Ellen Olenska as a Mythological Muse in The Age of Essay

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Ellen Olenska as a Mythological Muse in The Age of Innocence

Ellen Olenska as a Mythological Muse in The Age of Innocence
Long ago in ancient Greece, mythology was used to explain our world, our lives, and most
importantly, our interpersonal relationships. Still today Greek mythology is infused into
the literature of almost every influential and lasting author, one of the more effective
authors being Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence. The relationship between
Newland Archer and Madame Ellen Olenska, two protagonists in Wharton's novel, is an
example of the classic relationship between a muse and an inspired man. Wharton was
obviously well learned in the art of mythology as seen in her stories, The Lamp of Psyche
and The Muse's Tragedy, and used this knowledge in order to portray a tragic tale of an
inspired man.

From Ellen Olenska's first appearance at New York's ornate opera house, her presence is of
a mythological being that "catches the eye and the interest of every man of the prominent
New York social scene" (Millicent 229). Blake Nevius states that Ellen has the mysterious
faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience
(185); it is a classic trait of a muse to evoke ideas of a life superior to the ordinary
with endless possibilities.

There are nine muses of Greek mythology who evoke different arenas of inspiration in a
man; a muse of epic poetry, a muse of tragedy, a muse of comedy, a muse of history, a muse
of astronomy, a muse of dance, a muse of sacred song, a muse of lyric poetry, and Erato, a
muse of love poetry and passion (Marks 34).

Erato, whose name translates into passionate is known as the "awakener of desire" (35),
and most closely resembles Ellen Olenska. The poet Hesiod wrote, "the muse's spirit is
free from care and for though men has sorrow and grief in his soul, when the Muses sing,
at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles (34). This explains
Archer's state of mind whenever he is in the company of Ellen, for an affair was of bad
"taste," and Archer believed that "few things seemed more awful than an offense against
‘Taste,' that far-off divinity of ‘Form' was the mere visible representative and
vice-regent," yet this notion slipped out of thought whenever he was in the presence of
Countess Ellen Olenska.

More aesthetically, Wharton portrayed Ellen as close as possible to the ideal vision of a
muse. Tracy Marks explains that muses from Greek mythology are typically represented as
young women with red lips, blue eyes, and a melodious voice, who usually wore long flowing
robes and a reflective or smiling expression. Already Wharton's vivid picture painted with
words comes to mind, but Marks continues on to describe a Muse as "far from virgin
goddesses, rather one who induces sensuality" (Marks 36). Archer parallels this perception
as he views Ellen as one "who does not seal the mind against imagination, nor the heart
against experience" (Nevius 186) and who "entreats a little wildness, a dark place or two
in the soul" (Mansfield 316).

Whether it was Ellen's disposition or her aura, which first enticed Archer, it was her
affect on him which led her to become a legend in the mind of both this fictional
character, Newland Archer, and the audience of this novel. What sparks the interest of a
muse is the possibility of greatness, an ability to live in a world larger than what now
exists, and who will use the knowledge and inspiration she gives (Marks 34), Newland was a
perfect example of this. Ellen describes the reason for confiding in Archer more perfectly
here:

"The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew;
you understood; you had felt the world tugging at one with all its golden hands - and yet
you hated the things it asked of one; you hated happiness brought by disloyalty and
cruelty and indifference."

With a reason to inspire Archer, Ellen played the part of Erato, the Muse previously
mentioned who is known for her ability to turn the men who follow her into men who are
desired and worthy to be loved. This relationship between the muse and the inspired, the
love affair between the "experienced woman who has retained her youth, her charm, and her
mental and emotional resiliency, and a naive man," (Nevius 215) is ever present in many of
Wharton's novels.

Millicent Bell found while studying The Age of Innocence that Edith Wharton's interest was
aroused by the "aging Muse" who, being so eminent a priestess, could never be anyone's
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