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Studying The Age Of Innocence Novel English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4315 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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One major aspect of human nature is the prejudice against those who reject societal norms. It seems inevitable that the majority is prejudiced against those who refuse to conform, in order to maintain social stability and make sure everybody upholds the values that most people share. There are many different kinds of prejudice but the main focus of two American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), by Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1918), deal with bias against non-conformists. These writers use a variety of devices to position readers to be hostile towards such values and conventionality. Twain utilises the protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, as well as a plethora of secondary characters, such as Pap and Jim, to highlight the injustice of the slavery system which operated before the civil war. Moreover, Twain also critiques the hypocrisy of most people, who claim to take the moral high ground, but are, in fact, simply sanctimonious. In this text, imagery and satire are used to convey the writer’s strong message. Wharton employs similar techniques. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is portrayed as a coward. He is fully aware of the absurdities of his society’s insistence on conformity, but cannot break away, leading to the tragedy of his generally unfulfilled life. Minor characters, including Ellen and May, reinforce this major theme as well as Wharton’s attack on the patriarchal nature of her milieu, and fear of change. Like Twain, Wharton weaves into her text, a strong sense of irony and extended imagery. Thus the two texts are very similar in style and structure, although they deal with very different societies and conventions.

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The Age of Innocence is set in upper-class New York society in post-civil war America. In this milieu, people are very proud of their community’s achievements and reject change, which they perceive will threaten the status quo, affluence and culture. Wharton suggests that individuals are raised in a culture that is already fully established with complex sets of values and classifications, rules and prohibitions. The majority accepts these codes as normal and natural. Having mastered the complexities of the culture, life is conducted in the grooves provided by that culture. Hence, when anyone attempts change or steps out of these well-worn paths, he or she is rounded upon, condemned and ultimately rejected. New York in the late nineteenth century is also rigidly patriarchal and women must be decorative, supportive and economically dependent on men. In contrast, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn is set before the civil war in America’s Deep South, specifically along the Mississippi River. Unlike New York, the main prejudice here is racial. Most whites support slavery and are anxious to keep Negroes in their place, for fear that they will achieve equality and hence overthrow the superiority of the whites. This society also prides itself on its moral virtues and is determined to force everyone to conform to the religious conventions.

Edith Wharton uses a variety of methods to condemn New York’s society’s snobbery and fear of change. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is Wharton’s main device. In the first chapter, it is quickly established that he conforms to societal norms, as readers learn that, “what was or what was not “the thing” played a part as important in Newland’s New York.” (Wharton, 1918: 4) However, Newland likes to think of himself as a non-conformist and feels that he is the “distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York”. (Wharton, 1918:7) Silently, he mocks those whom he sees as slaves to conventionality. Various incidents are used to highlight Newland’s contempt. He is frustrated by May’s lack of independent action when she refuses to elope with him and comes to view her as “a terrifying product of the social system he belonged to” (Wharton, 1918:35). He is unimpressed with May and fascinated by Ellen’s exoticism, symbolised by his reaction to her unconventional house, where he felt the lamps imposed a “faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known”. (Wharton, 1918:57) Another symbol of Newland’s flirtation with the forbidden danger of the unconventional is the type of flowers he gives to the two women in his life, giving flowers was not only a way to express wealth, but also a way to communicate subtle messages. During his engagement with May, Newland sends lilies-of-the-valley to her “every morning on the minute” (Wharton, 1918:65), while it is traditionally given as a wedding flower to represent a “return of happiness”, it also symbolises innocence and chastity (Gwen). The protagonist sees May as being naïve and innocent as the white flowers he gives her suggest. However, during Newland’s first visit to Ellen Olenska’s home, he gives her a bouquet of yellow roses which the protagonist’s thought “there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.” (Wharton, 1918:65) as “he had never seen any as sun-golden before” (Wharton, 1918:65) thus Wharton, suggests that like flowers reflects on the receiver’s personality and therefore the yellow flowers symbolise jealousy, infidelity and exoticism.

Yet, faced with the opportunity to rebel, he lacks the courage. Rather than fighting against society’s views on divorce, he willingly gives in and decides not to follow her, even though he feels “an incessant undefinable craving” (Wharton, 1918:183) for Ellen. The author further highlights Newland’s cowardice and apathy by stating that he “instinctively felt that in this respect it would be troublesome…to stick out for himself.” (Wharton 1918:7) Newland’s unwillingness not to conform is further extrapolated when he pays lip service to democratic principles, but once married, reassumes his earlier conventional, patronising attitude to May’s “innocence” (Wharton 1918:119), with the assumption that it “seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”( Wharton, 1918:119). Even when he later admits to Ellen that his marriage is a “sham” (Wharton, 1918:199), he blames her for his predicament saying “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life… it’s beyond human enduring” (Wharton, 1918: 199). Wharton’s crushing criticism of Newland culminates in the concluding pages. The time is now thirty years later and society is radically different. Old snobberies have been abandoned and he realises that May always knew about his relationship with Ellen. Yet, now there is “no reason for his continuing in the same routine” (Wharton, 1918:289) and he has a chance of freedom, he is still “held fast by habit” (Wharton 1918:290) and “saw into what a deep rut he had sunk.” (Wharton, 1918:290) Indeed Newland has not changed at all; he is still torn between the feeling that he should engage in “new things”. (Wharton, 1918:290) He is well aware that now “Nobody was narrow-minded enough” (Wharton, 1918:290) to worry about past indiscretions. However, the protagonist still lacks courage to be true to himself. He seems frozen by inertia, highlighted by his failure to visit Ellen’s apartment, as he thinks “it’s more real to me here if I went up” (Wharton, 1918:298). Wharton shows how Newland continues at war within himself as he “suddenly heard himself say”. (Wharton, 1918:298) these words. Thus as the end, when he “walked back alone” (Wharton, 1918:298), readers understand the wasted opportunities of Newland’s life as he can never break out of social norms. As Wharton demonstrates a use of irony as Ellen “closed the shutters” (Wharton, 1918:298), she is symbolically ending any chance that Newland has of changing.

Similarly, Mark Twain uses his main characters to critique his society, but is it not the snobbery and the conventions that are attacked, but the hypocrisy. Huck is used as a device to dramatise the conflict between societal or received morality on the one hand, and a different kind of morality based on intuition and experience on the other. Like individuals of his age, Huck is written through the perspective of a child and although he is sceptical of religious values, such an immaturity is demonstrated by the protagonist’s superstitious views as he heard “a ghost” (Twain, 1884:4). Despite such beliefs, Huck reflects Twain’s scepticism as he remains untainted by the rules and assumptions of society in which he finds himself in. Even though Huck is quick to criticise the absurdity of the world around him, he does not attempt to cause offense. He is equally quick to tell us that though the “widow cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb . . . she never meant no harm by it.” (Twain, 1884:2). Twain presents the protagonist’s unwillingness to change after Miss Watson’s attempts to “sivilize” (Twain, 1884:1) him, but soon reverts back to his old habits after living with his father. The conflict between the oppression of civilisation and “natural life” is introduced in the first chapter through the efforts of the Miss Watson, who tries to force Huck to wear new clothes, give up smoking, receive an education and learn the Bible. Twain presents both Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas as being extremely conservative, constantly trying to teach Huck the ways of a religious society which he finds “tiresome and lonesome” (Twain, 1884:3), whereas Huck is represented as being out going and free spirited. Twain uses an analogy to describe Huck’s distaste for the inefficiency within prayer as Miss Watson tells Huck “to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks…. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.” (Twain, 1884:4) Here, Twain suggests that Huck is unable to grasp the concept of formal religion. Furthermore, Huck’s refusal to stay at the Grangerfords reveals his inability to settle down as he says, “there warn’t no home like a raft” (Twain, 1884:5) Thus, Huck is used to demonstrate the author’s main message that the uncivilized way of life is more desirable and morally superior to the corruption of supposedly civilised American society.

Wharton also subverts the mythology of America as a new, democratic society. America is supposed to be an uninhibited “heaven” as opposed to the rigid European “hell” experienced by Ellen. However, the author suggests that people have in fact imported the “old” class distinctions and snobbery from Europe. “Old” New York society has an ambivalent attitude towards the “new” rich. People admire Julius Beaufort because he is wealthy but despise him because he is self-made, despite the fact that he has gained social respectability by marrying into the illustrious Mingott family, he is always at the outer fringes of society and considered somewhat disreputable. The possibility of a new beginning is symbolized by Newland and Ellen’s interlude in the Patroon’s house. The original Dutch governor’s cottage embodies the possibility that the couple can escape the past. In contrast, the van der Luydens are one of the most respected families because of their European ancestry, epitomised by their “high-ceilinged white-walled Madison Avenue drawing-room, with the pale brocaded armchairs so obviously uncovered for the occasion, and the gauze still veiling the ormolu mantel ornaments”. (Wharton, 1918:42) Their seal of approval is needed to gain social acceptability, shown when their invitation to Ellen allows her to enter New York society as they delivered her an envelope that “contained a card inviting the Countess Olenska to the dinner” (Wharton, 1918:7). However, she soon discovers that this milieu is just as rigid and class-conscious as Europe, as Newland explains, “New York Society is… ruled, in spite of appearances, by a very few people with- well- rather old- fashioned ideas…” (Wharton, 1918:89-90) Wharton shows that change is rejected as a destabilising influence. In the first chapter, Ellen is seen wearing an unfamiliar European style-dress which attracts “undivided attention” (Wharton, 1918:10). The disapproval of such new fashion is emphasised when Miss Jackson notes, “…In my youth… it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions…” (Wharton, 1918:211). Wharton points out the inevitable change of society by presenting a contrast at the end of the book; Dallas Archer has married Julius Beaufort’s illegitimate daughter, Fanny which would have once been considered totally unacceptable. The author even points out the comparison between Fanny and Ellen as the former “had won [New York’s] heart much as Madame Olenska had won it thirty years earlier”(Wharton, 1918:260). However, now “instead of being distrustful and afraid of her, society joyfully took her for granted.”(Wharton, 1918:260). As Newland reflects, “People nowadays were too busy with reforms and “movements,”… to bother much about their neighbours.” (Wharton, 1918:291) Thus, the fact that such a respected and conventional family such as the Archers became connected to “Beaufort’s bastards” (Wharton, 1918:291) is used to indicate how rigid New York society once was and how much it has changed.

An integral part of Wharton’s critique is the repression of women. Late nineteenth century New York society is firmly patriarchal. Women are expected to be inanimate, ornamental and pure. Wharton uses costumes to highlight these expectations as May is immediately introduced as “a young girl in white”. (Wharton, 1918:5) This symbolism suggests her innocence and fidelity towards her future spouse. In contrast, Ellen is later introduced as wearing a “dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a large old-fashioned clasp.”. (Wharton, 1918:7-8) This description immediately highlights Ellen’s refusal to conform and indeed openly inviting attention which is a complete contrast to May’s costume, suggesting her lack of conformism of the gender stereotype. Moreover, women are expected to marry and remain so, however badly they are treated. Wharton emphasises the way men patronise women through the relationship between Newland and May. He notices his wife’s narrow interest while in London with irritation, where “nothing interested her but the theatres and the shops.” (Wharton, 1918:160) and condescendingly teaches her about art. Women within New York society also have to be compliant and supportive of their husbands, regardless of their spouses’ behaviour as “May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.” (Wharton, 1918:160) Wharton also presents the merging of identities of women with their husbands through the characterisation of the van der Luydens who “were so exactly alike that Archer often wondered how, after forty years of the closest conjugality, two such merged identities ever separated themselves enough for anything as controversial as a talking-over..”. (Wharton, 1918:43) The rebellion against gendered stereotypes is generally opposed, as shown when Ellen is condemned for insisting on divorce. There are some exceptions, for example, Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose “influence is great throughout her family” (Wharton, 1918:206), because she is wealthy and does not pose a threat to social convention yet even she refuses to help her daughter, Regina when Beaufort runs off with Fanny. Miss Manson Mingott abandons her daughter, claiming that their family name was tarnished by such an incident as she says “It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it’s got to stay Beaufort now that he’s covered you with shame.” (Wharton, 1918:223) Furthermore, this treatment of women produces social tensions. Newland desires Ellen, who is sexually experienced, and had a liaison with Mrs. Rushworth who was his intellectual equal. However, if he wants to maintain male superiority, he has to accept May and the lack of fulfilment he knows he will experience throughout his married life. It is through the creation of these characters that Wharton critiques her patriarchal society. Wharton’s society is brewing with hypocrisy, as money buys not only respect and human value but also free range to live without consequences. In the novel’s society, value and identity are rooted in materialism and hypocrisy, indicating not only a crisis of subjectivity on the level of the individual but also hinting at a larger collapse of human relationships in general.

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Like Wharton, Twain also condemns the hypocrisy of the religious. However, the attack is much more biting, even though the tone, created through Huck’s voice, is humorous and intents to satirically mock the values presented by the protagonist. In the first chapter, Miss Watson introduces Huck to “the bad place” (Twain, 1884:3), while the protagonist, could not “see no advantage in going” (Twain, 1884:3) to Heaven. Twain indicates that despite the caretakers’ intentions, Huck never sees any real weight in religion and treats the concept of heaven and hell as a myth. Later, when the charlatans, “Duke” and “King”, convince a religious community to give them money so they can “convert” their non-existent pirate friends, the God-fearing folk are easily fooled as King “went all through the crowd with his hat” (Twain, 1884:171) collecting money and is later offered accommodation. Thus, King and the Duke are used to represent those con-men who use religion in a corrupt manner, for self-gain. The chapters where Huck meets the Grangerford and Sheperdson allows Twain to use satire in order to condemn certain aspects of supposedly civilized America. Both families represent the wealthy and educated and reveal the senseless brutality and needless slaughter involved in their arbitrary concept of honour. The dignified Colonel Grangerford, who is eager for the glory to be gained from shooting “a few buck-shot “(Twain, 1884:141) at a Shepherdson family member, unquestioningly believes in devaluing human life, emphasized by the Twain’s suggestion of the feud is so arbitrary that the families do not even know why they are fighting (Q). Both feuding families are church goers and in one sermon where both the families “took their guns along” (Twain, 1884:142), given by Mr. Grangerford he speaks of “brotherly love” (Twain, 1884:142) while, hypocritically, encourages the murder of the opposing family. Twain satirise this by presenting Huck’s obliviousness to religious values, exclaiming that “it seem …to be one of the roughest Sundays, I had run across yet” (Twain, 1884:142), when compared to the family’s positive comments about the “good sermon” (Twain, 1884:142). Through this assertion, it can be suggested that Twain is resentful towards the contradiction of religious values, which is reinforced by the graphic description of the confrontation as Buck recalls that “his father and his brother was killed, and two or three of the enemy.” (Twain, 1884:148) intended to shock the readers and reinforce Twain’s point that God-fearing and self-proclaimed law-abiding Americans feel justified in using such brutality. This incident is also in marked contrast to the gentility of Wharton, who never mentions violence. This comparison clearly indicates the different nature of these two respective societies – the harshness of the South and the refinement of New York – even though both claim to be, in comparison with foreigners, civilised.

Another major criticism of Twain’s society is the injustice of slavery. In The Adventures Huckleberry Finn, The author uses satire to demonstrate that slavery is supported by even the most “moral” of characters. Miss Watson, an educated and devout Christian woman, is also a slave owner, implying that people who regard themselves as morally upright believe that slavery is justified blacks are supposedly racially inferior and is willing to sell Jim “down to Orleans”(Q) for eight-hundred dollars. Moreover, the depiction of Pap reinforces the connection between poor moral character, racism, and the acceptance of slavery. He is portrayed as, not only a racist, but also, a rude, self-absorbed drunkard and child abuser. As he says “I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this Country where they’d let a nigger vote, I drawed out.” (Twain, 1884:36) The author presents how appearance and skin colour are the only criteria considered by the societies of the south when determining who is afforded rights in comparison to the black “p’fessor” (Twain, 1884:36) from the northern state of Ohio. It appears that regardless of how immoral and depraved a white man might be, he is still afforded more power than that of a moral black character like Jim as he is instantly blamed for the “murder” of Huck. Thus illustrating how society is quick to blame individuals who are socially underprivileged. Here, Twain’s very willingness to portray a morally upright character like Jim, whose plight is intended to convey sympathy, presents an attitude that is undoubtedly anti-slavery. In contrast to Pap’s constant abuse of his son, Jim is shown to miss his family as he “was often moaning and mourning that way, nights, when he judged that [Huck] was asleep” (Twain, 1884:201) as he realises that he “ain’t ever gwyne to see” (Twain, 1884:201) them ever again. Twain emphasizes Jim’s superior moral aspects to Huck’s father by presenting the character’s remorse in punishing his daughter, ‘lizabeth, after realising that she is deaf and was therefore, unable to listen to his demands. Admittedly the protagonist does express racist attitudes towards Jim when he says “I wouldn’t shake my nigger, would I? – the only … nigger I had in the world, and the only property.” (Twain, 1884:279) However, Twain indicates that Huck is just a child who has been influenced by social prejudice as he is raised within a profoundly bigoted society.

While The Age of Innocence and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are very similar in style and construction, the main difference occurs in the use of imagery. Wharton uses the colour “white” to symbolise purity and innocence, as exemplified in May’s costumes as she dresses in “white and sliver” (Wharton ,1918:53) and the “bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley” (Wharton ,1918:5) she receives from Newland. In contrast, Twain uses the idea of “white” to undermine the racial prejudice practised by the white Southerners. Pap Finn represents the worst aspects of white society as he is illiterate, ignorant, violent, and profoundly bigoted. As Huck comments, his father is “white; but not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick”. (Twain, 1884:25) Here, the nauseating deathly pallor of Finn’s skin underscores Twain’s condemnation of the whites who feel that they are superior to blacks, simply because of the colour of their skin. Conversely, the black professor from Ohio is described as wearing “fine clothes”, “a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane” and is able to “talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything” (Twain, 1884:36). This clearly educated man is able to vote whereas Pap takes his privileges for granted, justifying his failure to vote by saying he was “too drunk” (Twain, 1884:36). In establishing the contrast between Pap and the Negro, Twain overturns the traditional views of his time which suggests that the colour white, not black, is associated with evil.


Clearly, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn and The Age of Innocence are very similar in the way they present blistering critiques on their respective societies. Both Wharton and Twain use a wide-ranging variety of different strategies to convey their message. The depictions of major and minor characters illustrate how individuals react and are affected by prejudices. In Wharton’s case, the memorable protagonist, Newland Archer, is bogged down by society’s fear of change, whilst Twain’s Huckleberry Finn subtly comments on the injustices of his society through the childish eyes of innocence. Furthermore, language, style and symbolism reinforce the criticisms. Readers of both works are invited to conclude that conformity, prejudice and hypocrisy are unacceptable values for any society to hold and tolerance and fairness are far more preferable.


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