Concept Of New Woman In The Age of Innocence

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The “New Woman” as a term was first coined by the writer Sarah Grand in 1894. She drew attention to the double standards found inherently in Victorian marriages which allowed men to have relationships outside of the marriage institution, but excluded women to do so as they were expected to be sexually and morally virtuous.

The New woman was nothing like the stereotypical Victorian women, or as it is called- “The True Woman”-whose attributes, according to Barbara Welter, “could be divided into four cardinal virtues-piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (152). A True woman was also known as “The Angel in the House”, who was supposed to be the moral guide to her family while her role was, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg stated, “bounded by kitchen and nursery”(13). Clearly, a woman’s realm was the home, where she was expected to nurture her children and please her husband by providing a space which would keep him happy and by responding to all his needs. Carroll writes “the women who rejected these constrains, or who, pushed by poverty, entered the labor force, were viewed as unnatural” (13). Regardless of the fact that women were trained from an early age to become these “angels”, American women came to recognize the social and economic discrimination or the unequal treatment between men and women. Thus, they began to unite and fight for equal rights. They became aware of their oppression and the disadvantaged position they were in both in public and private spheres, which pushed them to seek ways to break free of their chains. In 1848, the women activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Lucy Stone, fought for women’s rights and drew attention to how men oppressed women under patriarchal norms. Throughout the nineteenth century, different groups of women continued to discuss public issues and aimed to improve their public and private position.

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This new concept became one of the most significant symbols of the late-nineteenth-century America regarding the crisis of gender relations. This period, also referred as fin de siecle, was associated with educational opportunities for women, growing number of female labor force, single motherhood and divorce legislature, all of which gave way to the discourse of gender relations. That is to say, the new female roles and greater independence emerged for women in fin-de-siecle America. Carroll stated that “The New Woman constituted a revolutionary demographic and political phenomenon”. However, he added, she “challenged existing gender relations and the distribution of power” (245). That is, she was coupled with the concepts such as moral decadence and sexual independence. Carroll also stated that the general opinion of the American society of The New Woman was that she simply threatened the conventional gender roles and represented “the symptom of a diseased society”(245). In short, it is clear that this radical female figure, who went against all the principles of the True Woman, was a serious challenge to male supremacy. She was a threat to the future of the American nation and the source of a growing anxiety about changes in the Victorian social hierarchy of gender roles.

Chapter1. The Age of Innocence

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence , like Chopin’s The Awakening, explore the woman question while tackling with issues such as the conflict between the individual and the social order, the struggle between passion and duty, the hypocrisies that privilege men in the New York society. Regarding the New Woman fiction, both texts deal with the question of “how a woman should be” and they portray the restrictions women face in their highly respective societies. My focus in this chapter will be on the struggles of Ellen and Edna-the heroines of the novels- in connection with the themes of divorce/separation and extramarital love, and with the image of the New Woman in the late nineteenth century America. In this respect, both Ellen and Edna challenge the social order by leaving their husbands and seeking separation, the first through divorce and the latter having her own little space, referred as the “pigeon house” since “it’s so small” (84). Throughout the novels, they fall in love and by the end they are separated from them, just like they were from their husbands. I will also examine the oppositional characters in the novel, that is, Ellen versus May and Edna versus Adele in order to show the dichotomies created to define who a true woman is in the late nineteenth century America. While doing that, I will bring both Helene Xious and Iregaray’s feminist perspectives into the picture along with a deconstructive analysis in the light of Derrida’s views. ( this part may be for the actual introduction part)

1.1. The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is set in the New York society of 1870s in which the American social life was dominated by Victorian culture and values. According to Anthology of Literature, “Victorian signifies social conduct governed by strict rules, formal manners, and rigidly defined gender roles”(1011). The society Wharton depicts in the novel is a patriarchal one that is defined by these strict moral codes and it is structured in hierarchal social layers. The novel opens at the Opera House, where all of New York’s privileged members of the society has gathered to see a performance of Faust. At the very beginning of the novel, the conventions of old New York and the social order are introduced to the reader along with codes of behavior and superficial Victorian values:

“[T]he world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to […] ‘an exceptionally brilliant audience’ had […] transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient ‘Brown coupe” (7).

This introduction sets the social conditions in New York city during the late nineteenth century. It appears that the narrator makes fun of these conventions by using quotation marks. For example, the reference to the audience being “exceptionally brilliant” contradicts with the fact that the members of this society “want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it” (7). This is also demonstrated by Newland’s late arrival to the event as in metropolises like New York “it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera” (8). Wharton implicates to the fact that the artistic taste and interest of these aristocrats are limited to the society’s customs and how they are supposed to be perceived, seen and judged by others. Hence, the “Brown coupe” that is used by some to arrive at the Opera indicates that having seen at an event like this is more important than simply enjoying it. ( here maybe find the article that focuses on the term “the thing” )

Against this social setting in the background, Wharton revolves her story around Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen Olenska. Archer, a lawyer and a member of one of the most privileged families of New York society, is about to marry the beautiful and “innocent” May Welland, who represents another respectable family in New York. Wharton also brings Ellen into the picture very early in the novel and introduces her to us first as “a new figure” who sits in old Mrs Mingott’s box, then “the wearer of unusual dress”(12). Shortly after, it is revealed that this young woman is May Welland’s cousin, who is “always referred to in the family as ‘poor Ellen Olenska”(14) due to the fact that she was raised by her widowed and equally unusual aunt, Medora Manson. Moreover, she is the wife of a wealthy but amoral Polish count whom she intends to get a divorce, hence the reason why she returns from Europe to America to live with her grandmother, Mrs Mingott. Her intention of leaving her husband is considered highly scandalous among the members of Old New York society who are sitting at the Academy and gazing at the box in which Ellen sits together with May.

Although Ellen is supported by her family, the society seems to be quite shocked by Ellen’s return to America due to her desire to leave her husband. Likewise, Newland appears to be suspicious of her as he thinks “[receiving] Countess Olenska in the family circle was a different thing from producing her in public” (14). Prior to his acknowledgement as to who this young woman sitting next to his fiancee was, Newland’s distaste is apparent because it was “attracting the undivided attention of masculine New York” (13). Newland is annoyed because his traditional view of women is predominant, just like his patriarchal perspective is since he perceives New York as “masculine”. (add more here – be more coherent between the sections)

1.1-Ellen Versus May

In the opening scene at the opera, Wharton establishes the conflict between innocence and experience, the first of which manifest itself in May and the latter in Ellen. From the very first impression, May comes across as an innocent young girl:

“As Madame Nilsson’s ‘M’ama!’ thrilled out above the silent house…a warm pink mounted to the girl’s cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newline Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly”(9).

This passage shows that May follows the conventions that is considered necessary in a patriarchal society. Her hair is done appropriately, she is dressed as a young Victorian woman should dress for such an occasion, and she even seems to be embarrassed by the performance of the soprano. All these indicate that May is a reflection of her society, who represents the values of old New York. Her blushing also suggests that she has no knowledge of the outside world and has never had any experiences in relationships. As it occurs in Newland’s imagination, she stands for the “abysmal purity”(10). Elizabeth Ammons describes May Welland as “Wharton’s rarefied version of the stereotype”. She adds that “May is always connected with white:her virginity, mentally and emotionally, cannot be touched. She is permanently pure” (437). She is happy to follow all social rules and she manages to look and act right at all times. She is simply the ideal young maiden of her time.

As opposed to May’s angelic representation, Ellen Olenska is this unconventional and experienced woman in the eyes of the patriarchally defined American society. Louis O. Coxe states that Ellen is “the dark lady of this plot!” (156). Whether or not it was Wharton’s intention to present Ellen as the evil woman, it could be said that her characteristics remind the reader the concept of the New Woman while May stands for “The Angel in the House”. Following the passage above, where the reader has the first glimpse of May’s purity through the way she appears at the opera, the discourse of “True Woman” and “New Woman”, which is embodied by May and Ellen, and the tension between these two binary concepts has constantly been emphasized by Wharton. For example, Unlike May, who is dressed all in white and pink, Ellen wears “a dark blue velvet gown” and she has a “Josephine look”, meaning that she is not in tune with the latest fashion and that she is not stylish enough. Newland appears to be troubled by Ellen’s unusual and improper look as he thinks she may have a negative influence on his future wife.

Ellen’s New Woman attributes are found abundantly throughout the novel. She seems to be challenging the social norms and moral codes of the New York society both by her behavior and appearance. She is modern, educated, which; according to Carroll; constitutes “the New Woman’s most salient characteristic”(247), and she is interested in art and literature. She speaks her mind and does not seem to care much about what others think of her. Worst of all, she is an experienced woman of thirty year of age whose marriage scandalously turned out to be a disaster. Clearly, all these features have caused this enclosed upper class families of New York to think of her as a woman who is different than American society has produced. Even though Ellen’s family is supportive of her, they are as disturbed as the rest of the society. According to Katherine Mansfield, “the real problem which the family has to face is that Ellen Olenska has become that most mysterious creature- a European”, who “is dangerous, fascinating” and “foreign” (399). Thus, she is the “black sheep that their blameless stock had produced” (14). In short, “she is everything May is not” (Ammons, 440), which makes her a threat to the male-dominated social structure of Old New York society.

Ellen’s departure from convention is saliently illustrated by Wharton throughout the novel. For example, when Ellen and Newland meet for the first time at the Opera house, Ellen comfortably and abruptly reminds Newland how he once had kissed her when they were very young. Newland, a product of his society, is both shocked and irritated by her coarse and frank mannerism. Later, during a visit to Mrs. Mingott’s house, Ellen asks him to “come and see [her] some day”, a request which Newland finds disturbing. As he contemplates on how she was seen “parading up Fifth Avenue at the crowded hours with Julius Beaufort”, he is further offended for the simple reason that “she ought to know that a man who’s just engaged doesn’t spend his time calling on married women”. He, then, takes pride in the fact that he was “about to ally himself with one of his own kind” (29), suggesting that while May is the perfect bride-to-be, Ellen is “curious” and “improper”, that is, she is the “other”. This train of thoughts indicate to the contrast between the two women. Ellen’s break with tradition emphasized once again at a party that takes place in the most important family of New York society. In the course of the party, Ellen departs from the company she has, casually walks alone across the room and sits next to Newland. In all these scenes, Ellen’s unusual manners and her depiction is in line with Sally Ledger’s comments on the New Woman: “The putting-on of ‘masculine attributes (having ‘straight talks to young men’) was thoroughly characteristics of the textual New Woman” (13). This emphasis on the wrong doings of Ellen gives way to the elevated position of the discourse of True Woman. Ellen is immediately disapproved by the old New York society upon her peculiar and masculine manners: “It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another” (56). These episodes delineate features of Ellen as the New Woman who pushes against the limits which society imposed on women.

However, as the novel progress, the reader comes to an understanding that May is not as innocent as she appears to be. Even Newland, despite his lack of judgement, begins to question not only his true feelings for May but also the way his society functions:

“The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed… and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product…And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to” (42).

Newland realizes that May is conditioned to be the perfect wife as it is what the society dictates women to become. A woman of his time is socially conditioned for her role as wife, housewife and mother, that is, the typical Angel in the House. The woman whom Newland looked forward to marry with has now become a woman whom “he felt himself oppressed by”. It is true that Newland never really doubts May’s purity and innocence, but, with Ellen, he becomes aware of the fact that she is, in fact a “creation of factitious purity”. What Newland does not realize is that May pretends to be innocent in order to win him over, provide for herself a financially comfortable life and raise a family with him according to the social rules and moral codes she has been thought. In this sense, she could be considered manipulative as she knows that if she displays conventional manners, she will always be supported by the society and this way she will be able to exert power over him. Fracasso maintains that May “is a perceptive, strong-willed, and determined woman who develops into “a person of greater depth” than Newland Archer could ever have imagined” (43). Because May is depicted in accordance with the social codes of Old New York, Ellen is perceived as non-traditional, and thus, her characteristics are not acceptable by the society. Therefore, May’s perfect behavior and her assumed innocence contrast with Ellen’s supposedly “unscrupulous” life.


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