Marriage is the central institution of New York society. It is considered to be a commercial and social bond that ensures the continuation of prominent families and their fortunes, rather than a personal arrangement that can realistically bring happiness and fulfillment to a couple. Wharton’s depiction of marriage as a flawed institution that can cause misery and ruin lives is tragic in light of how much power the institution of marriage has over the lives of New Yorkers.
New Yorkers pride themselves on not having arranged marriages, as some Europeans do. However, in a society uniquely fixated on social status and making advantageous connections, the notion that a New Yorker can freely choose his or her spouse is not strictly true, as New Yorkers must choose based on an onerous list of qualifications, such as class and family reputation. Marriage is culturally almost required, and once married, couples must maintain the appearance of matrimonial harmony no matter what unhappiness or extramarital affairs may ensue. In society’s eyes, it’s more important to uphold the image of traditional marriage than to find realistic solutions for the many problems inherent to marriage.
Just as New York society is built around the institution of marriage, Wharton structures her novel around marriage. The story opens as Archer and May become engaged, and it moves through their wedding and subsequent experiences as husband and wife. At the beginning of the book, Archer idealizes marriage, believing himself to be thoroughly in love with his fiancée and imagining their future domestic bliss, with Archer acting as May’s protector and she as his supporter. However, he quickly begins to realize that the rules of society have set him and May up for failure; since unmarried women are expected to be innocent of all worldly knowledge, May lacks the experience, flexibility, and freedom of judgment that are necessary to a successful partnership in marriage.
Ellen Olenska has a very different story of marriage to tell, one that emphasizes its prison-like quality. She wed a Polish nobleman who has ill-treated her in ways never fully described (and perhaps more terrifying for their vagueness). She has escaped her husband with the help of his secretary, with whom she’s rumored to have had an affair. Clearly, marriage has failed her, but in the eyes of society, she has also failed the institution of marriage by fleeing. Ellen flouts convention first by leaving her husband, but even further by considering divorcing him. While divorce may be legal and possible, it’s certainly not acceptable to New York society, in part because it signals such an utter failure of the institution upon which everyone is expected to structure their lives. With divorce spelling social scandal, marriage truly becomes a trap from which there is no full escape short of death. In one chilling scene, Archer does consider the freedom that his wife’s death would give him.
Thus Wharton presents marriage as a destructive institution premised on a lie. Because marriage is culturally mandatory, those within its grip are often forced to commit immoral acts of betrayal in order to fulfill their desires. Characters such as Lawrence Lefferts and Julius Beaufort have frequent affairs that their wives either don’t know about or pretend not to know about, and because such affairs are so common, they are more or less accepted, as long as they don’t become obvious enough to create a scandal. Though Archer doesn’t approve of these affairs, he eventually finds himself engaging in one. He feels, as everyone does, that his case is different and somehow more excusable. The fact that so many characters resort to affairs proves that their marriages were unfulfilling. In turn, the affairs further disintegrate the marriages, as the men lie to their wives and the women feign ignorance of their husbands’ disloyalty.
Even though Archer’s marriage may be said, from an outsider’s perspective, to be successful (he and May remain together, they have children, and Archer’s affair with Ellen is never consummated), Archer’s perspective shows that his marriage endures out of convenience and a respect for convention, rather than out of love. The marriage also endures because May, not as innocent as she seems, lies to Ellen to make her end her relationship with Archer; May says that she’s pregnant before she knows for sure whether she is. Thus, the continuation of her marriage is based on deceit. In fact, Archer never feels entirely satisfied with his marriage, and he is stuck with the dull, uninspiring sameness of a life that he has dreaded throughout the book. Marriage itself fails the characters by trapping them in its confines for the duration of their lives, with no acceptable route by which to find happiness.
The Failure of Marriage ThemeTracker
The Failure of Marriage Quotes in The Age of Innocence
“Living together? Well, why not? Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”
He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.
What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a “decent” fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?... He reviewed his friends’ marriages... and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent, it was full of the twists and turns and defenses of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of a factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.
The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at the dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared with hers. It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.
“Sincerely, then—what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility—the certainty—of a lot of beastly talk?”
“But my freedom—is that nothing?”
... “But aren’t you free as air as it is?” he returned. “Who can touch you? Mr. Letterblair tells me the financial question has been settled—”
“Oh, yes,” she said indifferently.
“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers—their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust—but one can’t make over society.”
Traces still lingered on [her features] of fresh beauty like her daughter’s; and he asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—an unfairness—to somebody else.... What sort of life could we build on such foundations?... I’ve wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which might make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged... pledged to the person we’ve spoken of... and if there is any way... any way in which you can fulfill your pledge... even by her getting a divorce... Newland, don’t give her up because of me!
She tore it open and carried it to the lamp; then, when the door had closed again, she handed the telegram to Archer.
It was dated from St. Augustine, and addressed to the Countess Olenska. In it he read: “Granny’s telegram successful. Papa and Mamma agree marriage after Easter. Am telegraphing Newland. Am too happy for words and love you dearly. Your grateful May.”
His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.... It had seemed so exactly the place in which he ought to have found Madame Olenska; and she was far away, and even the pink sunshade was not hers...
“Is it a bad business—for May?”
He stood in the window... feeling in every fiber the wistful tenderness with which she had spoken her cousin’s name.
“For that’s the thing we’ve always got to think of—haven’t we—by your own showing?” she insisted.... “[I]f it’s not worth while to have given up, to have missed things, so that others may be saved from disillusionment and misery—then everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by contrast so bare and so poor because no one there took account of them—all these things are a sham or a dream—”
As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.... Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.
“Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding: “But I’ve caught it already. I am dead—I’ve been dead for months and months.”
And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild suggestion. What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! ...He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.
“Poor May!” he said.
“Poor? Why poor?” she echoed with a strained laugh.
“Because I shall never be able to open a window without worrying you,” he rejoined, laughing also.
For a moment she was silent; then she said very low, her head bowed over her work: “I shall never worry if you’re happy.”
“Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy unless I can open the windows!”
And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers.... He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything....
It was the old New York way, of taking life “without effusion of blood”; the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“Only Mamma and your mother.” She paused, and then added hurriedly, the blood flushing up to her forehead: “That is—and Ellen. You know I told you we’d had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”
“Ah—” said Archer, his heart stopping.... “But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”
Her color burned deeper, but she held his gaze. “No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right!” she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.
“She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”
Archer received this strange communication in silence.... At length he said in a low voice: “She never asked me.”
“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.
He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.