Research Paper- The Age of Innocence Throughout the novel, The Age of Innocence, there is one character that is able to affect many of the others in the story without really affecting herself. It is Ellen Olenska- the outsider who catalyzes so many emotions- who brings these submerged feelings to the surface. Ellen, not knowingly, has affected nearly all the characters in this novel in one way or another. She has swayed people's opinions on what she is doing to her benefit.
The van der Luydens send a large envelope to Mrs. Mingott's door which means that countess Ellen Olenska has been accepted by the van der Luydens, which in turn means that she will soon be accepted by the entire New York society since the van der Luydens are one of the highest families, socially, in New York. This gesture by the van der Luydens means more than first expected, because the van der Luydens usually keep to themselves.
"The couple rarely comes to New York, and the two very seldom invite people to their home. It is for Ellen that the van der Luydens decide to break their semi-conclusion in order to arrange a select dinner party to welcome her to New York. Mr. Van der Luyden afterwards goes in person to visit Ellen in her townhouse. He also sends her on various occasions carnations from his orangeries. The couple even invites Ellen to their estate to visit Skuytercliff on the Hudson- a place that was previously reserved for the privileged few"ÃÂ (Van Gastel, 321). This all seems a little odd considering how the van der Luydens acted prior to coming across Ellen, and how they are acting now that Ellen is here. Their actions are probably due to the fact that the van der Luydens have no children, and they may be able to relate to Ellen as their own daughter.
Mrs. Mingott declares that not one of her own children takes after her but her little Ellen. "Indeed, Ellen Olenska has emulated her grandmother's foreign taste by marrying a Polish nobleman and settling abroad. Furthermore, she has emulated her grandmother's defiance of conventions by openly deserting her husband when her marriage did not work out and by now coming back to New York. However, when she left America some ten years earlier, she forfeited her "place"ÃÂ in New York, her place as in a house to live in, as well as her place in New York's society"ÃÂ (Van Gastel, 325). Mrs. Mingott and the van der Luydens take it upon themselves to marshal her back into the elite. Ellen tries to show her independence by only temporarily accepting the shelter of relatives, and by then renting a house of her own. However, if she were truly independent she wouldn't have had to accept help from her relatives in the first place. It is understandable that Mrs. Mingott works so hard to help her granddaughter return to where she was before she left, since they are related, and none of Mrs. Mingott's took after her like Ellen does. Ellen seems to use her grandmother's feeling of sympathy towards her to her advantage by using her social status.
Everyone seems to be impressed with how she arranged her drawing room. And Newland, when let into her house, is struck with the way the house, by a turn of the hand, had been transformed into something intimate, and foreign. "Newland is so intrigued by Ellen and her house that he not only remembers the visual aspect (grouping of the chairs and tables, and arrangement of the flowers), but he is also stimulated by the scent of the dried roses, and smell of Turkish coffee. Newland is virtually seduced by Ellen's drawing room in particular. He associates it with romantic scenes and sentiments, and something intimate"ÃÂ (Van Gastel, 326-327). Ellen is gaining attention from people, especially from Newland, through her decorating abilities, and her gift for arranging flowers.
When Newland first met Ellen he was introduced to her behavior, which went against the general conventions of the society he became known too. He begins to recognize the emptiness of the society that has been the center of his life. He recognizes the dullness of his social equals and dreads the seeming inevitability of his becoming just like them. This is a major turning point in Newland's life. He has to make the most important decision he will probably ever face. On one hand he has the woman he is engaged to, in her plain self. On the other hand he has Ellen, a woman who has just come into his life, but yet has shown him so much in such a short period of time. Meeting Ellen shows Newland just how unhappy he really was all along. He was happy in the first place, but only because he didn't know what else was out there for him in the world. He obviously wants to do what truly makes him happy, but at the same time he doesn't want to be looked down upon by his family and friends for backing out of an engagement with May and for completely leaving his previous lifestyle behind. Throughout the novel, Newland cannot help but compare Ellen to May. "The foreignness and intimacy of Ellen's room, of Ellen, are all the more exciting to Newland when contrasted to the prim, proper, predictable life he can expect with May"ÃÂ (Van Gastel, 328). The young man felt that his fate was sealed for the rest of his life.
While in the course of three decades others have moved away, Newland still resides in the same townhouse selected by Mr. Welland at the time of his engagement, suggesting that Newland resists change. This is evidence of how hurt he feels not being able to be with Ellen. He takes out his anger on that lifestyle that he thought was exciting, and completely disregards, and stays the same, dull man he always was. "Once he has arrived in Paris, he further discovers that Ellen lives close to the lively Champs-Elysees, the flowery Tuileries Gardens, and the cultural mecca of the Louvre"ÃÂ (Van Gastel, 331). This location contrasts with the place Newland Archer has selected for his stay in Paris- the quiet stillness of the Place Vendome (a place which was nearly deserted with the coming of the new century). As this location suggests, Newland has become a quiet, withdrawn, conservative man. Going to Paris makes him realize this. Newland returning to the same conservative man he was is due to Ellen's leaving him. When confronted with Ellen's many-windowed apartment, Newland decides not to go up to meet her, because he would be forced to readjust his mental picture of her, an image he has relished for nearly thirty years. By staying outside, Newland can keep his mental picture of Ellen intact. Now Archer only wants his imagined life, only wants his imagined, mental picture of Ellen in the drawing room of her Paris apartment. He fears that if he goes up to meet Ellen he may be disappointed at what he discovers about her new self. He would rather continue imagining her as she was, because through all those years that's how he remembered her. He is astounded when his son tells him after her death that, while he had always assumed May ignorant of his feelings for Ellen, in fact, she knew all along. "He is shocked to realize that he underestimated May, as is the reader when we discover that May rids herself of her rival, Ellen, by announcing, prematurely, that she is pregnant, invoking the idea of family to induce Ellen voluntarily to give up her affair with Archer"ÃÂ (Saunders, 407). "'No; I wasn't sure then-but I told her I was. And you see I was right!' she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory"ÃÂ (Wharton, 270). This successful and sophisticated maneuver proves to Archer and the reader that May possesses more awareness and more instinct then previously thought. Ellen affects May in that they are rivals. May knows that Ellen and Newland are having an affair, and this causes her to do what she can to separate the two of them. She is also affected after all those years because she knows that Newland had feelings for her, but realizes that he has made the decision to stay with her.
Ellen is everything May is not. She is complicated, flawed, sensual, curious, and creative. In important ways, she reflects Edith Wharton trying to make a place for herself in America and failing. The parallels are so strong between Ellen Olenska and Edith Wharton that one must believe that Wharton spoke to one degree or another of her own situation, when she wrote of Ellen's exile.
Works Cited List Saunders, Judith P. Becoming the Mask- Edith Wharton's Ingenues Van Gastel, Ada. The Location and Decoration of Houses in The Age of Innocence Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.