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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment