flaws, the narrator and Archer begin to concentrate more on her assets and her charm. That charm influences his overall view of her, and he falls in love with everything that she is and represents. Ellen represents everything that will become “new” New York society in the future, and this is reflected through the descriptions of her physical beauty which Archer might consider beautiful but does not abide to the traditional standards. In contrast, May Welland is representative of the “old” New York society. She abides to the invisible rules set for her by her parents and the older generation. She knows how to be sweet and the definition of a “perfect wife”. She is young, pretty, and vibrant. However, as Archer is exposed to Ellen Olenska’s way of looking at the high-class New York society and starts to dislike the conformity that is expected, he starts seeing the flaws in May Welland’s beauty as well. He notices that her eyes are blank, and he becomes increasingly impatient with her lack of curiosity and lack of desire for what he considers to be “freedom” for women. He also realizes that his marriage to May Welland will be nothing more than “a dull association of material and social interests" (Wharton). Therefore, Archer and the narrator’s view of her physical beauty changes as well. He describes her eyes as being "almost pale in their youthful limipidity" and her face as being “"the vacant serenity of a young marble

athlete"(Wharton). Wharton’s sudden yet subtle usage of words like “vacant” and “limpidity” goes far to describe May Welland as simply pretty and empty rather than beautiful like before. And these changing perceptions of beauty reflect Newland Archer’s changing perception of the high-class New York societies. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Love Song of Newland Archer

In these last chapters, Newland Archer makes his final decision to run away with Countess Olenska and live the life that he’s been meaning to live. His actions and words show increasingly more affection towards Ellen Olenska, even in front of his wife, May, and the other families. May has become much more aware of his feelings and has become somewhat frantic. For the first time, things seemed to have been going his way. Newland Archer is able to talk himself out of the so-called “business trip” that he had told May he was going on, even though he was really meaning to see Ellen. In addition, the grandmother’s health recovered enough for her to regain control and force the family to continue giving Ellen her allowance. Ellen is then able to separate from her husband, the Count Olenski, and return to Europe. Unfortunately for Archer, he is not able to join Ellen, nor is he able to give a final goodbye. He is forced to stay at home once May unveiled that she was in fact, pregnant with his child. With everyone in the family, including May, suspecting that he was having an affair with Ellen Olenska, Newland and May decide to throw their first large party as a send off for Ellen. There, Newland confirms his belief that everyone believes him to be unfaithful to May and he watches as the families all regain their warm reception of Ellen. They treat her with the utter most respect, and she is sent off with the blessing of the high-class New York society. With May being pregnant, that would have been Archer’s last chance to be with Ellen. However, he chooses to stay married to May until the day she dies. He has three children (2 boys and a girl), one of whom gets married to one of Beauford’s “bastard children”. However when his eldest son takes him to Europe and gives him the chance to meet with Ellen Olenska after all these years, Archer simply walks away from the opportunity, stating that he was “too old fashioned”.
            Newland Archer’s indecisiveness that continued until the last chapters of The Age of Innocence and his never ending thoughts of regret reminded me a lot of the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S Eliot. Like the speaker of the poem, Newland Archer throws away an infinite amount of opportunities for him to see Countess Olenska and get out of his “pretend” marriage with May. Instead of acting upon his thoughts and desires, Archer often ponders and second-guesses his intentions until the opportunity has passed. He keeps questioning his own happiness and the shoes that the high-class New York society expects him to fill, much like the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, who keeps asking, “Is it worth it?”  The speaker also asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” which is similar to the hesitation that Newland Archer feels because of the society’s invisible rules that require a husband to stay with his wife, remain discreet, and above all else, to not create any disturbances. But society is not the only thing that holds Archer back. He is also afraid of the truth and possibility. At the very end of the book, Archer is given the chance to see Ellen Olenska; she had invited both him and his son, indicating that she has not forgotten them or that she still holds affection for him. However, Newland dismisses the opportunity and offer by telling his son that he is “old fashioned” and walking back to his hotel. He is afraid that Ellen Olenska might have changed, that he, himself might have changed, and that their love might have faded away. And so he tells himself, “It’s more real to me here, than if I went up”, signifying that he, like the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, would much rather dream and imagine the possibilities than to claim them and take charge of his own destiny.