age of innocence




Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
Chapter One Summary: The play opens at the opera. Newland Archer enters his opera box and looks out across the theater to see his girlfriend, May Welland, touch the lilies he had given her. While dreaming of their future together, his thoughts are interrupted by gasps from the gentlemen sitting with him. They are whispering about a fashionably dressed woman who has just sat down in the box with May. Sillerton Jackson gasps, "I did not think they would have tried it on," which means, he can¹t believe the Mingotts would allow the woman to come and sit in their box at the Opera.
Analysis: This is a book about the conventions of "Old New York", New York City in the 1870¹s. Wharton loves contrasting the old against the new. She begins these contrasts in the very first paragraph. Here she describes the new Opera theater that is going to be erected in the "remote" forties. We can assume that the forties have been built up since then and people reading her book in the 1920¹s (when it was published) would enjoy hearing about how New York has changed. Along these lines, there is also a description of the old people versus the "new people, whom NY was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to."
Also important in this first chapter is Wharton¹s discussion of fashionability and propriety. We can tell from the way that Newland Archer, Lawrence Lefferts and Mr. Silverton Jackson are introduced (all are so concerned with what is "moral" and "the thing") that Wharton will spend a lot of time in the novel discussing and perhaps critiquing these concepts in the book.
Of note, as well, is the great attention to detail that Wharton has. The way she describes clothing and interior decoration with much detail has led many to dub this book a "costume novel". We will have to see for ourselves if the book develops beyond being a "bodice ripper" sort of book.
May Welland will be one of the most important characters in the book. She is holding Lillies of the Valley. In the 1870¹s the lily of the valley was the flower of chastity and of the names Cynthia and Diana. Later in the book, May is often compared to Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Chapter Two Summary: Newland becomes annoyed as he realizes that everyone is paying attention to the box where his fiancé is sitting. He doesn¹t want the woman to whom he is engaged to be associated with a woman of questionable reputation. The strange woman is Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May. She has a bad reputation because she left her husband and ran off with his secretary. In New York Society, such behavior was not accepted. Newland suddenly wishes to sit next to his girlfriend, as if to protect her from the gossip. He also has a sudden urge to announce their engagement because he wants to distract attention from the foreign woman and place attention on the happy occasion of their engagement. He walks over to their box and is introduced to Ellen. Ellen explains that she remembers being kissed by him when they were little children and that returning to New York reminds her of her childhood. She can "see" everyone in their childhood underpants. Newland does not like her referring to New York society as being "a dear old place." He considers his society to be a grand institution and Ellen seems to be slighting this society.
Analysis: Here we see how Newland is fixated with Taste. He is annoyed that his fiancé may be associated with a woman of ill-repute; he thinks that Ellen¹s dress is too revealing and that the Mingotts should have not brought her to the Opera.
Also interesting in this chapter is the motif of the military: "Form was the mere visible representative and vicegerent of Taste . . ." Thorley "entered the lists" as the ladies champion. Against whom are these members of New York Society mobilizing against?


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