“The young man felt that his fate was sealed: for the rest of his life he would go up every evening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibule into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow wood. But beyond that his imagination could not travel.” (Book One, Chapter 9, p. 63) “I want somehow get away with you into a world where words like that – categories like that – won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the life to each other, and nothing else will matter.” “Oh, my dear - where is that country? Have you ever been there?” (Book Two, Chapter 29, p. 247)
Edith Wharton was often critical of the social code, but at the same time she saw its importance of handing down values and replicating culture. In the book The Age of Innocence she vividly depicts the struggle between the individual and the group, the dilemma between pursuing one’s own passion and obeying the social rules. The main character Newland Archer was raised in a world where manners and moral codes dictate how the individual will act. He is engaged to the lovely May Welland but falls in love with Ellen Olenska. At many points throughout the book, both Archer and Ellen Olenska are expected to sacrifice their desires and opinions in order to obey the social rules in order to assimilate themselves into the society in the hope of its acceptance.
In the two quotes above, Edith Wharton carefully structures Newland and Ellen’s psychological world and shows the struggle between individual and the group. The first quote, Newland is thinking about what his life would be after his dull marriage to May. His whole life is deeply affected by the tyrannical and rigid requirements of the society. “He felt his fate was sealed.” He is still going to live an elegant, polished life that everything seems so right and nice. But deep down in his...