In this book, flowers are used to represent the opposition between innocence and experience. May is always carrying white flowers, usually lilies-of-the-valley. In fact, Archer sends her a bouquet of these flowers every day of their engagement. White is traditionally symbolic of purity and virginity, and the lilies-of-the-valley act as a reminder of May’s state of innocence about sexual and worldly matters. The association between lilies-of-the-valley and May is strengthened by the flower’s scientific name, maialis, which translates to “of or belonging to May.” However, lilies-of-the-valley are also highly poisonous, which implies that May’s innocence, though beautiful in the eyes of society, can ultimately be more harmful than beneficial. Ellen Olenska, on the other hand, is associated with the yellow roses that Archer sends her. Though he considers sending them to May, he thinks their color is too strong for her, suggesting that they fit better with Ellen’s boldness and experience of the world. May and Ellen act as contrasting characters throughout the book, and their differences are symbolized by the flowers Archer gives each of them.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Flowers appears in The Age of Innocence. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...May are standing by the ballroom door. Couples are dancing beyond them. May is holding lilies-of-the-valley and standing with a group of young people, to whom she is revealing her engagement.... (full context)
...out of place. Beaufort is leaning on the mantelpiece, and a table is filled with flowers that he’s brought. It’s customary for ladies to wear simple dinner dresses in the evenings,... (full context)
...Ellen quietly asks whether Archer thinks that the play character will send his lover yellow roses. Archer blushes. He has anonymously sent Ellen roses each time he has visited her, but... (full context)
...shimmering dress and looking like she’s ready for a ball. Medora Manson points out the flowers. Ellen grows suddenly angry, saying the bouquet is ridiculous. She calls Nastasia and tells her... (full context)
...other wedding traditions, with resignation. He has done everything right, sending bouquets of lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley to the bridesmaids and cufflinks to the ushers. He’s packed to leave after the wedding,... (full context)