The Age of Innocence


Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence: Allusions 5 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Faust:

The opening line of The Age of Innocence sets the scene by describing how Faust was being performed at the Academy of Music in New York in the early 1870s. This is an allusion to the 1859 opera written by Charles Gounod based on the German legend about an unhappy man (Faust) who sacrifices his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and pleasure. The opera added some twists and turns, including Faust seducing an “innocent” young woman named Marguerite who eventually kills their love-child and dies after Faust abandons her.

This allusion both establishes that Wharton did her research about New York in the 1870s—adding to the realism of the story—and foreshadows the drama in the story to come. Like Faust, Archer convinces a woman known for her purity (May) to be with him and then (emotionally) abandons her for a time, leaving her distraught.

Archer and May even go back to the opera near the end of the novel and see Faust again, almost as if Archer is being warned not to make the same mistake that Faust made in abandoning his lover (and the mother of his child) to die. Archer ultimately does make a different choice than Faust in deciding to stay with May. Though he never fully lets go of his feelings for and fantasies about Ellen, he chooses to prioritize his marriage and the rules of his society.

Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—May the Cave-Fish:

Once Archer and May are engaged, Archer gets to know her better and becomes increasingly frustrated with her innocence and lack of knowledge about the world. During a moment of inner reflection, he uses a pair of metaphors to capture her ignorance:

It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?

The first metaphor Archer uses here—describing May’s innocence as a bandage over her eyes—demonstrates how he views her lack of worldly experience to be akin to literal “blindness.” It is notable that he doesn’t blame May for this ignorance, but sees “the generations of women who had gone to her making” who were similarly “bandaged.” In other words, he’s arguing, May is merely continuing the legacy of female ignorance passed down to her by her family.

Archer then shifts the metaphor somewhat, comparing May to “the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them.” Unlike blindness due to a removable bandage, these cave-fish are—and will always be—blind, as it is part of their very being. This metaphor frightens Archer as it means it’s possible that he and May might never be able to be true partners in their relationship.

As Archer states, he learned about the Kentucky cave-fish from “new ideas in his scientific books.” This is an allusion to the writings of Charles Darwin, an evolutionary scientist who referenced the cave-fish in his writings on natural selection.

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Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Poe and Verne:

When Archer, Ellen, and Beaufort are spending time together at Skuytercliff, they discuss the developing technologies of their time, alluding to science fiction authors in the process:

Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other from street to street, or even—incredible dream!—from one town to another. This struck from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne, and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the most intelligent when they are talking against time, and dealing with a new invention in which it would seem ingenuous to believe too soon.

The idea of a telephone that allows people to talk “from one town to another” leads the trio to bring up “allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne.” Though best known for his macabre poems and Gothic horror fiction, Edgar Allen Poe also wrote science fiction that responded to the new technologies of his time. Jules Verne—a renowned science fiction author who penned such novels as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—was actually deeply influenced by Poe, and even wrote a sequel to one of Poe's science fiction novels.

The fact that Archer and Ellen can discuss the development of the telephone along with referencing science fiction authors indicates that both of them are well-read and intellectually curious. This is one of the reasons that Archer is drawn to Ellen—unlike May (and most eligible women in his New York society), she has life experience and interest in the arts and has not been trained to act innocent or naive.

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Explanation and Analysis—The House of Life:

After Beaufort thwarts Archer’s plans for alone time with Ellen at Skuytercliff, Archer heads home to New York and reflects bitterly on the lost opportunity. While doing so, he opens a box of books he received in the mail, including The House of Life, an allusion to a book of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Suddenly, among them, he lit on a small volume of verse which he had ordered because the name had attracted him: “The House of Life.” He took it up, and found himself plunged in an atmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books; so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender, that it gave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary of human passions. All through the night he pursued through those enchanted pages the vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a 19th century English poet and artist whose work was highly lyrical and emotional. The House of Life is widely regarded as his most important literary work and contained passionate and sensual poems related to romantic love. The fact that Archer “pursue[s] through those enchanted pages the vision of a woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska” shows how quickly and intensely he is falling in love with Ellen. Though the rules of society dictate that he make the “safe” choice and marry someone like May, his deep desire is clearly to marry a more engaging and experienced woman like Ellen.

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Chapter 21
Explanation and Analysis—The Goddess Diana:

At several points in the novel, May is compared to “Diana,” an allusion to the Roman goddess associated with both virginity and fertility. This reference highlights May’s virginal innocence as well as the fact that she will ultimately be the mother of Archer’s children. 

Diana is also associated with hunting, and this quality comes across in May's character as well. Not only is she skilled at archery, but, on the night she and Archer become engaged, the narrator describes how she “looked like a Diana just alight from the chase.” Later in the story, when May and Archer are married and spending the summer in Newport, the narrator references this moment, comparing her to Diana once again:

In her white dress, with a pale green ribbon about the waist and a wreath of ivy on her hat, she had the same Diana-like aloofness as when she had entered the Beaufort ball-room on the night of her engagement.

That May is associated with Diana’s “aloofness” and hunting spirit somewhat contradicts her supposedly innocent nature. Like Diana, May has layers to her that Archer does not see at first, as he judges her to be overly sheltered and ignorant. As he comes to learn, she is not just innocent but is highly perceptive—she knew about the affair he had with the married Mrs. Rushworth before they started their relationship and is also aware of the emotional affair he has with Ellen after they get married, much to Archer's shock.

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