Edith Wharton depicts in her novel the 19 th century life of the New York elite through the eyes of Newland Archer. The society is seen as suffocating its members by strict rules on behaviour and only the arrival of Countess Ellen Olen ska begins to open Archer s eyes to the narrow-mindedness of the society and its estrangement from reality. There are many references to suffocation and death in the novel. Most striking is the scene where, after their marriage, Archer and May are spending the evening reading in the drawing room when Archer, suddenly feeling the need to open a window, says The room is stifling: I want a little air. When May warns him that he will catch his death Archer must suppress his reply: But I’ve caught it already. I am dead – I’ve been dead for months and months” (p.
Also the social leader of New York is described as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death (p. 50); and a women s summer archery contest becomes to Archer a picture of children playing in a graveyard (p. 208).
Even in the wedding scene the appearance of the sexton, a church officer whose duties also includes grave digging, can be seen as reflection of Archer s despair over the marriage and his future being bound by the rules of society he no longer values (p.
Ellen is the only character that is strong enough to escape the death that the New York society has sentenced its members to. At the end of the novel, after May’s death, Archer goes to Ellen’s Paris apartment. The apartment is many-windowed, and pleasantly balconies (p. 363) and it seems as though the sun has just left it. The expulsion of Ellen from the suffocation of New York released her into the light and openness of a new life.
... her problems are his. Newland Archer, without caring about the society, takes the lead and helps Ellen Olenska to see what is unclear ... grandmother, Mrs. Min gott. When she came to New York, Newland Archer was the only one who was there for her and ... to his lonely, incomplete and unsatisfying life. Newland Archer was the only one in New York who truly understood Countess Olenska and her ...
Archer, on the other hand feels that he is a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being… (p. 357).
However Archer becomes conscious on the journey to meet Ellen that his life has probably been better living within the constraints of the New York society, because he is in nature a dilettante. Archer would have preferred to have been like Ellen, but he sees that Ellen s life which had been spent in…
rich atmosphere was too dense and yet too stimulating for his lungs (p. 362) and he both honoured his own past, and mourned for it (p. 350).
Notes All references are to the Penguin Popular Classics edition of the novel (Harmondsworth, 1996).