Power In Edith Wharton's The Age Of Innocence

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Does the individual or the society possess more power in Edith Wharton’s transcendental novel, The Age of Innocence? Throughout the story, Wharton compares the potential of an individual to the influence of society. As Wharton looks back on New York in the 1870s, she highlights society’s strict social code and lasting traditions. Wharton shows that the elites in this society must sacrifice their personal freedoms in order to be respected. Wharton analyzes the power of the society when she writes about Archer’s decision to marry either May or Ellen. Moreover, Wharton speaks of the power of the individual in society when Lawrence Lefferts decides to defy society and have an affair, but fortunately he is able to conceal his wrongdoings. Lastly,…show more content…
Unlike Archer, Lefferts decides to defy societal norms by having an affair with the postmaster’s wife, but he covers for himself through exaggeration and loyalty. Lefferts uses his power as an individual to transform into an “expert on manners”, so he can convince his wife he is a man of morals. Lawrence Lefferts’ lies to his wife to protect his own interests are a depiction of the society that elites in New York have created because each character deceives society’s strict rules while attempting to maintain their appearance through tradition and loyalty. Lefferts entrusts his status in New York society with Newland Archer when Archer realizes he has been having an affair. Archer tells the Van der Luydens “Larry has been going it rather harder than usual lately … having rather a stiff affair with the postmaster’s wife in their village” (45) because he respected their power and loyalty. While Lefferts relies on his ability to deceive his wife, he mainly depends on his peers to keep his secret. However, this trust is ironic because Lawrence Lefferts is one of the main proprietors of gossip throughout New York’s elites, but now Lefferts is the one with the reputation in question. Lawrence Leffert’s affair shows that strong individuals can outwit even the strictest…show more content…
When Ellen arrives in New York, she challenges society through her foreign upbringing and traditions. The upper class begins to gossip about Ellen when the narrator remarks, “[Ellen] received an expensive but incoherent education, which included "drawing from the model," a thing never dreamed of before, and playing the piano in quintets with professional musicians” (49). Since New York is so rigid and stagnant, they fail to adapt to European society. Therefore, Ellen is ignored because she struggles to fit the mold of a traditional New Yorker. While Ellen’s attempt to transform New York fails, Ellen is able to use her influence over Archer’s heart. Although many elites believed Ellen would be exiled from society, Archer’s interest in Ellen’s foreign background depicts a slowly adapting society. Some of the upper class is beginning to respect Ellen and her European culture, but most of the elites despise Ellen when the narrator says, “There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe” (276). The traditional New Yorkers seem to be excited about the elimination of Ellen Olenska from their society. When Edith Wharton refers to Ellen as a kinswoman, she suggests
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