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How does Wharton convey this sense of failure and confinement in “The Age of Innocence”?

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Introduction

"There is a strong attraction between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in "The Age of Innocence," yet the shackles of the society in which they live prevent them from pursuing their love affair." How does Wharton convey this sense of failure and confinement? I feel, to a large extent, that the society in which Newland and Ellen lived in had a huge effect on their decision to forget their love for one another. Under the spotlight of a society such as this their love would never have survived. They would have been looked down upon, and seen as dirty, or scandalous, and their families, and the family of May Welland left in the disgrace of their sinful love. From the beginning of the novel we can see the attraction begin to form between Newland and Ellen. The novel is seen through Newlands perspective, and we can tell from the narrators lengthy descriptions and analysis of Ellen that Newland is quite taken with her. "It was that of a slim young woman". "..a Josephine look", " theatrically caught up under her bosom" It is clear from the first chapter at the opera that the society in which they live is one of rules and norms, a society in which one must do what is expected of them for fear of isolation or exclusion. Anything which is not conventional is wrong to these people. ...read more.

Middle

May is aware that something is wrong with Newland. She lets us know this when she first of all questions him about his former love, and then when she states, "I couldn't have my happiness made out of a wrong... and I want to believe that it would be the same with you" and in the same incident, when she gives him an opening and a chance to escape, "don't give her up because of me!" But she also catches him at the same time. Although she has given him the chance, he really cannot escape at all. She enforces on him his duty to her without actually saying anything about it. This is typical of their society which is built on the unwritten law communicated through innuendo, and implication. This leaves Newland with no escape, nowhere to turn. The author lets us see Newland's thoughts by telling the story through his eyes, and this allows us to see the extent of his exasperation. Ellen finally proclaims her love for Newland and they kiss, which he feels alters everything, and that now they must publicise their love, and he would not marry May. Ellen however, brings him back down to reality. "I can't love you unless I give you up!" The kiss can not be pursued because of the fact that she was married and he was engaged, and in the eyes of society they would be outcasts, sinners. ...read more.

Conclusion

May's power that comes from the fact that she is married to him, and he no longer has the power to fight back. The power of old New York and the family is very strong, and Newland is completely helpless to stand against it. In the last chapters of the novel, Ellen departs for Europe. We see the hypocrisy of New York when they throw a party to thank her for conforming to their way of thinking, but ironically they are the ones who force her to leave. Ellens departure is a blow for Newland but he does not give up. He now realises that he has married May and that he must live up to what is expected of him, but his dreams will always be filled with images of Ellen. His life, however, was by no means wasted, he became a good citizen, and the perfect group player, he lived up to his role. Society benefited from his loss of personal fulfilment. "Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life". Newland gave Ellen up, and although he missed out on the flower of life, love of beauty, he did what he knew would make him complete, he fulfilled a satisfactory life. This novel is a story of morality. A story of how one man gave up what he desired, his one true love, to maintain his own goodness. It is about the sacrifices people make to make sure society benefits. Knowing the difference between right and wrong in the eyes of old New York is an important factor in Newland's life. ...read more.

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