Preferred Citation: Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

6— The Age of Innocence: Tribal Rites in the Urban Village

The Age of Innocence:
Tribal Rites in the Urban Village

Edith Wharton's friendship with and literary debt to Henry James have been the subject of extensive critical discussion. Certainly one of the most conspicuous preoccupations the two shared was their fascination with the semiotics of houses and the peculiar mores and ironic inconsistencies of American domestic and social life. In this respect the disciple's fiction comes close at some points to surpassing the master's in its sharp-witted irony and the acuity with which it exposes the social pretenses that passed for cultural aspiration among the American upper class, whose dogged provincialities were comically apparent to the truly cosmopolitan. The pretentious elaboration of class structures and rituals in America's Gilded Age were mirrored in the heavy and overelaborated late-Victorian architecture that Wharton knew intimately and heartily despised. In The Age of Innocence, one of the most graphic examinations of social structures in American fiction, she exploits the potential of the architectural metaphors with a merciless irony that puts its own sharp twist on the old theme of American ambivalence.[1]

It is hardly surprising that Wharton's vision of American life focuses on the politics of space—how people (and which people) appropriate and occupy space, build buildings, design homes, and decorate them; her youth in the New York of the Gilded Age and her European travels furnished her with a wide exposure to architectural styles, both imitative and innovative, as well as to changing fashions in interior decoration and a life among people who lived sumptuously and expended much time and attention on material comforts. William Coles writes of the United States of Wharton's generation, "During this period the scale of American life and artistic ambitions was transformed. It was perhaps the most crucial period of our cultural evolution, and much that we take for granted in libraries,


galleries, shops, and universities—in the sophisticated tone of our society—was either founded at this time or was given its essentially modern form."[2] Hers was a generation whose architects, artists, and writers thought of themselves as participating in a cultural renaissance, as signified by ambition, grand scale, and unprecedented technological progress.[3]

In Wharton's New York the structures of indoor life were fraught with symbolic significance. Women of her class expended a good part of their time and energy decorating their houses, and that decoration became, especially for the wealthy, who had a range of choice in interior design and materials, an elaborate code invested not only with aesthetic but also with moral significance. With so few acceptable avenues of expression open to them, American Victorian middle- and upper-class women poured their creative energies into their houses, as indeed they were enjoined to do by their advisers in the pulpits and by the pages of magazines, among which household management was an increasingly popular topic. Mrs. E. F. Ellet, for example, wrote in her New Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy in 1873, "The daughter of the millionaire is seldom taught to consider how great are the social responsibilities her wealth and position impose upon her,—to regard herself as a steward of the Almighty."[4] Among those responsibilities proper care and beautification of the home were, of course, paramount, and the same authorities that took it on themselves to form women's consciences in this area offered abundant prescriptions on matters of taste and style and of how to find and use appropriate help, be it a staff of servants or an expanding repertoire of mechanical aids to housekeeping.

With the advent of mass production, women in Wharton's position also began to define themselves as preservers of a culture threatened by a general lowering of standards of taste. Wharton herself is quite explicit about this sense of mission in The Decoration of Houses, the manual on interior decoration she co-authored with Ogden Codman.[5] The prescriptions in that book have, like Poe's on the matter of furnishings, a quality of moral fervor that stops just this side of evangelism. Wharton recognized that her recommendations could be applied only by those who could afford the luxury of designing and decorating


their own homes in the first place, and so she addressed her plea to the wealthy to follow a principle of noblesse oblige in setting exemplary aesthetic standards, which could "in time, find [their] way to the carpenter-built cottage." "Once the right precedent is established," she reasoned, "it costs less to follow than to oppose it" (introduction).

Having spent many of her formative years in Europe, Wharton was sensitive to the heaviness and stodginess of the architecture and interior decoration of her native New York. She learned early to love the acknowledged best in European art and culture and attempted to Europeanize her own homes as explicitly and tastefully as possible. Like James, she valued cosmopolitanism as that which gave comparative perspective, and therefore greater validity, to an individual's judgments and taste. Like him, she deplored the thinness of indigenous culture in the United States and lamented that for artists and architects "no amount of travel abroad and study at home can compensate for the lack of daily familiarity" with monuments of style available in Europe (1). Those elements of style designated specifically as American are, throughout the book, characterized as borrowed, inherited, and adapted, often in terms of the diminishment and loss implicit in those processes. The same attitude is reflected in her late novel, The Custom of the Country, where she writes, "What people called society was really just like the houses it lived in: a muddle of misapplied ornament over a thin steel shell of utility."[6]

Wharton's predisposition to criticize what is native to her own culture extends to a generally damaging comparison between "Anglo-Saxon" and "Latin" sensibilities; she claims that beauty comes more naturally to the latter. "English taste," she writes,

has never been so sure as that of the Latin races; and it has, moreover, been perpetually modified by a passion for contriving all kinds of supposed "conveniences," which instead of simplifying life not unfrequently tend to complicate it. Americans have inherited this trait, and in both countries the architect or upholsterer who can present a new and more intricate way of planning a house or of making a piece of furniture, is more sure of a hearing than he who follows the accepted lines. (49)


The Thoreauvian call to simplicity is sounded once again, though in a context and by a woman whose notions of simplicity were certainly more liberal and far more complicated than those of the hermit at the side of his pond and had more to do with classic ideals of harmony and coherence than with spirituality or asceticism.

As a young married couple the Whartons traveled to Europe annually and fostered several formative friendships with artists, sculptors, and architects. One of these was Ogden Codman, Wharton's eventual collaborator on The Decoration of Houses, her first book, which enunciates stylistic and aesthetic principles that illuminate not only her own decorative practices but her writing as well. Wharton rewrote the book extensively after it had been accepted by Scribners', under the tutelage of Walter Berry, a lifelong friend, whom she credited with tightening and shaping her style. In that sense, this prose work on architectural and interior style became for her an exercise in prose stylistics as well. Numerous critics have noted the direct relationship between this early aesthetic manifesto and the architectonics of her novels, with their characteristic focus on the social and political significance of interior spaces. Throughout Wharton's adult life the two interests went hand in hand: her career as a writer began simultaneously with her first independent ventures into home ownership and decoration. In 1889, the year she received her first acceptance from Scribners' for a poem, she also received a sizable legacy from her father that enabled her to take her first independent house in New York, on Madison Avenue. In 1893, a "landmark year in American architecture," she bought Land's End, her property at Newport, and began to remodel and decorate it.[7]

The Decoration of Houses is not a particularly innovative work; rather, it is characterized by the same informed conservatism that makes her fiction, ironic as it is toward the superficialities of the upper classes, so deeply ambivalent. The book is an attempt to "explain, order, and correct" existing tastes; to relate the best of current trends in architecture and decor to a historical tradition; and to make that tradition intellectually and practically available to "laymen of cultivated taste."[8] Wharton's project, then, in her writing on decoration as well as in her fic-


tion, is to articulate and emulate a great tradition rather than to innovate. In this her stance recalls T. S. Eliot's in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where he claims that the only authentic originality is that which is deeply rooted in an understanding and appropriation of tradition and in an application of its wisdom to the issues of contemporary civilization. Certainly her literary enterprises echo this general reverence for what is, as her Newland Archer puts it, "good in the old ways."

Wharton and Codman regarded The Decoration of Houses as a study of "house decoration as a branch of architecture" (xxxix). In light of Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's earlier pleas to architects to recognize the proportionate importance of house interiors, particularly to women, this notion of aesthetic and philosophical unification of the two enterprises is understandable as a continuation of a long-standing debate among those who concerned themselves with the value systems implied in the design of living space. Moreover, the tension the book attempts to resolve accounts for the emphasis placed on organicism—the notion that the outside and the inside of a house need to be consistent in style, proportion, color, and appeal. The opening sentence of the manual reads, "Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out" (196). They go on to point out that in the Middle Ages, "the architecture of the room became its decoration . . . but since then various influences have combined to sever the natural connection between the outside of the modern house and its interior. . . . As a result of this division of labor, house decoration has ceased to be a branch of architecture." In the modern world, they lament, "we have passed from the golden age of architecture to the gilded age of decoration" (196).

Closely related to organicism is Wharton's notion of "sincerity," which in architecture means "simply obedience to certain visual requirements, one of which demands that what are at once seen to be the main lines of a room or house shall be acknowledged as such in the application of ornament" (62). The idea of truth in architecture is an old one; the expression of that


idea as sincerity gives it a romantic cast that recalls Downing's tendency to couch architectural principles in the language of personal ethics, though she scoffs both at Downing's sentimentality and at the "sincere furniture" of Charles Locke Eastlake, whose Hints on Household Taste was enormously popular among Americans from its first publication here in 1878 until the end of the century. Judith Fryer points out that Newland Archer's taste for "sincere Eastlake furniture," given Wharton's condemnation of his superficiality, is one of a number of clues we are given that Newland is "a man of 'taste' rather than a man of principle—or at least, he is a man whose principles are determined externally, according to taste."[9]

Another ideal enunciated in The Decoration of Houses is "suitability," meaning accommodation of style to function and visible differentiation of purpose. "When suitability departs," the authors write, "every room tends to become a living room" (xvii). Proportion, another central value, they define as "the good breeding of architecture . . . in its effects as intangible as that all-pervading essence which the ancients called a soul" (31). They speak of "the tendency of many modern decorators to sacrifice composition to detail, and to neglect the observance of proportion between ornament and structure" (98). "If the fundamental lines are right, very little decorative detail is needed to complete the effect; whereas, when the lines are wrong, no overlaying of ornamental odds and ends, in the way of pictures, bric-a-brac and other improvised expedients, will conceal the structural deficiencies" (47). It was recognition of this principle that "kept the work of the old architect-decorators (for the two were one) free from the superfluous, free from the intemperate accumulation that marks so many modern rooms" (197). Finally, simplicity is declared "the supreme excellence," a virtue related to "moderation, fitness, and relevance." "There is a sense," Wharton and Codman write, "in which works of art may be said to endure by virtue of that which is left out of them," and it is this "tact of omission that characterizes the master hand" (198).

Other key principles are propriety, privacy, symmetry ("the sanity of decoration"), reason, and order. Like Thoreau, Codman and Wharton see themselves in this manual to be address-


ing a culture that has lost its grounding and to be recalling a people to its first principles. The book, written "after a period of eclecticism that has lasted long enough to make architects and decorators lose their traditional habits of design" (xxxvii), compares the contemporary decorator to "a person who is called on to write a letter in the English language, but is ordered, in so doing, to conform to the Chinese or Egyptian rules of grammar, or possibly to both together" (16).

Wharton's own home at Lenox, built around the turn of the century, which she played a master role in designing and decorating, embodies all the values she articulates in The Decoration of Houses and applies in her fiction. Designed with obvious allusions both to the Italian Renaissance palazzo and to the English country house, it was praised by her most notable guest, Henry James, for its "penetralia," by which he meant "some part . . . sufficiently within some other part, sufficiently withdrawn and consecrated, not to constitute a thoroughfare."[10] The house is ingeniously designed to keep private spaces from violation by incidental traffic and to enhance the distinct and separate character of each of the spaces accessible to company. A large open foyer on the ground floor makes the transition from outside to inside both ceremonial and gradual. Wharton's sense of the syntax of domestic space entails dynamic notions of progression, flow, pace, and climax, which she describes in expressly literary terms: "Every house should be decorated according to a carefully graduated scale of ornamentation culminating in the most important room of the house; but this plan must be carried out with such due sense of the relation of the rooms to each other that there shall be no violent break in the continuity of treatment" (24).

Wharton may have been one of the earliest to use the now popular term life-style . All her New York books tell about people's lives in terms of the houses they live in; it is difficult to remember any character of hers without situating him or her in a doorway or by a window or next to a mantel or framed by an opera box. Their settings are as essential to their character as are their clothing and speech. Characters are introduced and developed with reference to their houses and furnishings: they choose them, use them, or escape from them


with a deliberation that constantly foregrounds the role of material environment in shaping behavior. We know the floor plans of the main houses and gradually develop a sense of propriety, of knowing what can and cannot take place in any given room. Descriptions of movement from one room to the next convey the degree to which manners and mores are determined by architectural conveniences—or the lack of them.

William Coles points out that "the concern shown in The Decoration of Houses for the relationship between art and life is also manifested in Mrs. Wharton's later books, especially those on art and travel. She is always looking for larger organic relationships, whether they be between house and garden; between garden and region, climate, and way of life; between house, street and city; or between city and national values."[11] That concern pervades The Age of Innocence , a masterpiece of American satire in which the role of architecture in American life is ruthlessly examined as an index of values and behavior.

When Wharton's narrator first introduces us to Newland Archer, the memorable "hero" of The Age of Innocence , he is arriving late to his "club box" at the Metropolitan Opera. As he enters, the narrator observes, by way of introduction, "There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking" (4). Most of Wharton's characters live, like Newland, in an indoor world of carefully placed furniture, closed doors, and tastefully decorated rooms. Descriptions of those rooms serve again and again as introductions to the characters and as indices of their tastes, values, and habits as well as of their place in a complex network of social relations that unfolds for us as the novel progresses. Wharton consistently characterizes by context, situating her characters in a setting that provides essential information about them—Newland in his Gothic library, May hovering statuesquely and expectantly on a threshold, Ellen swathed in red velvet in her softly lit Italianate drawing room and ensconced in a sofa before a glowing fireplace.


Wharton teaches us in this novel to read architecture and interior decoration, and indeed the entire environment of fabricated objects, as an intricate network of symbolic systems that make visible and reinforce the behavioral mores and severe social stratification whose implications are so consistent an issue in her work. Living space is always significant space, never free of moral resonance from the moment the colors are chosen for the curtains.

Houses provide an index not only of social position but of individual psychology. The stately old mansions inhabited by Wharton's little clan of patrician New Yorkers—the Mingotts, the Archers, the van der Luydens, the Beauforts—are not only measures of their wealth and taste but also, in a more subtle fashion, of their priorities, their authority, their recognition of consensually decreed standards of taste and behavior, and their various degrees of hesitancy to depart from these standards. The acute aesthetic sensitivity of the narrator's often ironic descriptions of furniture, fabrics, and facades reminds us that every house and every object within it reflect a choice, if only a choice to conform to prevailing fashion, and that these choices have moral and psychological as well as aesthetic consequences. The relationship of character to environment is emphatically reciprocal, and the houses the characters inhabit influence them as surely as these houses reflect the characters' influence.

Mrs. Manson Mingott's house, the first to be fully depicted, is described in terms of its idiosyncratic departures from architectural and social proprieties. It is "cream-colored" rather than the more conservative and more fashionable brown. It sits in lonely splendor, as defiantly distinctive as the spirited old matriarch who sits "enthroned" within it, "waiting calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors" (28). She seems oddly oblivious to the binding imperatives of tribal conformity and behaves "as if there were nothing peculiar in living above Thirty-fourth Street, or in having French windows that opened like doors instead of sashes that pushed up" (14). Hers is an earned impunity. Her eccentricities are tolerated by dint of long service to convention and an unquestioned seniority as matriarch of a large and devoted clan and are excused as well because she belongs to the tightly knit inner circle only by


marriage: her mother was a Spicer of Staten Island, not one of the first families of Manhattan.

Newland, through whose eyes we see and judge this architectural oddity, interprets its eccentricities of style with a skilled and critical, yet admiring, eye, only too aware of the stringencies of the codes Mrs. Manson Mingott has so blatantly defied:

A visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always an amusing episode to the young man. The house in itself was already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses in University Place and lower Fifth Avenue. Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fireplaces with black marble mantels, and immense glazed bookcases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire. (28)

The ironic phrase grim harmony suggests Newland's own discomfort with prevailing taste but is offset by the condemnation of Mrs. Manson Mingott's Second Empire furniture as "frivolous." His observations are as detailed as his tastes are decided at this early stage in the story; if he is capable of regarding the old woman's oddities with indulgence, he is equally capable of issuing judgments as opinionated as those of Lawrence Lefferts, the "foremost authority on 'form' in New York" (8), until Newland's complacencies are shaken by the aesthetic and moral awakening he experiences when he enters Ellen Olenska's home and life.

In contrast to the Mingott mansion, Julius Beaufort's palatial residence, into which the reader is ushered in the third chapter, so far fulfills and exceeds prevailing architectural and decorative fashions as to border on ostentation:

The house had been boldly planned with a ballroom, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses'), one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d'or ), seeing from afar the many-candled lusters reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo. (22)


Perhaps, it is hinted later, there is in this lavish style too much of a good thing. The lines of good taste are drawn very finely. The narrator is conspicuously ambivalent about the magnificence of the house, as measured in part by the amount of space the Beauforts can afford to waste and the lavishness of entertainment proffered there, and is uncertain whether it sufficiently compensates for Beaufort's questionable social status:

The Beauforts' house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ballroom (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott's and the Headly Chiverses); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought 'provincial' to put a 'crash' over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ballroom that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past. (19)

"Whatever was regrettable" is left decorously unspecified until later, increasingly explicit references to a kept woman and shady financial dealings establish Beaufort as a marginal figure tolerated principally for the status his wealth has bought. Beaufort and his mansion personify the social problem posed by the nouveaux riches in a society that by its own vociferous denial of class distinctions condemns itself to recognizing wealth in any hands as entitlement.

By even more subtle innuendoes Wharton alludes through Beaufort to the disquieting undercurrents of anti-Semitism among the very Anglo-Saxon upper classes. Though she nowhere explicitly identifies him as a Jew, he, like Rosedale in The House of Mirth , plays out a role recognizable in accounts of the actual lives of upper-class Jewish New York families such as the Belmonts and the Loebs. Beaufort is a European immigrant who "passed for an Englishman" and entered New York with references from the English son-in-law of Mrs. Manson Mingott. Wharton insinuates here and elsewhere that Americans, precisely because they cannot comfortably admit to their system of fine race and class distinctions, preserve them all the more anxiously for their denial. In any case, conspicuous possession,


a residence of distinction, and marriage to a "respectable" family are badges of membership in a club that would otherwise decidedly be refused him. The Beauforts' "brownstone palace" is acknowledged to be "the most distinguished house in New York," in which the coddled but hapless Mrs. Beaufort, a cousin of Medora Manson and therefore Beaufort's most secure claim to membership, sits "throned" and, like Mrs. Manson Mingott, draws "all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger" (20).

Both Mrs. Manson Mingott and Julius Beaufort are marginal in certain ways while in other ways are central and essential characters to this tight little clan. Their irregularities of behavior and status are duly noted but tolerated because both characters serve an indispensable social function. They provide the necessary exceptions that prove the rules by which their more conventional compatriots govern their own lives. They establish the peripheral boundaries of acceptability and thereby help to define social territory. Furthermore, the two houses provide stable points of reference, each occupied by an "enthroned" social power to whom the loyal, the dutiful, and the aspiring gravitate like bees to their queen. The houses are showpieces that in their respective ways proclaim the power both people exert. Beaufort's house, for instance, is "the one that New Yorkers [are] proud to show to foreigners," and the proprieties of behavior observed there acquire prescriptive force: "They had . . . inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess's bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife's friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffeed when they left home" (22).

If in the description of the Mingott and Beaufort houses Wharton provides us with an architectural key to the social conventions that govern this small society, her description of the van der Luydens' large, cold, seldom opened mansion completes the spectrum of standards. This aloof but gracious old couple, so it is believed, embody the traditions, the proprieties, and the social dogmas against which the other members of this exclusive circle measure themselves. The van der Luydens oc-


cupy the pinnacle of the social pyramid. Here Wharton gives her irony free rein. Gracious and sensitive as they are, the van der Luydens are as bloodless and static in their complacent serenity as figures on a tomb—and their house is a veritable house of the dead. Their social graces are perfect executions of ritual gestures so thoroughly adopted as to have obliterated individualizing foibles altogether. Newland's awe of the van der Luydens and their august home, before Ellen has broken the spell of their pervasive influence, is tinged with a discomfort he is reluctant to identify:

It was all very well to tell yourself in advance that Mrs. van der Luyden was always silent, and that, though noncommittal by nature and training, she was very kind to the people she really liked. Even personal experience of these facts was not always a protection from the chill that descended on one in the 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 and the beautiful old carved frame of Gainsborough's "Lady Angelica du Lac." (52)

The pale, icy colors of the house are reflected perfectly in the persons of Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden, eerily doubling one another and their setting, perfectly designed to complement its pale halls. As Newland waits in the chill parlor, Mr. van der Luyden appears from behind imposing double doors, "tall, spare and frock-coated, with faded fair hair, a straight nose like his wife's and the same look of frozen gentleness in eyes that were merely pale grey instead of pale blue" (54).

In this almost caricatured couple Wharton embodies, moreover, her deep ambivalence about the social structures and legalities she uses the van der Luydens to parody. For they are not simply figureheads, as they seem at first to be, nor is their aloofness simple inhospitality: they, along with Mrs. Manson Mingott and Julius Beaufort, are the only members of the New York circle with sufficient flexibility or tolerance to welcome Ellen, overlook her innocent improprieties, and make a place for her in the rigid social structure. In Mrs. Manson Mingott's case, it is affection that prompts such acceptance of Ellen's differences, and the older woman's tolerance goes unquestioned


by dint of her matriarchal authority. Beaufort's charity is perhaps less purely motivated but is made possible by the customary tolerance of his own irregularities won by virtue of wealth. In the van der Luydens' case, it is sheer right of position that allows them to extend a charity and hospitality that come from precisely the same code of behavior that makes Ellen's loose, European ways a problem: family solidarity, discretion, and a desire to preserve a genteel serenity and to avoid scandal.

Within the spectrum defined by these three powerful houses, the reader, too, as he or she continues through the novel, begins to master the code. Every description of a facade, a street, a living room, a boudoir, or a library provides information about character that we learn to understand from context and to which we learn to attribute precisely the kind of significance it conveys to visitors like Lawrence Lefferts, who glance around critically as they cross the threshold and follow the butler through the inevitable double doors to be ushered into the next scene. These three houses provide measuring devices against which the other significant houses in the novel—Newland's, Ellen's, and May's—can be compared and judged.

The house in which Newland lives with his mother and sister is less fully described than are the larger homes of the pacesetters. What the description does tell us is something of the relationship of space to gender. Household decoration and decorum may be controlled by the woman who can forbid smoking except in the library, but the allocation of private space favors the man. If the library is a retreat from feminine control, it is also a place of privilege with no analogous place for the women. Their house on West Twenty-eighth Street is succinctly but pointedly described in these terms: "An upper floor was dedicated to Newland, and the two women squeezed themselves into narrower quarters below. In an unclouded harmony of tastes and interests they cultivated ferns in Wardian cases, made macrame lace and wool embroidery on linen, collected American revolutionary glazed ware, subscribed to 'Good Words,' and read Ouida's novels for the sake of the Italian atmosphere" (34). Even to readers unfamiliar with the class connotations of the objects described, the material environment betokens a certain unexamined mediocrity of taste, conventionality, and unsophisticated concern with niceties.


Newland's library is by far the most distinctive room in the house—the only one that reflects aspirations to refinement and learning—and here the feminine touch is evident only in the care with which order and comfort are preserved so that Newland may enjoy his solitary retreat in the fashion to which he is accustomed: "A vigilant hand had, as usual, kept the fire alive and the lamp trimmed; and the room, with its rows and rows of books, its bronze and steel statuettes of 'the Fencers' on the mantelpiece and its many photographs of famous pictures, looked singularly homelike and welcoming" (43). This description of Newland's room, while perhaps revealing certain unfulfilled cultural aspirations in the photographs of famous paintings, also makes abundantly clear just how ensconced he is in the comforts of his way of life and how much he would have to lose by deciding to leave it. And it is increasingly questionable whether Newland is a hero of sufficient moral fiber to resist the seductions of comfort and predictability for romance and a wider vision of the world.

The symbolic dimensions of Ellen's house are also more understandable against the backdrop of the van der Luyden, Beaufort, and Mingott mansions. As one of the notable features of the great brownstones is a certain sacrifice of comfort to propriety, the apparent coziness and comfort of Ellen's small house not only reveal its owner's innocence of proprieties but compared with an aesthetic of carefully guarded privacy seem suspiciously and even suggestively intimate. Ellen's casually tasteful and artistic decor contrasts significantly with the self-conscious collection of artifacts that symbolizes Newland's acquired taste for the artistic and the European. Her "peeling stucco house," with its "giant wisteria throttling its feeble castiron balcony," dubiously situated "far down West Twenty-third Street," challenges Newland's insular notions of propriety and comfort at first sight and leads him to more of the sort of baffled assumptions about Ellen he has been making since her first appearance at the opera in an unfashionably plain dress:

It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dressmakers, bird-stuffers and 'people who wrote' were her nearest neighbors; and further down the disheveled street Archer recognized a dilapidated wooden house, at the end of a paved path, in which a writer and journalist called Winsett, whom he used to come


across now and then, had mentioned that he lived. Winsett did not invite people to his house; but he had once pointed it out to Archer in the course of a nocturnal stroll, and the latter had asked himself, with a little shiver, if the humanities were so meanly housed in other capitals.

Madame Olenska's own dwelling was redeemed from the same appearance only by a little more paint about the window frame; and as Archer mustered its modest front he said to himself that the Polish Count must have robbed her of her fortune as well as of her illusions. (68)

The discomfort suggested in Newland's passing ironic observation about the poverty to which the United States condemns its artists and writers is as yet the only sign of an incipient revolt at the provincialities of his crowd, which Ellen, in her unabashed Europeanness, will bring gradually to a climax of ambivalence. In that ambivalence Wharton embodies a generations-old American problem of patronage of the arts. The bitterness with which Melville and Hawthorne and others like them confronted the sad fact that a writer could not expect a living from the American public is here alluded to from the perspective of that public—vaguely appreciative, even reverent, but unwilling to recognize the economic and social realities that surround the creation and production of art and literature.

Newland's uncomfortable survey of Ellen's neighborhood betokens as well his difficulty in establishing in his own mind whether Ellen is "one of us" or "one of them." Hardly so crude as to present the question to himself in such bald terms, he rationalizes what he regards as the pitiable irony of her surroundings by assuming she would not live there if she did not have to—that her house is a measure of her victimization. And yet when he enters her "low firelit drawing room" he is forced to retract his pity and retreat into the bafflement to which Ellen has several times brought him; its charm and character are as unexpected as they are inexplicable—as unclassifiable as Ellen herself:

The atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before in drawing rooms hung with red damask,


with pictures 'of the Italian school'; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, 'foreign,' subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyze the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses. (71–72)

Newland immediately senses in the palpable difference of this exotic environment an implicit indictment of the stiff and unimaginative homes to which he is so thoroughly accustomed and the corresponding narrowness of sensibility in their inhabitants. His aesthetic sensibility is awakened by something dangerously sensual to his carefully schooled decorum. The artistry in Ellen's drawing room seems to have blossomed out of a combination of spareness, eclecticism, and indulgence of whim, all of which make the predictable abundance and restraint of homes like his own and the Wellands' seem suddenly drab.

Before Ellen even enters the room Newland is seduced by the atmosphere—the perfume, the roses, the draped damask—which seems so clearly a manifestation of the qualities in her that he likewise cannot quite name. He seems suddenly to remember something he never had and to long for it. It is a short progress from the moment of awakening he experiences on crossing her threshold to a sudden wistfulness when he contrasts this home to the one he will soon establish with May in a newly built house on Thirty-ninth Street decorated to conform to the latest architectural trends:

The house was built in a ghastly greenish-yellow stone that the younger architects were beginning to employ as a protest against the brownstone of which the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce; but the plumbing was perfect. . . . 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. He knew the drawing room above had a bay window, but he could not fancy how May would deal with it. She submitted cheerfully to the purple satin and yellow tuftings of the Welland drawing room, to its sham buhl tables and gilt vitrines full of modern Saxe. He saw no reason to suppose that she would want anything different in her own house; and his only comfort was to reflect that she would probably let him arrange his library as he pleased—which would be, of course, with 'sincere' Eastlake furniture, and the plain new bookcases without glass doors. (72–73)

Whatever distaste he has been suppressing at the ponderous and garish decorations characteristic of the familiar New York mansions suddenly reaches consciousness. As it does so, the image of May as distressingly and inextricably a part of that environment fails for the first time to awaken tenderness. Rather, it becomes the target of a barely acknowledged impatience he is to feel increasingly with the imprisoning stone edifices and the more imprisoning social and mental structures that make up his world.

When Ellen enters the room, therefore, unconsciously stepping into the magnetic field of Newland's ruminations, she has already become a symbol, a foil to May, a measure of all that May lacks. Even the way Ellen moves about in her room, the way she drapes her brightly clothed body like the damask on her wall, with the same easy artistry and careless beauty, heightens the polarities he is beginning to conceive. In contrast to May, who unconsciously assumes static and statuesque poses, usually standing, often hesitant, often on a threshold, Ellen moves easily about any room she enters, seats herself comfortably and informally, and seems to possess the space she occupies. Her frequent protestations of uncertainty about the "rules" are ironically belied by the worldly ease with which she inhabits her home, her clothes, and her expressive body. Ellen's body and May's in fact mirror the buildings they inhabit, and their clothing, like their interior decorating, is described and judged by its conformity to or departure from complicated standards of taste and propriety that seem to be at odds with the simple needs of flesh and spirit. This dichotomy, while posing a pregnant contrast between the two woman and all they represent, is not, how-


ever, as simple as it might appear. May's frequent appearance in white gowns, with bouquets of lilies of the valley and cuts of maidenly modesty and simplicity against Ellen's dark blue and red velvet robes, seductively revealing bosom and forearm, certainly presents a contrast so stark as to be almost comic in its archetypal extremity, as do the bodies of the two women—the tall, striking Diana-like blonde and the shorter, curly-headed, lively brunette. But the traditional counterpoint of "dark woman/light woman" is here subverted in numerous ways.

One of the most interesting phenomena of characterization in the novel is May. There is more to her than we may think at the outset, when descriptions of her extreme maidenly innocence and unimaginative conventionality tempt the reader to categorize and dismiss her as a mere cardboard figure placed in the scenery as a foil to Ellen's multidimensionality. In the second half of the novel we come to realize what surprising quarries of worldly wisdom underlie May's smooth surface and to understand her conventionality in less conventional terms. Having inspired us to virtually despise the great houses and their docile and superficial inhabitants, Wharton sets out to undermine that too-easy judgment by changing lenses on the scene. Her ironies are suddenly focused on those who too easily reject the elaborate protective structures that people like May represent and reflect with such schooled finesse. Newland's romantic rebellion suddenly shows up May's acquiescence to the demands of her social situation as a kind of maturity—the kind he eventually reaches when in old age he reflects that "after all, there was good in the old ways" (347).

Never entirely redeemed from the aspersions cast on them in the opening chapters, the grand old houses and the lives of the people in them nevertheless become more comprehensible as the novel proceeds to examine the limited alternatives. And so May as well, a character who utterly fulfills type, serves to remind us that typicality is not necessarily shallowness or absence of character. Her loyal maintenance of the conventions, the traditions, the rituals, the customs, seems a more conscious stance than is at first apparent, and her conservatism seems a keeping of the flame—a careful preservation of values that, even though ambiguous, are worth preserving. One of those values


is the careful distinction between private and public life that the houses enforce with their carefully distinct private and public spaces. May's extreme discretion, doubtless the less sympathetic to modern readers by the very public and confessional nature of American life now, is one of many qualities that becomes in the end comprehensible as a virtue, though, like all virtues in Wharton's moral scale, ambiguous and vulnerable to perversion.

Ellen's jarring candidness, a quality Newland comes to cherish in her, completes and complicates the contrast between the two women and the two ideological poles of the novel. Like all the personal qualities of the characters, the contrast is reiterated in both dress and decor. Whereas May lives in the houses and within the parameters provided for her, an art object that decorates the rooms she stands in, Ellen is clearly the designer and maker of her own environment; her idiosyncrasies and personal tastes, expressed in her house and her possessions, are as "readable" (and suspect) as the books on her drawing room table. Even though her opening deprecation of her own "funny little house" seems predictable enough, and draws from Newland a gracious, "You've arranged it delightfully," her next words give him "an electric shock": "Oh, it's a poor little place. My relations despise it. But at any rate it's less gloomy than the van der Luydens'." Newland is completely taken aback at her casual irreverence: "For few were the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy. Those privileged to enter it shivered there, and spoke of it as 'handsome.' But suddenly he was glad that she had given voice to the general shiver" (73, 74).

Ellen goes on to explain her bewilderment at the subtle distinctions and seemingly arbitrary prohibitions to which she has been subjected in her search for a place to live decently on her return to New York: "I've never been in a city where there seems to be such a feeling against living in des quartiers excentriques . What does it matter where one lives? I'm told this street is respectable" (73). Newland's reply that "it is not fashionable" is greeted with an outcry of baffled impatience that Newland eventually adopts and reiterates with the zeal of a convert: "Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make


one's own fashions?" (74). Here we witness the first step in a dance of awakening between Newland and Ellen—a long process of adaptation, compromise, and retreat on her part; of rebellion, compromise, and ironic acquiescence on his. In the course of the novel they undergo a complicated exchange of points of view as each respectively comes to question and qualify the point of view from which he or she started and comes to terms with the necessity of compromise. In these two characters Wharton demonstrates with unforgettable poignancy the double bind of civilized life: that we inevitably generate for our protection structures that eventually imprison us, that they become imprisoning precisely because we need them, and that altering those structures, stepping outside them, or moving from one set of social structures to another is a heroically difficult task.

And Ellen and Newland are not heroes. They are only individuals slightly more conscious than those around them and hence more ironically aware of the limitations of the protocols and values they are forced to accept. The almost adolescent romanticism of Newland's rebellious fancy of "finding a place" where he and Ellen might live outside the thick brownstone walls of New York society is perfectly balanced by Ellen's growing resignation to the costs of social acceptance and the protection it affords. Their capitulation, however, acquires stature in contrast to characters such as Newland's mother, who never questions the "givens" of fashion, custom, and social hierarchy. Wharton's comic irony is at its best in her narrator's sardonic descriptions of such insularity as Mrs. Archer's: "Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer's world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and 'people who wrote.' These scattered fragments of humanity had never shown any desire to be amalgamated with the social structure" (102). The disquieting "Bohemianness" of Ellen's life among these marginal types seems to result from two factors: poverty, which embarrasses her wealthy relatives, and the social eclecticism of her neighborhood, particularly the distressing evidence it offers that "art" and "literature" emanate from such dubious and unpedigreed sources.

The place of paintings and books in Wharton's houses is always significant. In the hands of the dutifully "cultivated" but


uncultured upper-class matrons and devoted but uncritical patrons of "the arts," books and paintings become, like all other objects, a part of the decor, designed to enhance a general impression of tastefulness without actually betokening real capacity to judge and discriminate. Books and artworks themselves may be subject to appropriation by the fashionable in a manner that Wharton patently regards as quasi-blasphemous, though their misuse may be due to a genteel ignorance that is perhaps the less culpable in those to whom the arts have always been presented as a means rather than an end.

One more sign of the difference of Ellen's house, therefore, is the unconventional selection and prominence of pictures and books, which are obviously to be enjoyed and read rather than to serve as totems or tokens. The narrator observes that Ellen has already discerned the family's suspicion of "literature" but that she nevertheless "had no fears of it, and the books scattered about her drawing room (a part of the house in which books were usually supposed to be 'out of place')" (104) were chiefly works of fiction. Both the presence and the nature of the books "whet Archer's interest" and touch him at a point of vulnerability because his own authentic intellectual and literary interests are something he pursues in isolation, finding very few among the "respectable" who share them.

In its broadest terms the contrast between Ellen's house and the Mingott and Welland mansions provides a scale by which to measure both the characters and the material setting of the novel in terms of "simplicity" or "complexity." Both words are qualified and complicated in the course of the book, and here Wharton betrays a pointed and poignant antiromanticism in endowing her most conscious characters with a longing for a kind of Thoreauvian simplicity and with the recognition that such simplicities are also forms of artifice and are ultimately impracticable. The tension between simplicity and complexity—even prolixity—is brought to a head in the abortive love scene between Ellen and Newland in the little "patroon house" on the van der Luyden estate at Skuytercliff. This little four-room retreat, reminiscent of Edna's pigeon house in The Awakening , contrasts dramatically with the great house to which it is


attached. That house the narrator describes with typical irony as a masterpiece of imitation and acquired taste:

People had always been told that the house at Skuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had never been to Italy believed it; so did some who had. . . . It was a large square wooden structure, with tongued and grooved walls painted pale green and white, a Corinthian portico, and fluted pilasters between the windows. From the high ground on which it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustrades and urns descended in the steel-engraving style to a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhung by rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, the famous weedless lawns studded with 'specimen' trees (each of a different variety) rolled away to long ranges of grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments; and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stone house which the first Patroon had built on the land granted him in 1612.

Against the uniform sheet of snow and grayish winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly; even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet from its awful front. (130–131)

Like the van der Luydens' icy Manhattan mansion, the estate partakes of the innocent pretensions time and tradition have rendered venerable and of the aloofness of its august and silent owners. The weather itself (in broadly romantic fashion) reiterates the manufactured environment.

The house on the hill clearly represents an ascent to power and prestige made visible by the enduring presence of the little patroon house in the hollow. Here again the central ironies of the book are reinforced as the ascent to civilized conditions and comforts is implicitly presented as a loss of something vital and essential. That loss is signified here in the little firelit house with its "squat walls and small square windows compactly grouped about a central chimney" (134) where Ellen and Newland have their unexpected tryst.

The patroon house is a place set apart from the complicated world of society and fashion, suitable for honeymoons and quiet weekends, quaintly rustic, a place to soothe the spirit fatigued by multiple worldly obligations. As Ellen enters it, she laments the oddly paradoxical exposure of a tenant in a mansion full of


servants and riddled with daily rituals: "One can't be alone for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing tea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper: Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one's self? You're so shy, and yet you're so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again—or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds" (133–134).

Newland, too, finds himself powerfully affected by the relieving simplicity of the little retreat. As he follows Ellen in, we are told, "his spirits . . . rose with an irrational leap." He looks around with sudden joy at the simple room purged of all but a few necessities: "The homely little house stood there, its panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically created to receive them. A big bed of embers still gleamed in the kitchen chimney, under an iron pot hung from an ancient crane. Rush-bottomed armchairs faced each other across the tiled hearth, and rows of Delft plates stood on shelves against the walls" (134).

The accoutrements of this room bespeak an older time and a simpler way of life. Like so many romantic heroes before him, Newland experiences a longing for something mythic, past, unrecapturable, and as he enters this anachronistic little structure he finds himself in a timeless moment that comes on him like a spell, sweeping away the complexities of his situation. But the simplicity of the patroon house is not of the "real" world. The freedom Newland and Ellen find in that tiny firelit room for "one brief shining moment" vanishes with the appearance of Julius Beaufort and can be remembered only as a tantalizing but illusory promise or reminder of something lost. With Beaufort's untimely appearance Wharton modulates back into comic irony: "The ostensible reason of his appearance was the discovery, the very night before, of a 'perfect little house,' not in the market, which was really just the thing for [Ellen], but would be snapped up instantly if she didn't take it" (136). The spell is broken and Beaufort's words serve only as a reminder that the "perfect little house" in which they came close to a moment of consequential truth is a mythic place uninhabitable by mortals in a world of competition and commercial real estate.


But the patroon house and the memory of Ellen and the childlike simplicities of that afternoon haunt Newland—and the reader—for the rest of the novel. They awaken him to a standard so unlike the standards he is schooled to that it seems to bear no relation to them and so presents him with a radical, if illusory, choice. The patroon house suggests a way of life infinitely seductive to a man burdened with increasing social obligations and yet aware enough to fear the loss of his soul in the immediacies of daily navigation through the complicated straits of family and social ritual. The house calls to the Thoreau in him and assumes an attractiveness not wholly a matter of taste but of a moral order. The little house stands in Newland's imagination as an indictment of the burgeoning complexities and ritualized deceptions of city life. Something old, romantic, and as deeply American in its iconoclasm as Huck Finn's rejection of "sivilization" is being suggested here. But Wharton is no Thoreau, and Newland is not Huck Finn. As surely as she evokes in her characters and perhaps in her readers a longing for the simplicities of the frontier cabin, she also insists on the impossibility of that return to romantic simplicity as a way of life. She distrusts the romantic idealism even as she seems so powerfully able to share it. It is a mark of Ellen's greater maturity that she accepts the conditions of life and rejects Newland's romantic fervor. She realizes that one cannot live apart from the world. One can escape from one world into another, but one cannot deny or reject the conditions imposed by a society that one cannot escape. One must return to the great house and open the cottage only for an occasional vacation. If these conditions are "unreal," so is the attempt to deny them.

On his return to New York after the deeply disturbing moment in the little house at Skuytercliff, Newland finds a shipment of books awaiting him. Unpacking it he comes on "a small volume of verse which he had ordered because the name had attracted him: The House of Life ." His passion deepens as he reads, far into the night, allowing himself once more to weave a fantasy around "the vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska," thereby prolonging the feelings of the previous day. But awakening the next morning he is brought back to the inescapable: he "looked out at the brownstone houses across


the street, and thought of his desk in Mr. Letterblair's office, and the family pew in Grace Church" (139–140), and the encounter at Skuytercliff recedes into dream. Shortly thereafter he abruptly departs for Florida to ask May to set forward the date of their marriage.

Ellen, to whom our attention is turned after these lyrical interludes, decides suddenly to take the family's advice and Beaufort's aid and prepares to abandon her "funny little house," which has been the subject of so much interfamilial controversy. Newland's last interview with her in the warm half-light of her drawing room begins as an ostensible business call and concludes with one of the most poignant love scenes in the modern novel, a moment in which Newland breaks through his lifelong habits of prudence and offers to throw over his carefully planned future for Ellen, only to encounter in her an unexpected retreat into ethical propriety. Her loyalty to the family and what it stands for has grown, over time, out of a need that she recognizes as born of defeat. His newfound disgust with the constrictions of social and familial responsibility turns him into a tragicomic Romeo swearing by the moon. Wharton dramatizes this moment of the two passing in their odysseys like two ships in the night as in the course of their stormy interview they exchange places on the hearth, first Newland, then Ellen, looking down at the other. Here, as always, spatial relationship tells the story symbolically. Never in this scene are the two so situated as to look one another levelly in the eye; one is always looking down at the other, in pity, in anger, in mute resignation.

The second half of the novel opens with an apparent resolution of these romantic quandaries. Much of it consists of a meticulously symmetrical restatement and variation of the themes raised in the first half but shifted into a new key. A new depth of irony is achieved in the first pages when after their lavish and eminently proper wedding in Grace Church May surprises Newland with the news that they are to honeymoon in the very cottage where his fall into the disillusionments of adulthood was so poignantly completed. May, pleased with her quaint surprise, which represents a last-minute solution to thwarted plans for grander lodging, enthuses, "Only fancy, I've never been inside it—have you? The van der Luydens show it to so few people.


But they opened it for Ellen, it seems, and she told me what a darling little place it was: she says it's the only house she's seen in America that she could imagine being perfectly happy in" (190). With this innocent report we are made aware of the secret irony that is to color the rest of Newland's life: the haunting of the unmade choice, the burden of the untold secret desire, the more painful because unrequited, the regret of a joy voluntarily foregone. And the little house remains in his imagination as a symbol of these simple joys, a measure of the increasing complexities of his domestic existence.

Typically, however, Wharton does not allow Newland the luxury of tragic heroism: the life he has chosen has its pleasures and its many comforts, and we are made to wonder if, after all, Newland's renunciation was not in some measure simply a characteristic choice against a life whose hardships and anomalies he could not have tolerated. Indeed, we are provided with a few scenes of domestic tranquillity so pleasant as to belie the tragic dimensions of the renunciations that preceded this settling:

In New York, during the previous winter, after he and May had settled down in the new greenish-yellow house with the bow-window and the Pompeian vestibule, he had dropped back with relief into the old routine of the office, and the renewal of this daily activity had served as a link with his former self. Then there had been the pleasurable excitement of choosing a showy gray stepper for May's brougham . . . and the abiding occupation and interest of arranging his new library, which, in spite of family doubts and disapprovals, had been carried out as he had dreamed, with a dark embossed paper, Eastlake bookcases and 'sincere' armchairs and tables. (205)

So Newland's rebellion is reduced to an unpopular choice of unfashionable furnishings, as the harness of domestic life begins to settle on his shoulders. He begins once again to assume the habits proper to his class and to emulate the in-laws he once so high-mindedly despised. The seductions of comfort become, in fact, a prominent theme in this second half of the story. Newland's moment of illumination begins to fade with the pressure of habit, which he vaguely realizes one day on entering the now familiar Welland house:

There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute


observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and effortless existence seem unreal and precarious. (217)

Only Ellen's reappearance disrupts this process of slow settling. The mere knowledge that Ellen is visiting her grandmother takes him out to the Mingott summer estate, as odd and idiosyncratic as the cream-colored mansion above Fortieth Street.

Wharton's description of this peculiar summer house, the scene of yet another abortive attempt on Newland's part to make connection with Ellen, waxes ironic in its abundance of detail, the effect of which is to portray the house as an architectural hodgepodge, albeit a fairly faithful depiction of certain decorating fads of the period:

In this unfashionable region Catherine the Great, always indifferent to precedent and thrifty of purse, had built herself in her youth a many-peaked and cross-beamed cottage orne on a bit of cheap land overlooking the bay. Here, in a thicket of stunted oaks, her verandahs spread themselves above the island-dotted waters. A winding drive led up between iron stags and blue glass balls embedded in mounds of geraniums to a front door of highly-varnished walnut under a striped verandah-roof; and behind it ran a narrow hall with a black and yellow star-patterned parquet floor, upon which opened four small square rooms with heavy flock-papers under ceilings on which an Italian house-painter had lavished all the divinities of Olympus. One of these rooms had been turned into a bedroom by Mrs. Mingott when the burden of flesh descended on her, and in the adjoining one she spent her days, enthroned in a large armchair between the open door and window, and perpetually waving a palm-leaf fan which the prodigious projection of her bosom kept so far from the rest of her person that the air it set in motion stirred only the fringe of the antimacassars on the chairarms. (212)

The emphasis here on thrift, tasteless eclecticism, and disharmonious lavishness, along with the almost slapstick reminder of


the matriarch's obesity, displays a tendency echoed throughout the characterizations in the second half of the novel: each character is painted in slightly darker colors; the humor is heavier, and the depictions of architecture, like those of characters, tend toward caricature. Book Two is very much about the consequences and costs of the choices that were made and portrayed in a lighter vein in Book One. The narrator's editorials acquire an unmistakably bitter edge.

Newland makes one more attempt to escape the structures of life that enclose him when he travels to Boston to seek Ellen out where she is staying in the Parker House hotel. They meet in a park and spend an afternoon on a boat, condemned to outdoor and semipublic spaces, literally unable to find shelter for their touchingly proper rendezvous. Thereafter, when Newland meets Ellen, it is most often in marginal or outdoor spaces. Just as he no longer has any hope of escaping the rectilinear maze in which his fate will play itself out, so she has admitted the impossibility of finding a niche in a structure whose partitions and boundaries simply will not accommodate her sense of the shape of things. They meet in a hotel lobby, in a brougham, on a ferry, always looking at one another across an unbridgeable chasm of difference, literally unable to find a place to live out the reality of their acknowledged relation of the heart.

There is no place for them in this world. That fact lies at the heart of Wharton's irony. This new world with its vast wilderness has succumbed to civilization, but tragically with less time, less understanding, and far less grace than Europe, where human contradictions are absorbed and accommodated without the burden of moral justification added to every stone the builders lay. There the aesthetic and the moral orders seem capable of separation.

So Newland returns to his club and his library, retreating increasingly from the exigencies of domestic life to those two male bastions. Once when May spends an evening in his library, he is overcome with nameless restlessness and opens a window explaining, "The room is stifling: I want a little air." As he moves toward the window, the narrator provides this commentary:

He had insisted that the library curtains should draw backward and forward on a rod, so that they might be closed in the evening,


instead of remaining nailed to a gilt cornice and immovably looped up over layers of lace, as in the drawing room; and he pulled them back and pushed up the sash, leaning out into the icy night. The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses, roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and made it easier to breathe. (295)

May objects as he opens the window that he will "catch his death," to which Newland inwardly responds, "I am dead—I've been dead for months and months." The claustrophobia in this passage is palpable. It is, furthermore, an interesting variation on a theme of entrapment feminist critics have recognized as recurrent and dominant in women's stories of domestic life, here assigned to a male character. It would be hard to accuse Wharton, however, of partiality to the plight of one sex over the other, as some have tried to do. Her complaint is always with structures and systems, institutions and customs—products of human desire and human politics, entrapping all in them, even those who most assiduously work for their preservation. Moreover, that entrapment is only the dark side of something so indisputably necessary that simple rebellion against it seems just as misguided as enslavement to it.

Newland's solution is one many a female character has taken: retreat to the interior. He carves out an imaginary space within the privacy of his own mind to which he retreats when the pressures of quotidian life become too great, and there he keeps Ellen, now returned to Europe, as ever-available mistress to his fantasies:

He had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes bumping into the furniture of his own room. (262)


Finally, the structures of the social order seem to demand of the conscious and the sensitive this schism between inner and outer life. The delicate balance Newland manages to preserve until and beyond May's death is in the end a measure either of his heroism or of his capitulation. It is up to the reader to determine which. Certainly the final scene gives no help in passing judgment on Newland's compromises. When Newland finally arrives in Paris with his son, marriage and career behind him, May a memory and a picture in a frame enshrined on his desk, and finds his way to the building where Ellen's apartment is marked by an inconspicuous green awning, he faces another choice, not so radical as before but deeply reminiscent of that original choice when he found himself at a moral crossroads. He gazes up at the "modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-colored front" (359). Apparently Ellen, too, has made her compromises. The disproportion between the color and vitality of the character we remember and the bland facade that Newland gazes at so fixedly is a final ironic addition to the catalog of significant structures commensurate with the characters within them. In a single description of a building Wharton takes her parting shot at the diminishments of modern life.

Newland remains seated before this unremarkable building in inscrutable contemplation until a servant comes and closes the shutters. "At that," the narrator reports, "as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel" (361). At the moment of long-awaited opportunity, Newland finds that he cannot "enter Ellen's space" any more than years before she could find a place in his. His location in the world has been defined by his place in a vast and complicated structure. Outside of that he has no real identify or purpose. He might have found one once, but that choice is not available indefinitely. We are, Wharton seems to suggest, increasingly dependent on the environments we create around ourselves, so that finally they form us, and what we are becomes inseparably a function of where and how we live.




6— The Age of Innocence: Tribal Rites in the Urban Village

Preferred Citation: Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.