Essay Example: Feminism in The Age of Innocence

Published: 2019-09-05
Essay Example: Feminism in The Age of Innocence
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  English literature Feminism
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1807 words
16 min read

Thesis: Edith Wharton incorporated the theme of feminism in The Age of Innocence through the lives of two female characters and Archer Newlands reflection.

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Introduction: Thesis statement and the roles of the Archer, May and Ellen in relation to the topic

Body: Evidence of feminism in The Age of Innocence.

How the lives of May Welland and Ellen Olenska reveal the use of feminism in The Age of Innocense.

Archer Newlands reflections on the female characters how they are related to the topic sentence.

Conclusion: Summary of the arguments and Whartons efforts in pointing out acts of feminism in the old New York.

Bibliographic references.


Professors Name



Feminism in The Age of Innocence


Feminism is a theory that requires men and women to be equal politically, socially and economically. In America, in the twentieth century, women were oppressed by the social norms that were put forward by giving men an upper hand in social undertakings. Women were limited to only marriage duties and hence considered as housewives. It is on these grounds that Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence. The novel narrates the story of Newland Archer basing on how he fights with love and marriage and self-positioning. Wharton also presents the untold story of two heroic female characters, May Welland and Ellen Olenska. Most studies that focus on feminism in this work review the lives of these two women. The two characters are portrayed as victims of their life misfortunes and schemers who choose their fate. The novel thereby depicts the contradiction towards women issue. This paper will examine the ways in which the novel brings up and represents the femininity culture. The paper focuses in the way of life of May and Ellen and how the two relate to Archer Newland.

Feminism in The Age of Innocence

The novel uses two female traits to present two contradictive life approaches of other women in the society. One approach is drawn from Mays life who is described as a slim and innocent minded girl while the other character, Ellen, is described as a dark, beautiful woman with a full life experience of Europe. Ellen is a portrayal of the exotic, the unknown and the original world while May represents a safe and secure New York. These two characters clarify the authors attention to the liberation of women. Ellen divorces her husband for an unhappy marriage and moves on to meet Newland. May, on the other hand, is customarily married to Newland and, works hard to impress her husband and keep her small family happy. Archer had initially liked Mays character until when he met Ellen, a standout woman, who clears his mind on the social restriction of women. His views later review the theme of feminism in the novel.

Ellen is seen to be an imaginative eye, of intellectual freedom, and feminine charms. Her dressing is more provocative heedless tradition as she is seen attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur, (Wharton 86) contrary to the virginal white tulle May puts on. The decency in Ellens house also suggests her general independent character. She easily transforms her old ratchet house to a classy, intimate one with predictions of romantic scenes and sentiments. Ellen develops an original view of life that is satisfactorily independent. In the twentieth century, marriage was taken to be the destination of all women, and it was the only right they would enjoy. Ellens view of an unhappy marriage is, however, different. She feels that such a marriage is only a restriction to a free life and asks for a divorce, as much as it not encouraged by social norms. She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband, my life with him?"well then what more is there? In this country are such things tolerated? I'm a Protestantour church does not forbid divorce in such cases." (Wharton 89) Ellen struggles to break from the then social limitation and restrictions and move to the lively part of the world with cities full of music and art. She envisions for a social circle where she can interact and converse with the right minded people. However, for her to accomplish her goals she has to make sacrifices. As much as it may take to see her dreams happen, she maintains her intellectual liberty.

On the other hand, when May is introduced in the novel, her appearance depicts youthfulness and virginity. She is dressed ...on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms.., (Wharton 62). However, May is not simple and vacant as Newland had imagined. Her birth and breeding turned her to be more of a patriarch than a socialite. She believes in living an ideal life she longed for, and it would not be surprising if she expects to make a vibrant wife with a steady family. On getting married to Newland, she hopes that her husband will take her and their family as a priority. She aspires to make family work perfect. May is conservative and Newlands attempts to change her end in vain. May strived to live by the rules of the society and feels that in them is where her perfection lies. She is well conversant with the old New York rules and through them, she can easily hit her target, Newland.

The two women characters reveal the acts of feminism in the novel. They signify paradoxical outlooks on the identity of women. As other women fight to break from the old world limitations, characters like May believe that there is an actual exit. Ellen is a feminist who is willing to challenge the traditional social rules. Her sacrifices symbolize the drastic change in the social order. Ellen is a symbol of feminism. Her fight for freedom and equality are what define feminism. May, on the other hand, represents the characters satisfied with tradition despite the fact that they understand the restrictions the society has offered to them.

Wharton is also mixed up in understanding the old gender requirements as well the human life. The novel presents different manner and behaviors expected from both the male and the female. Professionally, men were entitled to jobs like law, politics and banking as women are expected to be submissive mothers, wives and, daughters. The novel gives contradictive options to both genders. They are either supposed to abide by the orders of the old society or rebel from the forbiddance. Women needed to posses several qualities to be guaranteed to be men. Innocent women like May are enclosed in their partial roles as housewives. Archer visualizes his wife as though the moist English air seemed to have deepened the bloom of her cheeks and softened the slight hardness of her virginal features; or else it was simply the inner glow of happiness, shining through like a light under ice (Wharton 155-156). Other than May, Mrs. Welland also represents a socially acceptable woman basing on how she teaches her daughter to respect and follow the then social norms. Mrs. Welland trusts social femininity relationship that addresses the right and wrong. May admires Mrs. Wellands marriage and aspires to do the same in her house.

Men had an upper hand in the old New York. Women were seen and judged more aggressively for similar social mistakes committed by men. For example, when Ellen divorces her husband, Lawrence Lefferts, a player who talks more of chastity and morality, ruthlessly criticizes her actions and terms her defiant. He too has numerous sexually immoral affairs with other women yet New York society tolerates Lawrence only because of his gender and merely questions his immoral acts (Meagan). Other evidences of feminism are seen through Archers thinking. At first, he admires May for her character and praises her for being a perfect woman. When he first meets Ellen, he dislikes her rumor and her lack of obedience to his social requirements of a woman. When he finally comes to interact with Ellen, he changes his attention and views May as ignorant and empty. He feels that May only adheres to rules and may not know what to do with granted freedom. Archer is seen dragging toward Ellen and ignores May. He fails to give them the benefit of being complex persons. He feels that May assumes the female roles intentionally in to challenge it (Davis).

Reversed opinions that Archer directs to the women illustrate the dichotomous way in which women are often seen to be. Mays behavior is submissive primarily to help her navigate the society and; she is aware of it. Archer later becomes enlightened on the so-called womens honor which is a matter of lies and silences either spoken or silenced by men. In the long run, Ellen is burnished from New York so that Archer can remain one of the tribe. His own exclamation: "Women should be free, as free as we are," struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. "Nice" women, however, wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous- minded men like himself were, therefore, in the heat

of argumentthe more chivalrously ready to concede it to them (Wharton 36). This is an exaggerated illustration of how women must sacrifice to uphold the social order (Virginia 101).


The Age of Innocence is a plot on the impending marriage of a young couple, Archer, and May, whose happiness is threatened by the appearance of a woman, Ellen, associated with scandals. The main female characters are included in the novel to address the feeling towards issues relating to women. Wharton, through her work, tries to adapt to the contemporary life of the twentieth century as well as reflect the changes of the culture taking place around her. This ambivalent attitude she presents is quite natural. Women in the modern society have broken loose from these chains of restriction and feminists are struggling to avert the old notion of the supremacy of men either socially, politically or economically.

Works Cited

Davis, Linette. Vulgarity and Red Blood in The Age of Innocence The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 20.2 (1987): 1. Web.

Meghan, Menon. "Edith Whartons Novel as Historiographic Metafiction: Revealing the Postmodern Construction of Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence." UCLA Center for the Study of Women, Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Virginia, Clare. Silencing Women in Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence. Colby Quarterly Vol. 28. (1992) 95-101.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Scribner, 1968. Print.

"Woman Issues In The Age Of Innocence English Literature Essay." (2013).

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