The problem of cultural transformation and individual integrity ın Edith Wharton’s novels

Thesis (M.A.), 2006

85 Pages, Grade: G

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Edith Wharton’ın romanları temelde 1870ler ile 1920ler arasındaki dönemi ele almaktadır. Bu dönem içerisinde Birleşik Devletler benzersiz değişiklikler geçirdi ve bir ziraat toplumundan bir sanayi toplumuna dönüştü. Şehirleşme, makineleşme, fabrika sistemi ve yeni araç gereçler birbirininin gelişimine katkıda bulundu. Nüfusun kentlere akını şehirlerin eski kökleşmiş ailelerinin saltanatını sona erdirdi. “Edith Wharton’ın Romanlarında Kültürel Dönüşüm ve Bireysel Ahlak Sorunu” başlıklı bu tez bu dönüşümü incelemektedir.

The Age of Innocence ve The Custom of the Country romanları bu dönüşümün iki farklı evresini vermekte, bu tez de, sözkonusu değişimi inceleyip eski sistemin yeni sistem karşısındaki kaçınılmaz çözülüşünü saptamaya çalışmaktadır. İlgili dönemde ortaya çıkan sosyo-ekonomik değişimleri gözden geçirip dönüşümün bu iki romandaki sınıfların tutumları ve ana karakterlerin etik bakış açılarındaki yansımalarını inceledikten sonra, bu tez, gerek dönemlerinin geçmiş gerekse yeni gelenlerin tutkularının kendilerininkinden çok daha güçlü olması yüzünden eski sistemin ve eski değerlerin çözülüşünün kaçınılmaz olduğu yargısına varmaktadır.


Edith Wharton’s novels are mainly set between the 1870s and the 1920s. During the period the States experienced unequalled changes and transformed from an agrarian to an industrial nation. Urbanization, mechanisation, and new facilities promoted each other. The influx into cities ended the sovereignty of the established old families. This thesis titled as “The Problem of Cultural Transformation and Individual Integrity in Edith Wharton’s novels” examines that transformation.

The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country portray two different phases of the transformation and this thesis investigates the change and detect the inevitable disintegration of the old system in the face of the new one. After observing the socio-economic changes occured during the period, and searching the reflections of the transformation in the attitudes of social classes and moral perspectives of the protagonists of the two novels, the thesis arrives at the conclusion that the breakdown of the old system and old values were inevitable both because their day was over and because the ambitions of the parvenus were far more stronger than theirs.


Although the beginning of the modern times dates back to the French Revolution, remnants of the mediavel age were still lingering in the United States in the Gilded Age. In the Gilded Age, which covers the period between the 1870s and the 1900s, a new way of life imposed itself. The new system which was based on consumerism and capitalism and was nourished by technological innovations based on mechanization brought about the new man and the new woman who posed a threat to the established order of the urban areas and to the sovereignty of the old families resident there.

Edith Wharton’s novels are mainly set in the old New York of the last three decades of the nineteenth century, when the United States were transforming under the impact of industrialism. In Edith Wharton’s novels, we have the representatives of the old tradition who are the direct decendants of the first settlers of America and the parvenues who have come to New York with an immense wealth or to acquire such a wealth. Both the old New Yorkers and the newcomers are stuck to their sets of values. However, the protagonists of Edith Wharton’s novels cannot be called as either the members of the old rejime or the new one properly. They are torn between the two systems. They are as if intermediaries between the two kinds of people, between the two systems, between agriculture and industrialism, between the medieval age and the modern times, between the chivalric values and the capitalistic ones.

Edith Wharton’s works are subject to much controversy. Nearly no two critics say the same things about them. According to some critics, Mrs Wharton is a sentimentalist; some critics say that she is a naturalist, some others say that she is a realist. One critic calls her a modernist, others assert that she is an adversary of modernism. Their conclusions also differ nearly on all issues regarding her works. However, the diversity between their ideas regarding Edith Wharton’s works and themes seem to be partly the result of the apparent contradictions between Edith Wharton’s works of fiction and her nonfictional works. She regrets openly that the old tradition was destroyed by the new one in her works of nonfiction; yet, in her works of fiction, she portrays the old system and the old conventions as hypocritical.

This thesis, titled as The Problem of Cultural Transformation and Individual Integrity in Edith Wharton’s Novels, tries to give the mechanism of the unprecedented transformation in question through the changes in social groupings and the moral attitudes of the characters in Edith Wharton’s fictional works with the help of the insights furnished by certain critics of the author. The central characters seem to be the only true sufferers of the transformation because they are aware of the inconsistencies in the systems of values that they stick to.

They are the only characters who can be called to have authentic moral considerations and moral problems. This thesis tries to examine their dilemmas and arrive at a conclusion about their moral situation.

In concluding this preface, I feel a need to express that I am very much indepted to my supervisor Prof. Dr. Ayşe Erbora for her kind and wise guidance; her sympathetic attitude and patience were very helpful in completion of this thesis. I also thank my wife who tolerated the long hours I spent on this thesis in return for a mere expression of gratitute.


Edith Newbolt Wharton (1862-1937) lived in an age of unparallelled changes in human history. Technological innovations in the second half of the nineteenth century gave way to the agricultural and industrial revolutions in the United States. It was also a period when cities in the States began to rise and drew immigrants from Europe as well as the American frontiers. The new settlers disturbed the existing social groupings and the unwritten social rules. The resulting conflict between the aristocracies of the old families and of the newcomers was one of the facets of the transformation of the United States from an agrarian to an industrial nation.

The literature of the period was very much influenced by science and the governing philosophy of the day, namely, social Darwinism which was based on the assumption that the evolution of society would lead it to perfection and in order to achieve that ideal ultimate state individuals should be left to pursue their own interests and prove to be among the fittest to survive. Contrary to the authoritarian type of society which subordinated individual to the community, the industrial society which was based on competition among individuals supported the individual against the society and let the society evolve.

Although Edith Wharton was responsive to the literary trends of her time, it seems difficult to analyse Edith Wharton’s works in terms of literary tendencies of her day since her works defy any categorisation in terms of literary movements and her critics have not been able to classify them definitely, though it can be safely said that, technically speaking, she was a realist writer.

Edith Wharton scholars and her critics arrive at quite different conclusions regarding her literary and moral stance. This is partly because of her ironic rendering of her themes in her works and partly because of her seemingly contradictary dealings with moral matters. She seems to criticize the conventional old New York and old New Yorkers for the constrictions that they impose on individuals; however, she laments after that world of her girlhood in A Backward Glance, her autobiography. She seems to consider morality as something to be judged according to the current social realities and circumstances; however, she talks of “[t]he moral and intellectual destruction caused by the war, and by its far-reaching consequences” in her article titled as “Tendencies in Modern Fiction” and published in The Saturday Review Treasury (Haverstick, 1957: 39) and says that “[a] good subject, then, must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our moral experience” in The Writing of Fiction (1925: 28).

Perhaps the divergence between the conclusions of Edith Wharton’s critics partly stems from the fact that the world underwent so radical a change during her career that it was hardly recognizable at the end of the period in question. During her career of forty odd years “a revolution in morals, manners, and social philosophy changed the face of American life until it was scarcely recognizable,” and “[t]oo liberal for the Victorians, she was overly moralistic for twentieth-century naturalism” (Lyde, xiv, xv). Most of her critics deal with Edith Wharton either as a writer of revolt or an old-fashioned upper class lady who is stuck to the morality of Puritanism. However, her regret about the loss of the old New York and its conventions was quite probably, as Marilyn Jones Lyde puts it, “a purely personal thing” (Lyde, 13). She seems to consider the transformation inevitable and, in spite of her regret based on nostalgic reasons, accepts it realistically.

Edith Wharton mainly wrote about the late nineteenth and early twentieth upper social classes of New York. Her novels depict the effects of the increasing consumerism and the replacement of the old values by the new ones which are based on capitalism and social Darwinism. Her heroes and heroines suffer because of their being torn between the older values and the new ones. Their suffering essentially results not from the pressure of the society but from their inability to make final decisions about whether to conform to the settled rules of their social set which is itself about to dissolve completely.

It seems to be appropriate for a study on Edith Wharton’s works to try to give the socio-economic panorama and lay bare the governing philosophy of the period as they promise to explain the underlying factors of the social changes. Therefore, after a brief biography of Edith Wharton, a general knowledge about the American industrial revolution and technological innovations of the period has been given in the first chapter. The period in question was a period of industrialisation in which mechanisation exerted irreversible influence on society. The effects of mechanisation on society were accumulative and irresistable since they made life easier for people. For instance, “the use of steam power in driving industrial machines made possible the development of mass-production techniques which in turn made for the death of many old skills and the development of many new ones” (Washburne, 1954: 14) besides other things and helped the established order of the urban centers dissolve by driving many unemployed people to those centers. The chapter also includes some information about social Darwinism without which the basis of the socio-economic changes cannot be conceived clearly. After examining the socio-economic changes and life-style differences occured during the period, the first chapter ends with a subchapter which deals with the reflections of Edith Wharton’s age in her novels.

In the second chapter, the struggle for supremacy between the old and the new values is traced through The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country. The novels are chosen because they are thought to be among Edith Wharton’s best works and they give the pictures of the existing upper social classes in different phases of the United States’ transformation from an agrarian to an industrial nation. The Age of Innocence, which earned Edith Wharton the Pulitzer prize for literature, and The Custom of the Country are indisputably among the best of her works. In addition, while the former novel is set in New York of the 1870s when “[e]stablished patrician society, the world of the old Four Hundred, is already being displaced by the robber-baron wealth of the Gilded Age” (Bradbury, 1994: 44), the latter novel is set in the 1910s, when the undermining of the older wealth by the new rich is completed. The Age of Innocence is set in the 1870s when status groupings in New York are to a large extent similar to the ones three centuries before. The old New Yorkers of the 1870s carry on a codified existence devoid of vitality and based on a seemingly unchangeable dull routine. However, the citadel of the guardians of the old values is already under siege by the Invaders and it is apparent that the aristocratic order of the old New York is doomed to disappear. And in The Custom of the Country, which is set in the 1910s, we see that the invaders have taken control of the city and the members of the old families have turned to be marginals under the prevailing rules of social Darwinism. The chapter tries to relate the characteristics of both the members of the old and the new values besides the dilemma of the transitional characters who constitute the heroes and heroines in Edith Wharton’s novels. It ends with a comparison between the transitional characters and the new generation of the 1910s, between the New york of the 1870s and the New York of the 1910s.

The third chapter is concerned with the inevitable disintegration of the old tradition and its values in the face of the new ones. The collapse of the old system is scrutinized with references to the socio-economic changes which form the basis of the transformation and their reflections in The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country. The chapter tries to analyse and contrast the leading characters of the New York of the 1870s and the 1910s in terms of their attitudes towards the changes they observe around them and to give the reasons for the dissolution of the old order. The old families seem to have no chance against the “rapacious acquisitiveness of the nouveau riche, for whom exchange is the only value” (Singley, 2003). And in the “Conclusion” is given the findings arrived at while studying the primary and secondary sources listed in “The Works Cited.”



Edith Wharton was born on 24 January 1862 as Edith Newbold Jones in New York as the daughter of Lucretia Rhinelander Jones and George Frederic Jones, both of whom were wealthy and of aristocratic origins. “Her wealthy parents, who were members of fashionable New York society, often sailed to Europe. Consequently, Wharton experienced Europe and its varied cultures when she was very young” (Applegate, 2002: 391). The family left for Europe in 1866 when Edith was 4 years old, and lived there for six years because the family had financial problems and the cost of living in Europe was much lower than it was in America. “Wharton loved the culture, art, and architecture of Europe, and she felt like an exile upon her return to America” (Caudle, 2000: 364) in June 1872. “Much of her childhood was passed abroad where her education by private tutors gave her a very thorough knowledge of French, German, and Italian, and acquaintance with the literature and art of Europe since the Renaissance” (Lovett, 1925: 4-5). “French and Italian and German became to her as mother-tongues” (Pattee, 1930: 249). She was also taught mannerisms.

She read most of the books in his father’s extensive library and began to write at an early age. She wrote her first novella Fast and Loose in 1876 and, according to certain biographers, her mother published privately a collection of her poems, Verses, in 1878. She was engaged to Henry Leyden Stevens in 1880 and during that year several poems of her were published in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York World. The Greater Inclination, her first collection of short stories, appeared in 1899 and her first novel, The Valley of Decision, came out in 1902.

Just after she made her social debut in 1880, her father became ill and the family set off for France where her father died in Cannes in 1882 and Edith Wharton returned to New York with her mother. Her engagement to Henry Stevens was broken off by her would-be mother-in-law in the same year. She met her cousin and life-long friend Walter Berry in 1883.

The same year saw her meet Edward Robbins Wharton (known as ‘Teddy’), a Harvard graduate from a similar social background. They got married on April 29,1885.

After she got married, she began to spend her time reading and travelling. Her poems and short stories began to appear in different periodicals including Scribner's Magazine, where a great deal of her subsequent works were published. Although she wrote Bunner Sisters in 1892, it would not be published until 1916.

In 1894, she suffered a nervous breakdown for the first time and throughout the rest of the 1890s she experienced many further collapses. The Whartons went to France and Switzerland in 1899; then, to England and France in 1900. Her experiences in these places began to reflect in her now-abounding works as of 1902. She travelled in 1903 in Italy with her husband and bought her first automobile in 1904. The House of Mirth, which established her reputation as a talented novel-writer, came out in 1905 and became a success.

She got divorced from Teddy Wharton in 1913, the year in which The Custom of the Country appeared. She travelled through Algeria, Tunisia, Spain and returned to Paris on the eve of the World War I in 1914. When the Great War broke, Edith Wharton was in France. There she founded the American Hostels for Refugees and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee. She also helped war refugees by raising money, establishing schools, finding jobs and food. And afterwards she was given the French Legion of Honor by the French government for these charitable endeavours.

The Age of Innocence came out in 1920 and made her the first woman writer to have won the Pulitzer prize for literature. And she became the first woman to have been given an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University in 1923, when she returned to America for the last time to receive the degree. And in 1924, she again became the first woman to have been given the Gold Medal by the National Institute of Arts. Although she was supported by certain men of letters as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1927, the prize went to Henri Bergson. In 1929 she was given the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She published The Writing of Fiction in 1925, and A Backward Glance, her autobiography, in 1934. And it was in 1935 that she suffered her first stroke. She got over this first stroke easily. Although she was 73 years old as of 1935, she continued to write on a regular basis. But the stroke she suffered on June 1, 1937 did not let her finish her last work. She died on August 11, 1937 and was buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles beside her lifelong intimate friend Walter Berry.


The life-time of Edith Wharton (1862-1937) which approximately covers the last four decades of the nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth century was a time-span in which breath-taking changes unprecedented in human history took place. She was born just after the Civil War. She saw the First World War and died on the eve of the Second World War. During her lifetime America turned to be the leading industrial nation of the world as a result of the technological innovations her citizens realised. The rapid changes and social turmoils taken place during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reverberated in the literature of the day and, different literary approaches followed one another. Romanticism gave way to realism and in turn it led to naturalism. Edith Wharton, whose literary career lasted forty odd years, responded to the scientific and social transformations in her works. She wrote essentially about the old New York and its manners. Since Edith Wharton, as a realist writer, depicted her age stressing the force of conventions and morality that can be traced back to the days of the Founding Fathers, it seems necessary, for a study of her works, to draw attention to the changes that occured both before and during her lifetime.

It can be said that the War of Independence –which is also called as the American Revolution– was one of the most decisive happenings in American history. However, it was a result of the independences acquired in many different fields during the colonial period. By the time they won the War of Independence, Americans had already declared their independence in many fields; for instance, America “had already developed her own system of transportation and communication technology” (Oliver, 1956: 60). However, the technological inventions which would make the United States the leading industrial nation were yet to come.

The transformation that occured during the second half of the nineteenth century is summarized very well in Edward M. Byrn’s award-winning essay on the subject of “Progress of Invention During the Past Fifty Years” which appeared in the Scientific American in 1896. In this essay,

in referring to the period fifty years earlier, Byrn noted there were no telephones, no cables, no electric lights, photo-engraving, or photo-lithographing. There were no cameras, no gas engines, no web-perfecting printing presses, no linotype machines, no passenger elevators, no asphalt pavements. Neither were there triple-expansion engines, nor barbed-wire fencing, nor self-binders; there were no oil or gas wells, no ice machines, no phonographs, cash registers, typewriters, aluminum ware, Bessemer steel, sanitary plumbing, coal tars, or electric machines. All these had come into use within the past half-century (Oliver, 1956: 451-2).

It is understood that all of the listed things were available by 1896. It is also understood that none of them were available in 1846. However, the period between the introduction of the factory system of 1790 till the second half of the 1840s was also unequalled in terms of other innovations some of which deserve to be mentioned with their dates and in some detail.

The first steamboat in North America was set in motion in 1811 in Louisville, Kentucky. In January 1845, John Griffiths launched the first clipper the Rainbow at a shipyard in New York. The clippers, which could reach China in ninety-two days and return in eighty-nine days, were famous for their speed. By 1850 six steam vessels were carrying mail on the Atlantic, and five on the Pacific. In 1849 the Collins Line launched its first steam vessel, The Atlantic. The canal age which dotted North America with canals to ease the transportation of goods began in 1817; however, with the advent of the low-cost railroads, the age ended at the end of the 1840s.

The first locomotives were imported from England in 1829 and the first American locomotive was put into use in 1831. The railway lines, which “made vast regions accessible to the farmer, the lumberman, the miner, and the manufacturer, … was not merely a means of transportation and communication between civilized points; it promoted civilization” (Oliver, 1956: 189-190).

The agricultural revolution which began after the publication of German chemist Justus von Liebig’s Chemistry and Its Application to Agriculture in America in 1841 swelled the wealth of the country very greatly. In the years between 1850 and 1860, agricultural products of the country were greatly increased. Use of agricultural machinery made it possible for “the North to produce ever increasing amounts of corn and wheat, with a diminished labor supply” (Oliver, 1956: 245). The agricultural revolution which made it possible for the peasants to cultivate the areas that were otherwise would stay untouched was a result of the technological revolution via labour-saving agricultural machines which would decrease the prices of grains drastically and make many of the inhabitants of the countryside move to urban centers.

Regarding the innovations in communication technology, the first important contribution of America was the electromagnetic telegraph system. Morse, on May 24, 1844 was successful in his attempt to transmit letters and words by means of electromagnetic needle. The telegraph, first operated on May 24, 1844, was widely used by 1850 and the first telephone call was made between Alexander Graham Bell and his mechanical assistant Thomas A. Watson on March 10, 1876. The telephone evolved so rapidly that at the turn of the twentieth century “1,000,000 miles of wire had been strung, and one-half of the people of the United States were within talking distance of one another” (Oliver, 1956: 439).

Washing machines were in common use by 1860, and Isaac Singer’s sewing machine, patented in 1851, nearly doubled the manufacture of clothes in three years and the increase sewing machines caused in the mass production of apparels and shoes and the impact of the other related machines stimulated the construction of the mail order house. The changes in manufacturing of garments made attires cheaper and helped America be seemingly a classless society.

Another important change was Edwin L. Drake’s development of the oil drilling technique of 1859 which started a new area putting an end to waiting for petroleum to seep through soil. Not only did it make possible huge amounts of petroleum be available, but also it stipulated further investigations that would result in finding out the vast uses of petroleum, such as the internal combustion engine. Internal combustion engine, which was first introduced in France by Jean Joseph Lenoir in 1863, was improved afterwards by Germans. By 1890, certain European countries had started producing automobiles. And around 1910, “automotive engineering became a profession, signifying a new group of technical experts” (Oliver, 1956: 482).

Experiments in electrical lighting which started just after the Civil War realized a big leap with Edison’s incandescent lamp of 1880. Edison Company opened the Pearl Street Central Station in New York City in 1882 and started the electric age supplying electrical power to its customers. We see a boom in the invention of electric motors after the introduction of centralized distribution of electrical currency. “By 1890, when a score or more of motor manufacturers were producing some ten thousand motors, the stage was set for installing electric motors on street railways, elevators, and in factories” (Oliver, 1956: 352).

The first elevators were operated manually. However, they were soon followed by steam-operated ones which, in turn, would lead to electrically operated ones during the 1880s. “By 1900 there were more than three thousand elevators of various kinds in daily operation” (Oliver, 1956: 359). Elevators were the most important stimulant for erecting skyscrapers which began to dot the cityscapes in the 1880s.

At the turn of the century we see the first trials for flying a plane. Although Samuel Pierpont Lagley (1834-1906) was not successful when he tried to launch a model plane in 1896 and 1903, “nine days after Lagley’s second failure” Wilbur and Orville Wright Brothers managed to fly “a heavier-than-air plane” and keep “it in the air for 59 seconds and brought it down safely” (Oliver, 1956: 489).

Developments in the fields of cinema and radio broadcasting also deserve mention since the development of these conveniences were realized in Edith Warthon’s life-time. In 1896 a kind of movie fiction was shown in New York. Photography, cinema, television and radio were the products of many scientific men’s endeavours. “Motion picture” became part of the common entertainments at the turn of the twentieth century and radio broadcasting was well established by 1920. “At the end of the year 1922, there were thirty licensed stations. In 1924 there were five hundred.” (Oliver, 1956: 540). Although certain improvements were realized regarding television during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, it was only in 1940s that television was put in general use.

All these changes occured in an atmosphere of relentless competition. The laissez-faire economic approach which required a free market system in which all participants would do their best to prosper and compete with others to be the most successful. The system was supported by Social Darwinism which demanded that all individuals compete with others to survive so that the unfit should eliminate. As it is very crucial to understand the spirit of the period, Social Darwinism deserves to be dealt under a separate heading.


Darwin’s theories regarding the sexual selection and evolution affected America fundamentally from 1870 onwards through Social Darwinism. The theory was basically shaped by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and was based on the theory of evolution which, though having a long history that can be traced back as early as the seventh century B.C., was first founded scientifically by Charles Darwin. Darwin, in his Origin of Species of 1859, explained his views about the evolution of plants and animals in terms of “natural selection.” And Herbert Spencer, applying Darwin’s theory of evolution to the development of human society, formed Social Darwinism.

Darwin thought that human beings were evolved from an animal life and had many resemblances with animals. He also thought that certain species were evolved better than the others. For Darwin, some organisms are more successful in the struggle for existence than others because “these organisms exhibit characteristics that are better adapted to the environment and that's why they are selected. In a number of generations this leads to evolution” (Llobera, 2003: 78). Herbert Spencer applied this process to community as a whole and began a movement called Social Darwinism.

Herbert Spencer, who is said to be the originator of the phrase “the survival of the fittest” and whose fame in America was allegedly greater than in his own country, played a crucial role in the history of the nineteenth century America. His philosophy was consistent with the general tendencies in the United States:

His uncompromising individualism was appealing to Americans; so was his seeming optimism and faith in progress. His insistence that science and religion could co-exist was reassuring, and his use of evolution to construct a philosophy that was not too technical for laymen to grasp was bound to be popular in a period in which the reading public was fascinated by science, particularly evolutionary science, and curious about its implications for life and thought (Olafson, 2001: 49).

He thought the idea of progress was universal; it covered everything in the universe and could explain any change. For him, evolution process was an automatic one: “For Spencer progress does not depend upon conditions. Struggle comes after the fact and is useful in the elimination of less adaptive forms, but better forms arise as a matter of course” (Alland, 1967: 173).

With the inspiration of Darwin’s theory of evolution, he wrote many books exploring how society evolved. In his Synthetic Philosophy, he explained the social evolution and its benign effects. According to this work of his, evolution would direct society towards perfection in all aspects of social life until it got the ideal and ultimate form: “Spencer affirmed that once society had evolved to perfection it could maintain itself in that state indefinitely” (Walcutt, 1973: 9). For him, there were two types of society: the militant and the industrial. The militant one which was authoritarian and which “subordinated the individual to the community” was expected to obstruct the process of evolution. However, the industrial society “was just the opposite: organized for peace and voluntary co-operation, it placed the individual above the community and freed him from unnecessary rules and regulations” (Olafson, 2001: 51-2). Perhaps his idea of “intelligent selfishness” which in reality found expression in the phrase “robber baron” can be called as selfish altruism: “He believed that the ‘natural’ working of economic process included the individual wills and motives of intelligently selfish men––so that social evolution was guided by this trustworthy ingredient” (Walcutt, 1973: 9).

Herbert Spencer believed that human beings’ capacity of adaptations would inevitably bring human perfection in due course. For him, all things about man, including his ethical considerations, were the result of evolutionary process. When he declared his optimistic views regarding humankind’s social adaptations, individualism had already invaded the United States. Spencer’s Social Darwinism was welcomed by American scientists, men of letters and individuals whose minds, via the Enlightenment, were already made ready to accept it. Although the impact of his Social Darwinism on economics was somehow limited, its influence on sociology and literature was immense. The dominant economic assumptions of the day were also supportive to the theory of evolution. The modern man, unlike the man of the pre-industrial man of the previous ages, was accepted to be a homo-economicus who wanted to attain the most possible pleasure with the least expenditure.

Although for Spencer the progress was an automatic one, he and his followers did not find it suffice to lay bare the law of motion of social evolution; instead they sought to hasten the process. In Social Statics (1851) and in other books and essays, he confined government to administering justice, enforcing contracts, and defending the country. As a supporter of laissez-faire economic system and an evolutionist, he did not want governments to interfere with the natural flow of things and help “the unfit” to survive. Governments’ role should be limited to defence of territories and protection of citizens from offences of criminals. He thought competition would obstruct monopolies and would be beneficient for the general of the society. As regards to laissez-faire economic system the “whole point for Spencer was that, working as individuals, people do more for their fellows than they would were the state in complete control” (Llobera, 2003: 80). For him, the fittest should not be prevented to get the benefits of competition. He rejected state intervention in public welfare since “it encouraged the survival of the unfit, it broke the laws of nature at the price of creating a decaying, degenerate society” (Llobera, 2003: 80).

It seems that Social Darwinism was the most moulding theory on both the social and the literary life of the United States between the Civil War and the First World War. Neither the social changes nor the literary movements of the period can be explained convincingly without a due reference to the theory. The theory, which was in line with the prevailing concept of progressivism of the post-enlightenment period, was eagerly accepted by philosophers, sociologists and ordinary people of the period. Even members of the clergy felt a need for a reconciliation between the theory and their religious teachings.

The legacy of the age of Enlightenment had changed all basic beliefs regarding the universe and nature. Neither the world was the centre of the universe, nor man was the centre of the world any more. Religious beliefs were undermined via the scientific explorations and acquisitions. So the need for a coherent theory that can give direction to modern man’s life was profound. Therefore, many American scholars, such as the cosmic evolutionist John Fisk (1842-1901) of Yale University, the political economist and sociologist William Graham Sumner of Yale University, and the wealthy capitalist Andrew Carnegie, enthusiastically accepted Spencer’s views concerning social laws.

Although they had different ideas regarding certain matters, all of the followers of Social Darwinism did their best to prevail the basic principles of Social Darwinism in America. Although they believed that the law of social evolution was universal and could not be changed by human intervention, they tried to hasten the so-called “automatic” process.

“The most influential Social Darwinist in the United States was Yale's political economist and sociologist William Graham Sumner” (Olafson, 2001: 56). For Sumner, ethical standards and moral ideas were subject to change and thus were not universal: “Goodness or badness of the mores is always relative only. Their purpose is to serve needs, and their quality is to be defined by the degree to which they do it” (Olafson, 2001: 61). Unlike Spencer, he did not believe that human beings had natural rights; they had the same rights with the wild beasts. He thought the accumulation of wealth in the hands of men who had the ability to raise money was beneficient for all citizens in the long run. However, he was against privileges and monopolies; everybody had to conform to the law of natural selection and attain wealth only by proving his talents.

According to Social Darwinism, among individuals and races in the world was a struggle for existence and the result of the competition was the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the weak. Advocates of the Social Darwinism urged that states should not protect the weak but let the natural progress get rid of them. They urged that governments should not prevent the doomed unfit to become extinct. Individuals should be given freedom to do what they will so to demonstrate their inherent capacities unless they prevent the others to compete with them. Governments’ role should be limited to defence of territories and protection of citizens from offences of criminals.

Perhaps the most important difference between Darwin and Spencer is that, though Spencer held that human beings transmit their characteristics to their descendants genetically, Darwin did not. As a result of the impact of Spencer, we see repeated references to inherited tendencies in the works of naturalistic writers and in the novels of Edith Wharton.

Under the laissez-faire economic system which was backed by Social Darwinism, the prevailing philosophy of the period, capitalists were expected to pursue their own interests through natural processes; however, they tended to manipulate every institution and to create a plutocracy. The “robber barons” influenced all state decisions regarding economy and could muffle the protesting voices. “As a result in no other country was capitalism so safeguarded from hostile attack; it plowed its fields and gathered its harvests secure from disturbance” (Morgan, 1997: 258).

The moral and material beliefs and standards of the Social Darwinists were accepted especially by the relatively rootless individuals most of whom were immigrants either from the frontier or from Europe. However, the more aristocratic families of the big cities who had certain settled manners and conventions to observe were not able to conform to these new mores and suffered both materially and spiritually. They were doomed and were “unfit” to survive. Social Darwinism constituted the background of the socio-economic changes resulting from the struggle between the old and the new men. Edith Wharton’s novels investigate the reflections of this many faceted struggle and its effects in the life of her protagonists and their social milieu.


The relationship between a fictional study and its social environment is difficult to detect. That is especially true for a study of the works of Edith Wharton who wrote about a transitional world in which unprecedented happenings took place one after the other. Since she mainly dealt with the defeat of the pre-industrial old families by the industrial newcomers, an inquiry concerning the socio-economic changes during the period that Mrs Wharton scrutinizes in her novels seem relevant.

Although major developments had taken place since the introduction of the factory system in 1790, the socio-economic texture of the cities in the United States had not underwent a considerable transformation by 1860. Old families had not lost their influence over their cities: “Economically and socially, this world was dominated by an established wealthy class consisting of the sons and grandsons of energetic provincial merchants” (Howe, 1963: 49). And, by 1860, still only a few occupations (mainly foreign trade and land speculation) formed the means of getting wealth. Capital accumulation was relatively very moderate and millionaires in cities did not form a considerable number and certainly no billionaires did exist. All figures showed that the United States was a pre-industrial nation by 1860. Although the influx into urban centers had started, no overcrowded cities did exist yet. “Even the largest cities were mostly residential, with poor communication between the different districts: to Edith Wharton, New York of her girlhood was a ‘village,’ consisting of the area around Washington Square” (Edward, 1989: 12). However, from the 1860s onwards the transformation of the economic and social life of the cities in the United States would accelerate.

Status groupings of the 1860s were almost the same as it was fifty years ago. The families constituting the New York society were wealthy descendants of the early immigrant generations. Theirs was a closely knit society made up of certain mighty clans.

They were enjoying an unrivalled authority on their social milieu. They shared many aspects of their great-greatfathers, but the old ways of the leading merchants of the colonial days had started to give way to new ones even before the Civil War. The sons and grandsons of successful landowners and merchants, particularly in eastern cities, tended increasingly to devote their energy to recreational and intellectual pursuits, relying upon inherited wealth for financial independence: George Jones, Edith Wharton's father, spent a ‘busy day’ duck hunting, boat racing, and reading material on Arctic exploration (Edward, 1989: 13).

America’s industrial development during the second half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by a decline in the level of education of the leading men of the community which had lost its purity of blood through intermarriages with certain immigrants. During the fifty years preceding 1860, the descendants of the broad cultured merchants of the colonial period gradually lost their interest both in politics and education: “A number of the captains of industry had only an elementary education, and among some, at least, the feeling developed that it was hardly necessary for success” (Edward, 1989: 14).

Although certain members of the old families were firm in following their grandfathers’ footsteps, alongside the afore-mentioned changes, the old values were also losing their impact gradually. The old families were trying to defend their stronghold against the parvenus forcing the gates. Many immigrants from the countryside and provinces chose New York as a place for settlement and business. “The rapid influx of ‘haute bourgeoisie’ families into New York increased the number of upper-class urban residents” (Lobes, 1999). Some of the established families were clannish in their attitudes towards the newcomers and had gradually become indifferent to the changes around them: “Along with this clannishness and formality exhibited by certain of the ‘best families’ in the sixties went a growing indifference toward changes in the America in which their fathers had so flourished” (Edward, 1989: 14). Rapid industrial development which gave its primary fruits during the 1870s changed both the old structure of the distribution of wealth and of the cities, which, in turn, affected status groupings greatly. Although certain remnants of the old families still exerted their authority over the community and municipal affairs, a fissure had been made in the social order by the new rich who had attained a social status above their level through marriages with the ruling families. There are many references to those “invaders” in Edith Wharton’s novels. Julius Beaufort in The Age of Innocence and Elmer Mottaff in The Custom of the Country are two examples among many.

Although the industrialization did not obstruct the old ways of making money, the many new ways of making money it produced allowed the more aggressive/ambitious new venturers “who did not share the cultural interests of the older mercantile elite” (Persons, 1973: 46) to be wealthier than the old families. As a result, old families lost their former power and status.

With the industrial age the railroad magnate came to replace the merchant as the chief profiteer of commerce and therefore achieved a greater degree of economic power. The influx of population into cities helped to break up the great estates, and the greatest profits in land after 1865 came from urban real estate, which was not always in the hands of the landed gentry (Edward, 1989: 16).

Some of the sons of the old families helped the invaders disintegrate the established society commencing to imitate the ways of the parvenus. The disintegration began apparent in the 1880s and “[b]y the time of the First World War, the older traditions and usages of New York society had been destroyed” (Persons, 1973: 277) by the parvenus. For Mrs Wharton, the Great War “meant the end of the cultured and privileged society to which she belonged.” It was “the end of the age of innocence” (Bridgman, 1997).

The parvenus of the early industrial America who were condescending education and public office favoured different values: “While ‘book-learning’ and public service did not necessarily fall in industrial America's scale of values, strength, self-discipline, and assertiveness certainly rose in importance” (Edward, 1989: 18). The years between 1870 and 1900 were years of rapid change due to social mobilisation and industrialisation. The advances in technology and transportation put into question the established modes of authority and required from the prominent members of the society to reconsider their roles and accomodate themselves to the changed/changing conditions.

By 1880, the people who profited and made a lot of money in a very short time from the war conditions or from the discovery of oil had attained preeminence “in circles composed of wealthy persons inclined to scatter their money profusely for the purpose of display” (Amory, 1960: 26). They began to give ultra-ostentatious parties to astound people around them. The phrases “the Gilded Age” and “conspicious waste” were coined to depict their lifestyle and the phrase “robber barons” to refer to their major figures. The parvenus who acquired more money than the established families of the United States felt a need to be seen as the equals of the members of the well-grounded social set; they contested with the old families wasting their money in an unusual way and spreading their bad manners. Their impact on social acquisitions were destructive. “Where there is a display of unbounded wealth, such old-fashioned articles as morality and good taste are often despised” (Amory, 1960: 26).

The period in question was a period in which everything turned upside down. The new money which was of an unprecedented amount transformed the nation both socially and economically. Just as ready-made apparels made it nearly impossible to distinguish an ordinary citizen from a millionaire, money and certain modern appliances also made it impossible to tell a gentleman from a parvenu.

New money as seen from the vantage point of the older elites did not have the effect commonly attributed to it of widening the gulf between social classes. On the contrary, money was the great leveler. It destroyed the social distinctions which had formerly prevailed, substituting for them a common mercenary standard. Differences were no longer of kind, but only of degree. In place of the former stability of a society divided into relatively firm social classes there now emerged the restless universal flux of the mass society (Persons, 1973: 277).

The changes in the method of manufacturing caused many people to move to cities. In 1800 nearly 5,300,000 people lived in America. Of these only about 300,000 lived in towns or cities.

In 1850 nearly 20,000,000 people lived at farms; however, the number of people living in towns and cities grew to about 3,500,000 which shows an influx to cities that created demands for more houses and a desire for improved facilities. Modern conveniences, such as gas lighting, central heating, and a running water system began to be introduced into houses during this period. “Boston and New York had gas lighting in the late 1820's” (Oliver, 1956: 171). A hotel in California had bathrooms as early as 1820. “The Tremont House in Boston in 1828, and the Astor House in New York in 1832 took the lead in introducing plumbing and toilet facilities” (Oliver, 1956: 171). New York, which had a population of one and a half million by 1870, would be housing two and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the 1890s.

The influx to urban centers stimulated both the developments in printing and the demands for newspapers. By 1830, newspapers had improved their content and could give the news in a very short time. There appeared a bitter rivalry among the newspapers in big cities. Soon the prices of the newspapers were decreased so as to increase the circulation amount, which, in turn, affected the relative amount of the literate people positively. “The wide circulation of newspapers became a constant stimulus to literacy. Even the least ambitious was spurred to learn to read the newspaper at hand” (Oliver, 1956: 232).

The publications which were giving news about scientific events opened their columns for literary works on the eve of the Civil War. “Science began to have an influence on the literature of the period. The habit of thinking scientifically had developed, and literary geniuses began to look at things realistically” (Oliver, 1956: 248-9). The increase in the number of the literate people and the increased interest in literature helped professional fiction writers to appear.

With the advent of the capitalist man, a hierarchy of values gave way to a hierarchy of wealth-boasters. It can be said that the vagrant culture of the frontiersmen which was open to novelties was driven to cities by the allurement of material welfare heightened by technological advances and defeated the genteel culture of the aristocratic families of the big cities. Contrary to the settled families of urban centers, they did not have settled manners to observe; however, the civilities of the old families kept them from acting rationalistically in an age of rationalism and they inevitably lost the struggle gradually changing. Edith Wharton’s novels depict the material and moral mechanism of that transformation.


Edith Wharton belonged to one of the well-to-do families and wrote mainly about the characters from her own class. She was an eclectic reader and an eager one. She self-schooled herself reading books on science, philosophy, arts, literature, history and psychology. She kept abreast of the new movements and ideas both in America and in Europe. Although she knew all prominent philosophers of her age, she seems to have been influenced especially by Darwin and Spencer like most of her contemporaries.

We see that her novels are based on the assumption that in the struggle for survival some men prove to be “fit” to survive and the others prove to be “unfit”, the basic premise of Social Darwinism. Another aspect of Social Darwinism that reflected in her novels is the concept that individuals inherit their tendencies to their off-springs.

Her attitude towards the literary movements is ambiguous which makes it difficult to sort out her works. Although her works reflect certain aspects of all the movements prevailing during her life-time, critics do not agree if she is a naturalist, a realist, a modernist, or a sentimentalist. Besides, she even cannot be called as a true Social Darwinist since certain of her characters fail to conform to the pattern. She intentionally misreads the theory. Although she cannot be linked to any movements properly, it can be safely said that she was, in the main, a realist writer in the sense that she does not impose destinies on her characters. And although she has a moral vision, she does not give any moral lessons directly. She does not condemn her wicked characters openly. She lets her characters shape their own fate and never commits herself. “She seeks to tell the truth about them, impartially and unemotionally” (Nyren, 1960: 518).

She uses the technological innovations and socio-economic changes as history markers. She describes the clothes, interior and exterior decorations of the buildings minutely in order to give a true picture of the age she portrays. Her descriptions of her characters also serve for the reader to penetrate into their true natures. And references to technological innovations such as telegraph, telephone, motor car are used to make the reader understand that social conditions and time have changed.

“As an exceptionally intelligent girl, loving literature, she found her society intolerably narrow and complicated” (Cunliffe, 1978: 238) during her girlhood. As time went on, her attitude towards her country and to “the old ways” changed since she saw “the new ways” were worse. World War I formed a turning point in her life. Although she did not like America when she returned there after a six-year’s experience of Europe at the age of ten, she nearly lost her belief in progressivism like many of her contemporaries after the World War I and longed for the world of her childhood when people lived a simple life and observed certain conventions which survived the close filtering of time and proved to be beneficial to keep the community together. However, as a realist writer, she did not exalt “the old ways” at the expense of “the new ways” because she knew the changes were inevitable. She tried to remain neutral to both “ways” and portrayed the changes realistically.

She wrote mainly about the aristocratic families of the old New York whose age-old sovereignty was shaken and eventually destroyed by the wealthy newcomers. The parvenus were perfect examples of the homo-economicus who is after material prosperity and has nearly no scruples. As they saw that the serenity of their simple life was threatened by the “barbarous invaders,” the old families tried to defend their established values. However, as of 1870s they were already changed a great deal and were continuing to change. As they lost their power against the newcomers, the new values also imposed their dominance over the old ones.

In her novels we find representatives of “the old ways” and “the new ways.” The representatives of the old ways are fastened to the old values and morals which can be traced back to the medieval age. However, the representatives of the new ways are the capitalists with too much money and with little moral scrupples. Between them are the transitional characters who are torn between the old values and the new ones and these characters constitute Edith Wharton’s central characters who suffer because they belong neither of the parties wholly. The transitional characters are the children of the old families. But the children of those transitional characters are true representatives of the modern America. In the following chapter, the reflections of Edith Wharton’s age in her novels and her depiction of the moral and social changes will be examined through these representative types.



Certain families and characters of Edith Wharton’s novels who try to defend the old values they inherited from their forefathers by shutting themselves off from the modern community are representatives of the old values. They are not given much room in the two novels and this indicates that they are about to disappear. Their “day” is nearly ended as of 1870s. The van der Luydens in The Age of Innocence and the Marvells in The Custom of the Country are among these people. Although certain other old families are mentioned in the two novels, we are only furnished with a somewhat detailed information only about these two families.

The Age of Innocence relates the process of the changes in the social fabric of New York beginning at the 1870s. The van der Luydens, the Mingotts and the like constitute the older generation. Of the families constituting the top stratum of the old New York society, the only family we are furnished with some detailed information in The Age of Innocence is the van der Luydens, who are “the arbiters of fashion, the Court of last Appeal” and who live “in the sylvan solitude of Skuytercliff.” The Dagonets, another family of preeminence, is only occasionally mentioned in the novel. The van der Luydens occasionally come to town and when they are in town they decline “all invitations on the plea of Mrs van der Luyden's health.” They are “morbidly sensitive to any criticism of their secluded existence” (Age, 36). They want to be away from the city life which is “in a constant rush.” Both Mr Henry van der Luyden and his wife (who had been Louisa Dagonet in her girlhood) have “the same look of frozen gentleness in eyes” (Age, 35).

The phrases in quotation marks in the last paragraph show the most obvious aspects of the old way of life which changes so slowly that one cannot easily perceive the alterations brought about in one’s life-time. Everything in the old world (the world of feodalism) is so “frozen” that it resembles death compared to the new world which is “in a constant rush.” The old families of the 1870s still have an impact on the society to a certain degree. However, the average man and woman of the time are seen to have already changed a lot due to the transformation that the society is undergoing under industrialism.

Even the van der Luydens, though they try to do their best to prevent the erosion in conventions, seem to have changed to a certain degree. When the people of New York society reject to attend the “formal dinner” given by old Mrs Mingott for the reception of Ellen, the van der Luydens help the Wellands by throwing a reception for her themselves. They do not say anything against Ellen’s way of wearing apparels which is provocative. Even they do not criticize her leaving the Duke at the dinner given for the reception of herself to sit beside Newland although “[i]t was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another” (Age, 41). They like Ellen who poses a threat to their “little republican distinctions.” Mr van der Luyden says: “Louisa and I are very fond of our cousin” (Age, 58). He even sends hempers of carnations to her house in Twenty-third Street, a place famous for its bohemian residents.

Henry van der Luyden’s wooden structured house, which is rather gloomy and has an air of aloofness, is likened to a mausoleum. Under the roof of this house “[n]othing was done without ceremony” (Age, 201) and the van der Luydens are always punctual. They feel responsibility to their society. When they hear about Beaufort’s failure they “reluctantly but heroically” (Age, 200) come to town to restore the order. Although they have an undeniable impact on the society, they are not active members of the society and seem already dead. The novel ends after World War I, when the old families and their system suffer a decisive defeat. The post-war America is a place where the old families are nearly vanished.

The Custom of the Country, “a novel that explores what happens when modern life destroys historical continuity” (Jones, 1998: 198) is concerned with America during the eve of the World War I. In this novel of 1913, Edith Wharton portrays the contemporary world around her. We see that the old families have lost both their impact on the society and their social preeminence to the parvenus whom Mrs Wharton calls “the Invaders.” However, they retain their reputation as the remnants of the “golden aristocracy” of New York and gossips about their way of life are still significant for the society columns of the newspapers. When “Wharton's most vilified heroine, Undine Spragg” (Aguiar, 2001: 73) asks Mrs Heeny, “the ‘society’ manicure and masseuse,” if the Marvells are really “swell” enough, Mrs Heeny replies: “If they ain’t swell enough for you, Undine Spragg, you’d better go right over to the court of England!” (Custom, 16).

The adjective “swell” has different connotations for Mrs Heeny and Undine. Undine wants to learn if the Marvells are “wealthy” enough to afford her expenses but Mrs Heeny tries to convey that the family in question is one of the most venerable one in New York. Although they have some reputation in the society, the Marvells are not wealthy. When Mr Dagonet, Ralph’s grandfather, puts his grandson’s financial situation before Mr Spragg, Undine’s father, we learn that the wealth of the Marvell family is far from satisfying Undine’s expectations. It is a time when there are capitalist social potentates who are many times wealthier than even monarchs. The Marvells are “swell” but not as swell as an average capitalist of the day.

We see that much water has moved underneath the bridge in the forty odd years between the beginning of the 1870s and the year 1913. Although Henry van der Luyden’s sovereign over the New York society of the 1870s is indisputable in The Age of Innocence, old Mr Dagonet in The Custom of the Country of 1913 seem to have no comparable power. Besides, he is more tolerant than Mr van der Luyden in terms of conventions. He can listen without protest to his grandson’s prospective bride who can talk of divorce in presence of him as something that can be sued on a trivial pretext. Although Henry van der Luyden is an obscure figure in The Age of Innocence, old Mr Dagonet in The Custom of the Country is more unconspicious and gets easily out of sight after his grandson’s marriage.


Among the central characters of The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country, we see that, Mrs Mingott and Mr Spragg are ready to embrace novelties although they are fairly old-fashioned. They have scrupples regarding certain matters; however, they are very much different from the van der Luydens and the Marvells who see the old values indisputable. Both Mrs Mingott and Mr Spragg know what they should do; they are determined characters.

The intrepid old Mrs Mingott (Catherine Spicer of Staten Island) seems to be representing “the new blood” in New York more than the old one. Her father, Bob Spicer, also seem to belong to the new blood. We learn that he has got tired of her mother in eight months and abandoned her pregnant with Catherine running away with “a beautiful Spanish dancer” taking “a large sum of trust money” (Age, 7). She is a determined person and, for all of her shortcomings, she becomes successful “by strength of will and hardness of heart, and a kind of haughty effrontery that was somehow justified by the extreme decency and dignity of her private life” (Age, 9). After becoming a widow at the age of twenty-eight, she marries her daughters to “corrupt and fashionable circles” and do what she wants without fear. However “all the while (as Sillerton Jackson was the first to proclaim) there had never been a breath on her reputation” (Age, 9). Her own example shows that one can open a breach in the walls of the old New York if one has “strength of will and hardness of heart, and a kind of haughty effrontery.” Her father’s example shows that one can easily disturb the old New York society if he does not have much respect for the social propriety of the old New York. Edith Wharton seems to appreciate Mrs Mingott’s character.

For Mrs Wharton, she has moral courage and her “cream-coloured house (supposed to be modelled on the private hotels of the Parisian aristocracy) was … a visible proof of” this. She is content with herself. She does not care what happens outside her large house.

Although she has certain positive features, she is old and her days are past. Wharton calls Mrs Manson Mingott as “the carnivorous old lady” (Age, 20) because she is an obese. She is so fat that she cannot attend occasions; she is “always represented on fashionable nights by some of the younger members of the family” (Age, 4). She has been a widow for half a century and has been rich since then. However, “memories of her early straits had made her excessively thrifty” (Age, 9). We learn that “for totally different reasons, her food was as poor as Mrs Archer's” (Age, 10). She is an anomally in the Mingott line whose name “had always been associated with good living” (Age, 10).

In her middle life she changes “into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon” and she uses this an excuse for making “her reception rooms upstairs and” establishes “herself (in flagrant violation of all the New York proprieties) on the ground floor of her house” (Age, 18). Her house startles her visitors reminding them “scenes in French fiction” (Age, 19) which is considered to be immoral by simple Americans of the day. She says she likes “all the novelties” (Age, 19) and do not find reasonable some of the established formalities of the New York society. When Mrs Welland says that Archer and May should be given time “to get to know each other a little better” she takes the convention very lightly: “Know each other? Fiddlesticks! Everybody in New York has always known everybody” (Age, 19).

Her house, which was built in an unfashionable place, in “the rocky moorland” beyond Spring Street in the early 1850s, displays a deviation from the pattern of the older and more “venerable” houses. Before her “[n]obody ever had built above Fortieth Street” (Age, 98). Like her character, her furniture, which is a mixture of “the Mingott heirlooms” and “the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire,” is also an amalgam of the old and the new.

She is decent but so courageous that, according to Newland Archer, “if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman would have had him too” (Age, 19). She is aware that everything around her will change over time.

She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own––perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble-stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris (Age, 18).

She thinks the day of the old patterns has gone away.

Although old Mrs Mingott is a woman who likes novelties of all kinds, she cannot be considered to be a sheer representative of the new values. Like other members of her set, she also does not approve Ellen’s “living in a ‘Bohemian’ quarter given over to ‘people who wrote’” (Age, 66). Again when Regina visits Mrs Mingott to ask her to back up her husband she tells her: “It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it’s got to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you with shame” (Age, 172). She likes novelties but she also sticks to the mores of her set especially in business matters. She has certain reserves regarding “novelties.”

Mr Spragg in The Custom of the Country is another character who cannot be called properly either of the new or the old blood. He is a man of business unlike the members of Ralph Marvell’s set who are men of profession, that is, their jobs earn them only a moderate amount. Mr Spragg comes to New York from Apex which is a fictional name and thus connotes rootlessness. He is an adaptive person; we are said that as soon as he “set foot in Wall Street” he “became another man” (Custom, 76). He is a self-made man, a millionaire, but gets into financial troubles several times because of his daughter’s expenses. He is a devoted father to the extent that, in order to save his daughter, he can silence his conscience and give the information asked from him about his former business partner James J. Rolliver when Elmer Moffatt blackmails him.

He knows the rules of Wall Street. However, he has certain scrupples which make him vulnerable in the struggle for survival in the arena of Wall Street and cannot take a place among the fittest.


Julius Beaufort, “the financier of dubious origins and doubtful morals” (Bridges, 1993), is one of the new rich about whom we are furnished with detailed information in Book I, Chapter 3 of The Age of Innocence. We learn that he found his way into the New York society through marriage. He had married Regina Dallas who “belonged indeed to one of America’s most honoured families” (Age, 13) and was “a penniless beauty” (Age, 13) at that time. Mr Beaufort is a representative of the barbarian invaders who would defeat the old families of New York in the struggle for authority within community. We are informed that, according to some New Yorkers, Mr Beaufort is an Englishman, was agreeable, handsome, ill-tempered, hospitable and witty. He had come to America with letters of recommendation from old Mrs Manson Mingott's English son-in-law, the banker, and had speedily made himself an important position in the world of affairs (Age, 13).

This tall and heavy man who usually has a half-sneering smile displays the basic features of the new immigrants to New York: “his habits were dissipated, his tongue was bitter, his antecedents were mysterious” (Age, 13). However, in two years’ time he manages to erect “the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished” (Age, 13). His house which was erected “even before Mrs Manson Mingott's and the Headly Chiverses” had a ball-room which was used only one time a year. The “undoubted superiority” of this house “was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past” (Age, 13). We also learn that the house had all the home appliances which were the new products of the technological innovations.

The Beauforts, like the other parvenus, are fond of showiness. How has Mr Beaufort attained his wealth is a mystery but surely through illegal ways.

Mrs Archer calls the Beauforts as “common people.” But they are considered worse than common by some people. He carries off all the rumors about him easily. His success in business has been enough to silence “New York’s business conscience.” As of 1872, the inhabitants of New York have accepted Julius Beaufort for over twenty years and are “going to the Beauforts’” to take part at his sumptuous balls and get presents from him. It is understood that Mr Beaufort fascinated New Yorkers by giving balls, dinners and presents.

New Yorkers are proud of the Beaufort house which has a “red velvet carpet” that can be found only in a few New Yorkers’ houses and all kinds of luxurious home appliances available in America and Europe. It is understood that the house was built in the early 1850s or earlier. During the time beginning with the erection of this house, the Beauforts have introduced many novelties to New York and inaugurated certain customs and fashions of their own. For instance, they have “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” (Age, 14) and “[i]t was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her new clothes on her back as soon as they arrived” (Age, 163).

Mr Beaufort is illiterate and condescends “‘fellows who wrote’ as the mere paid purveyors of rich men's pleasures” (Age, 66). He ignores people that he dislikes as if they do not exist. As a capitalist man who is eager to possess, he is always “in quest of amorous adventures in his own set” (Age, 87) and scrutinizes “the women with his arrogant stare” (Age, 114). He knows both Europe and America and also the societies of those continents. He is in touch with artists and actors because he wants to possess all appreciated works of arts that can contribute to the conspicuousness of his house.

He spends money lavishly and does not possess “impeccable honesty” which is much prized by New York in business matters. According to the rumours, he has a “steam-yacht built in the Clydle and fitted with tiled bath-rooms and other unheard-of luxuries” which “was said to have cost him half a million; and the pearl necklace which he had presented to his wife on his return was as magnificent as such expiatory offerings are apt to be” (Age, 132). Some say that he has speculated in railways and lost money and others say that he was being bled by one of the most insatiable members of her profession; and to every report of threatened insolvency Beaufort replied by a fresh extravagance: the building of a new row of orchid-houses, the purchase of a new string of race-horses, or the addition of a new Meissonnier or Cabanel to his picture-gallery (Age, 132).

Mr Beaufort is dealt as the man who triggered the panic of 1873. First, rumours about Beaufort’s failure begin to be heard. Then comes indefinite but more hopeful reports. We see that the hopeful reports regarding his situation are rumors spread by Mr Beaufort himself. When the real situation becomes known, a run on the bank begins. “The ugliest things were being said of Beaufort's dastardly manoeuvre, and his failure promised to be one of the most discreditable in the history of Wall Street” (Age, 170).

Upon Mr Beaufort’s disgraceful failure, members of the New York society resolves that both Mr and Mrs Julius Beaufort should suffer social extinction: “not all the leagued strength of the Dallas connection would save poor Regina if there were any truth in the reports of her husband's unlawful speculations” (Age, 163). New York, which is “in no way large enough to be unwieldy or out of hand” (Gane, 1957: 508), seems so unswerving regarding such matters that even old Mrs Mingott, who likes and believes in Mr Beaufort and pities his wife, says those words to Regina: “It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it's got to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you with shame” (Age, 172) New York, which required “absolute financial probity” of its citizens, could not ignore Mr Beaufort’s disgrace since it was not a private one and had given harm to hundreds of innocent people. It is apparent that New York is not wholly transformed as yet.

Beaufort is a very resilient entrepreneur; if he fails in a field, he turns to another field and chances his arm in it. If he falls down, he can get on his feet again. Though excluded from the society, he does not leave New York until his wife dies. After the death of his wife he quietly marries his mistress Fanny Ring and leaves the country.

He was subsequently heard of in Constantinople, then in Russia; and a dozen years later American travellers were handsomely entertained by him in Buenos Ayres, where he represented a large insurance agency. He and his wife died there in the odour of prosperity (Age, 223).

Elmer Moffatt in The Custom of the Country is a perfect example of the capitalist plutocrats who can use all opportunities to their ends. We are given no information regarding his family background. We only know that he comes from Apex, a fictional place. Even in Apex nobody knows where he comes from.

He says he sees things big and finds New York big enough for his aspirations. He can convince Undine, the spoiled daughter of the Spraggs, to marry him but her father break them apart. Although he has certain positive features such as behaving compassionately to a step-son, being punctual and keeping his promises, he can use nearly anything to improve his financial condition. He can even use his former marriage to Undine as an asset. In return for his politic silence regarding his former marriage to Undine, he asks Undine to introduce him to her new husband, Ralph Marvell. He has a certain resilience like Beaufort in The Age of Innocence. He is kicked off by a lot of people, but he takes these as natural and has no grudges against his enemies: “Fact is, I've never had the time to nurse old scores, and if you neglect 'em they die off like gold-fish” (Custom, 335). In other words, he has no fixed enemies; as a true member of the world of business, anybody can be an ally to him if their interests coincide.

Like other capitalists, he also likes to spend money sumptuously in order to fascinate people and uses members of the judiciary system to attain his ends. After he becomes one of the most wealthy men in the united states, he says nobody can stop him if he wants anything; he has money and the world he lives in is a world governed by money. He says he belongs to where his job is. He is a man of business in the exact sense of the term. He uses a judge to help Undine divorce her French husband, Raymond de Chelles. Judge Toomey, “who is a personal friend of Mr. Moffatt's,” gives Undine a decree of divorce in a very short time holding a night session and then acts as best man to Moffatt.

Undine, “who, marrying and divorcing with the happy insensibility of the animals that mate for a season only” (Doren, 1931: 96), is the perfect example of the new woman who uses her beauty as an asset. She is “a spoilt girl, used to having everything [she] wanted.” Like Moffatt, she has an unappeasable desire to get the best. She is imitative but quick to learn. She marries Ralph Marvell to attain money and social prominence. We are not furnished with the information that she is the ex-wife of Moffatt until nearly the end of the novel and she keeps it secret. Since she is untutored at the beginning regarding the right social set for her aspirations, she tries the world of aristocracy marrying Ralph Marvel and then the royal world marrying Raymond de Chelles. However, both of the worlds are out-of-date and cannot afford to satiate her desires. Therefore, she finally returns to her first husband who has now become one of the wealthiest men in America.

Like her father, her husbands are also a means of supplying her extravagant expenses. Her expenditure is so huge that it causes her father to undergo financial problems several times, and destroy her husbands Ralph Marvell and Raymond de Chelles successively. Although she finally becomes Moffatt’s wife and be able to do what she wants when she wants, her new life also begins to bore her over time. When she learns that she cannot be an ambassador’s wife, she finds the rule too insulting and begins to think that she is cut out to be an ambassadress. The novel ends with this note; however, when we close the book we feel that she can achieve even this end since it is a world in which money is the sole sovereign and she has now plenty of it.


One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.

––Edith Wharton, The Art of Fiction

Both Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence, like Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country, suffers not essentially because of the impact of the society but because they are torn between the values of aristocracy and democracy, of feudalism and capitalism, between the world of imagination (poetry, art, etc) and the world of sheer reality. Their living in a society indifferent to their feelings is part of their fate. However, although current circumstances play an important part in shaping their lives, the decisive strokes are determined essentially by their emotional responses to these circumstances. They cannot make a choice between the two worlds, and their abstination and self-sacrifice make them suffer. This constitutes the main difference between them and the other (central) characters. It cannot be said that their suffering is a result of their being more ethical because most of the other members of the society cannot be said to be devoid of morality. Besides, the protagonists of Edith Wharton’s novels who suffer cannot be described as morally superior to all other characters. According to Michaud, one of Wharton’s contemporary critics who refers to The Age of Innocence as “a direct arraignment of Puritan respectability,” the characters “in her books live without a real moral background. … Morally speaking, they are uprooted” (Michaud, 1928: 57, 58). The important difference between these characters and the others is that they are torn between their heart and their brain, and that they question the established moral considerations.

What makes Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence basically different from the other members of his set is his interest in literary and scientific books and having an active imagination. His inclination towards literature and philosophy makes him aware of the dullness of (at least) some of the conventions governing their lives. Ellen and her stance play a contrasting effect in his awareness of this monotonousness. We understand that he begins questioning conventions long before Ellen returns to America. For instance, his belief regarding women’s right to be as free as men must be a by-product of his reading habit. However, from the beginning we are always warned about his conformity to the rules of his social set. Warnings about his character is continued throughout the novel.

In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton says that it is necessary for her that “the note of inevitableness should be sounded at the very opening of my tale, and that my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom … their fate is settled beyond rescue, and I have but to watch and record” (Backward, 9.1.). That is what we see in The Age of Innocence. At the end of The Age of Innocence, Archer does not go to see Ellen and turns back from her door. That shocking attitude is not something unexpected if we take Wharton’s warnings about his character into consideration. From the beginning we are prepared to see that end. We are told at the beginning of the novel that Archer’s life was moulded by conventions all of which seemed to him natural. Another information given at the same page is that “he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation” (Age, 4).

Throughout the novel we see that he instinctively tries to avoid himself from being drawn to Ellen because she represents a revolt against conventions. His first response is to advance the date of the announcement of his betrothal to May and secondly he tries to advance the date of his marriage. And although he says that Ellen has a right to live as she wants and should get a divorce from her husband, he accepts the duty to convince her not to divorce her husband. He persuades her not to divorce her husband, and thus makes it impossible for himself to marry Ellen.

The case of Ellen makes him suspect the appropriateness of the settled convictions of his clan and there appears a conflict between his reason and feeling of decency, between “the inexorable conventions” and his conscience, between the now-seems-inappropriate wisdom of the old pattern and the now-excited sexual instinct which will frighten and compel him to block his own way to happiness. By questioning the old standards he alienates himself to his own world; however, he cannot loosen all his ties with it and it is the result of this uncertainty that halts him when he has to take a decisive step, and makes him lead a dull marriage. It is apparent that he would lead a satisfactory life if he did not question the “inexorable” old rules.

It is Ellen’s frankness that influences Archer most by forming a contrast against the hypocritical world of New York society. When Ellen says that she has found the van der Luydens’ Duke dull, Archer is excited by her courage and longs to “hear more about the life of which her careless words had given him so illuminating a glimpse” (Age, 41). Ellen, who seems to be surprised by nothing, always surprises Archer who tries to surprise her in return in vain. It can be said that he tries to transcend her. When Ellen describes the van der Luydens’ house as a gloomy place, her words give him “an electric shock, for few were the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy” (Age, 47). He is also impressed by her referring to the formidable Mrs Mingott as “poor Granny.” She has opened his eyes: “It is you who are telling me; opening my eyes to things I’d looked at so long that I’d ceased to see them” (Age, 48).

Tries as he might, he cannot keep himself away from Ellen completely. He feels that he is being drawn to Ellen and instinctively asks May to shorten their betrothal period and get married at once in order to prevent himself from going astray. And after he marries May, he easily forgets Ellen. It is apparent that Archer, at the beginning of his married life, still likes his wife May. What makes his married life boring is its dullness. He becomes aware that he cannot elevate May. The only problem Ellen’s existence poses for him is that she has made him aware that there can be a nice woman different than his wife May, different than any women in his set. However, after eighteen years passed in marriage, the dullness of his life redraws him to Ellen. But, when he sees her standing in the pegoda he does not accost to her. However, after that event he begins to feel an unrestrainable desire to see the place she is living in and he cannot but go to see the place and then follow Ellen to Boston. After he finds Ellen in Boston, she becomes an obsession for him. But, he is still undetermined and seems to be after a vision.

The difference in his behaviours must have been apparent to all people around him because we see that he is dispelled from the family council. He is so immersed in his obsession that he cannot understand the fact that people around him are aware of the drives behind his strange behaviours. Finally he loses his patience and decides to ask her wife’s permission to leave her for the sake of Ellen. When he is about to tell his wife his decision, we are ironically reminded that “[c]onformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature” (Age, 203). He seems almost really determined. But when he is trying to make his resolution known to May, he cannot manage “to speak with the indifference of a man who longs for a change” (Age, 216), and she informs him that Ellen is returning to Europe soon. He thinks this time nothing can prevent him from following Ellen who is dispelled to France by the family council. However, when he learns that his wife is pregnant he surrenders.

At the beginning of the last chapter he is sitting at the table in the library. He is now fifty-seven years old and has been a widower for two years with three children. He is thinking about his past. Since it is not an extraordinary day we can infer that he usually contemplates the same things. We learn that New York has underwent such a fundamental change that, of the many institutions in the 1870’s, only Grace Church is unchanged. And “for many years past, every new movement, philanthropic, municipal or artistic, had taken account of his opinion and wanted his name” (Age, 219). That is, as a “good citizen” he has been a pioneer in all novelties. However, his character has not changed: “he would always be by nature a contemplative and a dilettante” (Age, 219).

When Archer arrives in Paris, he walks around the district of the city in which Ellen lives. He does not want to see Ellen but the things she has seen and the places she has been. It is not surprising that, at the end of the novel, he returns back to his hotel after sitting for a while on a bench facing the block of apartments on the top floor of which Ellen lives. That is the second time he has turned back although he can reach her. And it is the second time Ellen does not turn her eyes on him although she knows that he is there (remember the pagoda scene in Chapter 21).

Reviewers of the novel seem to ignore the fact that when Archer is brought to Paris by his son Dallas he has been a widower for two years and neither he nor Ellen has done anything to see each other during the period. I think Archer’s returning to his hotel signifies that it is not Newland and Ellen’s but Dallas and Fanny’s day who still have “the flower of life.” Newland crowns his loyalty to his wife and to his true self by returning to his hotel which symbolizes his preference for the old-fashioned ideas of the age of innocence.

Ellen is introduced to New York society with the help of the van der Luydens. Ellen, who became an orphan in her early childhood, has been brought up by Medora Manson, an eccentric aunt repeatedly widowed. When Ellen is eighteen years old, Medora’s husband dies and Medora takes the girl to Europe again. Then comes the news “of Ellen's marriage to an immensely rich Polish nobleman of legendary fame” and later comes “the news that Ellen's own marriage had ended in disaster, and that she was herself returning home to seek rest and oblivion among her kinsfolk” (Age, 39).

Although Ellen says “I want to forget everything else, to become a complete American again” (Age, 42) and “I want to cast off all my old life, to become just like everybody else here” (Age, 69) and although she hates to be different, she cannot adapt herself to the conventions of the New York society which requires her to abandon her freedom and she is inevitably drawn to people she has got accustomed to in Europe.

Her words “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past” (Age, 70) shows that she has illusions regarding her birthplace. She likens New York to heaven. She is neither truly European nor American. She tries to adapt herself to the way of New Yorkers, but sees that it requires her abandoning her freedom which is the dearest thing for her. She asks: “Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” (Age, 50). It is a world where you are expected to seem decent more than to be decent. Traditions and conventions have already lost their essence: what remains of them is their being observed conservatively.

Ellen learns that May does not accept to advance her marriage in order to give Newland Archer “time to give her up for the other woman” (Age, 107) and Ellen agrees with Newland that May’s attitude is noble. Then we see she gives an example of sacrifice herself. We learn that she has given up divorcing because Archer has shown her “how selfish and wicked it was” (Age, 108). She rejects Archer’s offer to abandon May for the sake of her. Her knowledge about May’s sacrifice drives her to sacrifice her own happiness.

We see that Ellen misreads Archer’s and her relatives’ attitudes. She thinks that Archer had insisted on announcing his engagement to May at the Beaufort ball to show that his family were also behind her, though Archer was trying to save his family, to avoid Ellen’s existence beside his prospective fiancee cause a scandal. She appreciates her relatives’ hating “happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before––and it's better than anything I've known” (Age, 110), although they try to save their reputation. Ellen perceives the selfishness of her relatives as unselfishness and turn out to be a statue of unselfishness herself: “‘Ah, don't let us undo what you've done!’ she cried. ‘I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. I can't love you unless I give you up’” (Age, 109-10). It seems that Newland and Ellen mutually misread of each other’s behaviours. Archer thinks that Ellen has accepted not to divorce her husband because she fears of the accusations in her husband’s letter, although her aim is to follow May’s doubtful example of sacrifice.

Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country is the counterpart of Archer. Like Archer, he is also interested in literature and science. Like him, he also has friends among literary men and artists of his time and reads about the new things in the fields of science and philosophy. We see that each one of them think of himself to be more clever than others in his social set. Both of them try to elevate a woman. Both of them are contemplative and a dilettante by nature.

The most important difference between the two characters is that Ralph Marvell is about the same age as Newland Archer forty years later. During the time nearly everything has changed. Transportation vehicles, home appliances, communication facilities, lighting of houses and streets, number of the immigrants, number of the millionaires and the penniless, household utensils, communication techniques, all of these and many other things have changed immensely. Social groupings and leaders of the community have also changed.

Although his counterpart Newland Archer belongs to one of the leading families of New York, Ralph’s family is an average one with limited wealth. It is a time when New York is governed by capitalist social potentates. Moral considerations of the past has given way to amoral considerations. The New York of Ralph’s time is full of skyscrapers in which rootless and ruthless Invaders are pursuing their interests to become the fittest to survive.

Ralph’s problems resemble Newland’s in essence. He thinks he should protect an “innocent” girl who has come from outside and belong to a different culture. Like Newland who misreads Ellen, Ralph too misreads Undine Spragg. Ralph is a well-educated man; he is graduated both from Harvard and Oxford. He has also studied law since he returned to New York. He has a too high opinion of himself, again, like Newland Archer. He belongs to one of the oldest families, but he has certain modern ideas; for instance, he has different social beliefs than his mother and think that his own ones are of “a loftier angle”: “Surveying the march of civilization from a loftier angle, he had early mingled with the Invaders, and curiously observed their rites and customs” (Custom, 50-1).

He thinks the Spraggs are different than the other Invaders whom he met only after they have “already been modified by contact with the indigenous” (Custom, 51). For him, the Spraggs “had been ‘plain people’ and had not yet learned to be ashamed of it” (Custom, 52). They have a “virgin innocence” and Ralph begins to think that it is his mission to save their innocence, “[t]o save her [Undine] from Van Degen and Van Degenism” (Custom, 53).

He is mistaken regarding Undine’s character. He thinks Undine is innocent and needs to be rescued from Van Degen, the husband of Ralph’s cousin, Clare Dagonet. He wants to rescue Undine by marriage; however, “we find that Marvell’s rescue-by-marriage to Undine is fatal, that his love, decency, and sense of responsibility are no match for her boundless, aggressive self-interest” (Tichi, 2003: 96). He can foresee that his family is to be extinct in the future because they do not have the qualities to survive against the intruders. However, he finds out too late “that Undine is neither a virgin nor innocent” (Tichi, 2003: 109) and commits suicide.


The business of the artist is to make weep, and not to weep, to make laugh, and not to laugh; and unless tears and laughter, and flesh-and-blood, are transmuted by him into the substance that art works in, they are nothing to his purpose, or to ours.

––Edith Wharton, The Art of Fiction

The world of Dallas and Fanny is the world in which the predictions regarding “the building of ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity, telephonic communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels” (Age, 179) have been realized.

Dallas takes after his father Newland and Mary takes after her mother May. However, they are different from their parents in their moods and attitudes. Dallas is an architect, not a lawyer as the all educated members of the line used to be in the past. He is not self-controlling like his father. And unlike his father, he is determined and confident. His “gay young eyes [has] a gleam of his great grandmother Mingott’s malice” (Age, 224). Although the new generation is quite different from the old one, there is a continuity between them. Mary is as conventional and dull as her mother although she leads “a larger life and held more tolerant views” (Age, 220). Wharton seems to convey that what changes over time is not the human nature but the circumstances which determine the shape of an individual’s life to a great extent. Habituation plays an important role in this process. Although Archer is urged, after his wife’s death, by his children to travel he does not go away either from his library or from his everyday tasks because he has lost the habit of travelling.

Capitalism has changed the United States as it has changed the rest of the world. Now there is no apparent difference between a gentleman and a parvenu. Money as a “great leveler” extirpated the leisure class as well as the notion of genteelness. Now “[t]he trenchant divisions between right and wrong, honest and dishonest, respectable and the reverse, [which] had left so little scope for the unforeseen” (Age, 222) in the old days have disappeared. Now there seems to be no hypocrisy because there is no need to appear to be decent. The prediction Lawrance Lefferts uttered years ago has come true: “If things go on at this rate, our children will be marrying Beaufort's bastards” (Age, 222).

Fanny Beaufort is an orphan like Ellen and she returns to the States after the death of her parents at the age of eighteen. She does not come face to face with the difficulties Ellen did only about a quarter century ago. The reasons behind the New Yorkers’ liking her are to a great extent the same reasons that the New Yorkers of the 1870s liked Ellen. However, the New York of the turn of the century is totally different from the New York of the 1870s. The “new” New York society is content that Fanny “was pretty, amusing and accomplished: what more did any one want? Nobody was narrow-minded enough to rake up against her the half-forgotten facts of her father's past and her own origin.” Her father’s disgrace is remembered only by the older people as an obscure incident since such disgraces are now commonplace “and nobody was surprised when Dallas's engagement was announced” (Age, 223).

Unlike Ellen and Newland’s generation that thought they should not do what they wanted, the generation of Fanny and Dallas think that they can do what they want and their “heart beat as wildly.” Dallas “was the first-born of Newland and May Archer, yet it had never been possible to inculcate in him even the rudiments of reserve” (Age, 225). The new generation know what they want and have determination to attain their desires and nearly no social obstacles like the ones that made their parents stumble await them on their way. The old generation did not need to talk to each other to find out “what was going on underneath” because everything was predictable: they were “all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper” (Age, 52). However, the new generation do not “ever have time to find out about” (Age, 225) their own private thoughts. They can be careless, yet they do not lack sensitiveness. They have “the facility and self-confidence that came of looking at fate not as a master but as an equal” (Age, 226).

Paul in The Custom of the Country is an obedient, shy boy. He is not adaptive to new surroundings but open to new impressions. He is an unwanted child for his mother, who can use him without scrupples to embezzle her ex-husband Ralph and his parents. Paul takes after his father both physically and spiritually and Laura is afraid of this because Ralph is too weak to defend his rights: “For his own sake, I wish there were just a drop or two of Spragg in him” (Custom, 286).

After his father dies, his mother takes Paul to France where she lives with her third husband Raymond de Chelles. He likes Raymond de Chelles, his French father, who is also fascinated by him. However, de Chelles is generally away in winter and his loneliness gives “him a passion for the printed page,” which reminds his father’s inclination towards reading. He is, in the main, a lonely child whose mother does not have even a minute to spare to him. He likes Raymond de Chelles. However, his mother abandons de Chelles and remarries Elmer Moffatt and the child is taken to his new house in New York.

The last chapter of The Custom of the Country is devoted to Paul where we are given information regarding Undine’s getting a divorce decree and remarrying Elmer. The sumptuousness of the furniture in the house makes the boy feel embarrassed, a sign reminding again his resemblance to his father. He likes reading and forgets everything around him when he is reading. However, the books in Moffatt’s house are for decorative reasons and too dear to be hold in hands. They are in a “golden prison” there.

When Mrs Heeny reads her clippings regarding his mother’s divorcing her husband Raymond de Chelles and remarrying Mr Moffatt, Paul cannot understand the things said but “one fact alone stood for him––that she had said things that were untrue about his French father” (Custom, 367). We infer that he has somehow inherited his father’s values. His inclination towards reading, his “passion for the printed page” and his getting a prize in composition at school are apparent indicators of this.

Paul represents a hope for the future of Ralph Marvell and the kind of him. He is potentially the “richest boy in America” (Custom, 369) and he very probably will not face the material difficulties that his father suffer. He will quite possibly inherit the fortune of Elmer Moffatt. “Through Paul, in fine, Wharton begins a new cycle that gives the Aborigines a possible second chance, a possible opportunity to live anew” (Tichi, 2003: 110).



In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton, enumerates “telephones, motors, electric light, central heating (except by hot-air furnaces), X-rays, cinemas, radium, aeroplanes and wireless telegraphy” as the seemingly most striking differences between the New York of her childhood (the 1870s) and the 1930s. According to the autobiography, her life before 1914 “had been too uneventful to be worth recording.” Although certain minor changes had occured before the war, they were unimportant compared to the changes the world war brought about:

Not until the successive upheavals which culminated in the catastrophe of 1914 had ‘cut all likeness from the name’ of my old New York, did I begin to see its pathetic picturesqueness. The first change came in the 'eighties, with the earliest detachment of big money-makers from the West, soon to be followed by the lords of Pittsburgh. But their infiltration did not greatly affect old manners and customs, since the dearest ambition of the new-comers was to assimilate existing traditions. Social life, with us as in the rest of the world, went on with hardly perceptible changes till the war abruptly tore down the old frame-work, and what had seemed unalterable rules of conduct became of a sudden observances as quaintly arbitrary as the domestic rites of the Pharaohs (Backward, 1.2.).

The changes that occured in the fifty years were much greater than the changes taken place since the Americas were discovered. Edith Wharton did not like America when she returned there in 1872 at the age of ten after having lived six years in Europe. “As an exceptionally intelligent girl, loving literature, she found her society intolerably narrow and uncultivated” (Cunliffe, 1978: 238). However, after the World War I, seeing that the new order was worse than the old one and that America had lost her endearing features, she “went in search, imaginatively, of the America that was gone. Looking across the vast abyss of the war, she located the lost America in the New York of her girlhood” (Lewis, 1975: 424).

In The Age of Innocence, which was first published in 1920 and “lamented the destructiveness of the war” (Adamson, 1999), we see an ever-changing New York. It is very different from the New York of the colonial period. However, the New York of Edith Wharton’s grandfather’s time was very similar with the New York of the colonial period, which means that before her grandfather’s day no noteworthy differences did appear. The New York society of the 1870s, which is under siege by the parvenus, still prizes “moral coherence, restraint, dignity, integrity, and fidelity to the domestic pieties” (Lewis, 1975: 34). We understand that the New York of The Age of Innocence is quite changed and is still changing speedily in the 1870s. The immigrants to the city are very effective in those changes. We are informed just at the beginning of the novel about the struggle for supremacy among the old families of New York and the newcomers. The “new” New Yorkers are intending “a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals” (Age, 1). It is still a place composed of clannish families. Wharton calls her own class or clan as “conservatives” who evades “the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to” (Age, 1).

In the novel we have occasional references to the technological progress which furnish the lives of people with new facilities and contribute to disintegrate the old social structures. It is a time when private property has precedence over the other human rights. The existing policy of the States is to support the entrepreneurs who are also backed by legislators that are very much influenced by Social Darwinism which is based on the idea that over time the unfit-to-survive will be extinct and it is better to hasten the process. The result is the emergence of the capitalist class with enormous money. The new rich emulate the old families and tries to be received by their society. In order to achieve this aim, they give ultra-ostentatious parties and they seem to have opened a great hole in the wall of the strongholds of the old families.

The New York of the 1870s which is “ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with––well, rather old-fashioned ideas” is made up of both the old and the new blood. Neither Julius Beaufort nor old Mrs Mingott can be classified as supporters of the old way of life and they execute a great influence on New Yorkers of the day. Fluctuations in economic life, characteristic of early capitalism, causes certain civil unrests and New York’s unimpeachable honesty in business matters cause certain members suffer exclusion from society as in the case of Julius Beaufort. However, the kind of suffering that Ellen and Newland are exposed to is not essentially a result of the pressure of the community but because they do not belong to any social set totally. They stand astride with one leg on the side of the new and the other leg on the side of the old system.

According to The Age of Innocence, “[t]he New York of Newland Archer's day was a small and slippery pyramid, in which, as yet, hardly a fissure had been made or a foothold gained” (Age, 31-2). However, it is already changed substantially compared to the old days. Probably Wharton means that the control of New York society is still in the hands of the good families the manners of which are imitated by the newcomers. A good part of the members of the society are newcomers who has made their way into the society “by marriage with one of the ruling clans” (Age, 33). A few families which are called as “plain people” by Mrs Archer constitute the “firm foundation” of the social set. These New Yorkers who are comparatively new have a great influence on the social life in New York.

Julius Beaufort and old Mrs Mingott, who was originally a Catherine Spicer, are the two major and prominent characters who have modern tendencies. We see that they break many rules and contribute to the disintegration of the society very much. According to Mrs Archer, through whom we are informed regarding the older and the contemporary New York, people “were not as particular as they used to be; and with old Catherine Spicer ruling one end of Fifth Avenue, and Julius Beaufort the other, you couldn't expect the old traditions to last much longer” (Age, 32). The Mingotts, Newlands, Chiverses and Mansons are by many people thought to be “the very apex of the pyramid; but they themselves (at least those of Mrs Archer's generation) were aware that, in the eyes of the professional genealogist, only a still smaller number of families could lay claim to that eminence” (Age, 32).

Other than the van der Luydens and Amy Sillerton (originally a Dagonet) members of the true aristocratic families (the Dagonets, the Lannings, the Pitts, the Foxes) do not appear in the novel. And, judging by the van der Luydens, we can infer that those families are retreated back to their strongholds to defend themselves against the invaders. They have already been defeated by the newcomers in many fields. They are on guard behind the walls of their last strongholds and trying to delay the time of their total surrender.

We learn that the primary occupation for the educated well-to-do New Yorkers is lawyership. The other members are bankers or merchants. They do not have a “professional ambition” (Age, 81) and do not do much work. They find “money-making” as disparaging. “It was a society from which all dealers in retail business were excluded as a matter of course” (Backward, 1.3.). When Ned Winsett encourages him to go into politics, the idea makes Newland Archer laugh condescendingly. We learn that the decent inhabitants of the contemporary New York have lost the field of politics to newcomers: “[t]he day was past when that sort of thing was possible: the country was in possession of the bosses and the emigrant, and decent people had to fall back on sport or culture” (Age, 80). In A Backward Glance, Wharton says that “[e]ven the acquiring of wealth had ceased to interest the little society into which I was born” (Backward, 3.2.). The generation of her grandfather was the last one in which “every gentleman had what was called ‘a gentleman's library.’ In my father's day, these libraries still existed, though they were often only a background” (Backward, 3.1.).

According to Mrs Archer, who observes New York “from the lofty stand-point of a non-participant” and who is provided information by Mr Sillerton Jackson and Miss Sophy, “New York was very much changed” (Age, 161). At Mrs Archer’s annual Thanksgiving dinner they lament about the changes. One of the signs of disintegration is “the extravagance in dress” (Age, 162). Although in the old days “it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions,” now nobody wears a garment of the previous year and “[i]t was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her new clothes on her back as soon as they arrived” (Age, 163). And thanks to Ellen’s “being the first person to countenance Mrs Struthers” (Age, 164), another parvenu, now even May goes to Mrs Struthers's Sunday evenings. According to May, “everybody goes to Mrs Struthers's now; and she was invited to Granny's last reception” (Age, 164). New York, according to Archer, ignored the changes till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining that they had taken place in a preceding age. There was always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) had surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable? Once people had tasted of Mrs Struthers's easy Sunday hospitality they were not likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish (Age, 164).

Although it tolerates many changes, New York is adamant regarding certain social rules. It observes “the etiquette of hospitality, and no discussion with a guest was ever allowed to degenerate into a disagreement” (Age, 167-8). Another example of its resolute nature is that “in business matters it exacted a limpid and impeccable honesty” although it “tolerated hypocrisy in private relations” (Age, 163). It “was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities” (Age, 169). However, we understand that the dissolution of this up-to-now-nonviolated rule is also imminent since some people “bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York” (Age, 169) when the Beauforts disappear due to Mr Beaufort’s dishonour. Besides Julius Beaufort, Regina Beaufort also disappears since “the wife of a man who had done anything disgraceful in business had only one idea: to efface herself, to disappear with him” (Age, 172) and “a private disgrace is nothing compared to the scandal of ruining hundreds of innocent people” (Age, 173). New York is housing 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 behaviour of those who gave rise to them” (Age, 212). However, the rules could prevail because the newcomers, to a certain degree, were trying to assimilate them in order to be recognized by the native New Yorkers instead of imposing their own rules.


In The Custom of the Country we are given some information about certain old families such as the Dagonets, the Fairfords and the Marvells. Unlike their counterparts in The Age of Innocence, these families do not occupy a prominent place in New York any more and are marginalized. We are given some detailed information only about the Marvells among them. The Marvells form one of the old mercantile families whose wealth has diminished because they could not conform to the new rules of business in industrializing America. The members of the family are men of profession and not of the men of business. Contrary to the men of business, they can only earn a modest salary. They evade business since it requires them to compete with the ruthless invaders who have come to New York for better opportunities “with indiscriminate appetites” to acquire wealth. Contrary to the parvenus, the Marvells have many ideals to respect. Their respect for the values of their ancestries restrain them from thriving in a period of rapid social change in urbanizing and industrializing America.

We have an unstable, a non-uniform community in The Custom of the Country which is “about a city within a city, repository of a very different set of values” (Fryer, 1939: 106). It is a capitalist society which is in a constant change where members of the old families have lost their prominence. While some men are rising, some men are going down; while some classes are gaining social and material power, other classes are losing their hold on society and money continually.

It is the post-Civil War industrial and financial maneuverings that have destroyed the serene atmosphere of the old New York. Invaders have knocked down the gates of New York and conquered the city easily. The Custom of the Country is “an exhaustively detailed portrayal of the triumph of the new group over the old” (Hoffman, 1951: 14).

The old New Yorkers cannot defend their stronghold or show much resistance because the new financial “barbarians” have stronger incentives. They easily creep into the society and destroy it. The very values that the old New Yorkers respect much are responsible for their defeat. They are condescending working for money. However, the invaders are after money and do not feel moral scrupples, at least of the kind the old New Yorkers respected much, in pursuing it. The newcomers do not find it indecent to do anything to acquire it. And money as a means of power make them able to undermine the established order of the old New York.

The old New Yorkers find it to be essential to live “like a gentleman”; the phrase means that they lack the original qualities of gentlemen: “the gentleman of Ralph Marvell's world had been held to what was left of originally firm and valid standards” (Hoffman, 1951: 15). Their living like gentlemen requires them to evade scandals and to find earning money for its sake disdainful. Their contempt is very passive. We learn that they are so scornful of “mere money-getting” that they condemn working to earn money and they have turned to be an idle society. Their sense of propriety is based on an “archaic probity” that does not retain its original strength.

The old families of New York are so buried in their past that they even evade modern facilities. For instance, Laura Fairford’s [Ralph’s sister] house in The Custom of the Country has an old-fashioned wood fire instead of a gas-log or a polished grate with electric bulbs. Mrs Fairford’s ornaments are also antiquated.

It is a world in which only the fittest, that is, the most ruthless can prosper. Even Abner Spragg who has some faint scrupples regarding certain matters declines materially. However, a man like Ralph Marvell, whose code of conduct requires chivalric bondages has no chance to survive. His “passive opennes to the finer sensations” and his inclination to the arts as a dreamer makes him an easy prey for Undine who is very artful, who plays [imitates] the role of an innocent girl and “manipulates an offer from the socially acceptable Ralph Marvell” (Aguiar, 2001: 74).

Although she learns that the Marvells are not as “swell” as she thinks, Undine still wants and hastens to marry Ralph because she does not want to lose the opportunity, because she does not have a better suitor at the moment. She fears that Moffatt will disclose her first marriage to him to the Marvells and prevent her ascending socially.

Undine, “who by skillful use of sex attraction, beauty, money, blackmail, and divorce, penetrates first into the exclusive circles of New York and then into an old aristocratic family in France” (Taylor, 1936: 356), ruins nearly everybody about her: her husband Ralph, her father, her husband Raymond de Chelles and even her son. She does not care about family relics of Ralph and of Raymond de Chelles. She has the wedding ring that came down from Ralph’s grandmother reset to make it more fashionable and tries to sell the ancestral tapestries in the house of her French husband “in order to have more money for dresses and trips to Paris” (Fryer, 1939: 111). She even forgets her own son’s birthday being busy with the celebration for her finished portray.

All of her behaviours are calculated. She prepares herself for her hunts before a mirror: “We see her rehearsing widening her eyes trustfully and making her smile limpid as a child's” (Fryer, 1939: 105) and then performs her prepared roles in real situations. Thus she can make Ralph to see her as an innocent young lady in need of his guidance and help.

She always lives by her own rules and does not accept any other laws other than her own. For her, marriage is a business transaction, “one that might be dissolved by divorce when necessary” (Aguiar, 2001: 74). Finding the prospect of life that Ralph’s limited finances and values lay bare before her too boring, she pursues an affair with Peter Van Degen although she is still married to Ralph and when she fails to do this, she does not want to miss the opportunity of a seemingly promising marriage to Raymond de Chelles divorcing Ralph. She even does not hesitate “to sell her custody rights to their son Paul back to Marvel as a way of financing the papal annulment that is necessary for her to marry the Catholic French count, Raymond de Chelles” (Cahir, 1999: 38).

She thinks the count has an immense wealth. When she finds that Raymond de Chelles is not as rich as she hoped him to be, she divorces him easily and turns back to her now-very-rich first husband Moffatt. However, she has an insatiable character and when the novel ends the reader feels that if the novel continued she would divorce even “the billionaire Railroad King” Moffatt in order to be an ambassador’s wife, in order to attain that seemingly unattainable aim.

She has an unchanging character. She does not care a straw for either moral decency or the established customs. She adopts the rules and values of the masculine materialistic world of the 1910s and is checked by no moral scrupples. She is determined to destroy anybody obstructing her way to material success and social prominence. Even her father suffers successive financial problems due to her excessive expenditures.

Her sensations are regulated by a “cool spirit” within her which “allows her to severe human relationships as easily” (Fryer, 1939: 112). Her coolness of spirit is the kind of coolness that can be attributed to corporate unions. Undine “is a capitalist who has learned to play the only market available to women––the marriage market” (Donovan, 1989: 71). Besides everybody around her, she also sees her body and beauty as assets and sells anyone and herself as commodities to the highest bidder. She is not always successful but does not get frustrated in the face of contingencies. She is the perfect example of the capitalist system “in which success requires ruthlessness and a willingness to take large risks” (Orgel, 1995: xiv). She takes risks and show ruthlessness in the extremest sense while pursuing to attain her ever-changing ends.

Although the etiquette of Ralph Marvell’s set signifies “[t]he obligation recognised between decent men to deal with each other decently” (Custom, 163), the code of Wall Street requires to take each deal according to previous relationships.

The “special morality” of the business world changes according to situations. If the interests of the opposite party are in accord with yours, then you can cooperate with them even if you have old scores with them. The decency of business world is not based of chivalric values; you are under obligation to the opposite party only if the opposite party has done you some good previously.

Mr Spragg, a representative of the intruders, thinks that “it’s up to both parties to take care of their own skins” (Custom, 164) in a deal. For him, business transactions are carried out only in terms of personal interests. Each party should be careful about the tricks of the opposite party and if one of them swindle in a transaction, it is the deceived party to be blamed of the result. It can be said that they have accepted the rules of Social Darwinism which teaches that individuals should pursue their personal interests in order to be enlisted among “the elect,” among the fittest to survive.

Mr Spragg has a certain “sense of decency in his private rule of conduct which raises him above his more urbanised fellows” (Maxwell, 1963: 254); however, he resists to Moffatt’s blackmail only with a faint reluctance. He helps his daughter to make Ralph believe that “she’s right out of Kindergarten” (Custom, 84) by not disclosing the fact that his daughter is already a divorced woman.

Ralph is one of Mrs Wharton’s characters who is inclined to literature, who “writes a little, paints a little, and practices law after the custom of his ancestors” (Jessup, 1965: 28). He proves to be a failure when he goes into a partnership with the real-estate brokers. He tries to write but cannot finish any works of literature. Like Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence he is fond of reading and, again, like him, an inattentive reader. Like Archer, he does not wholly belong either to the new values or to the old ones. Like Archer, again, he is partly modern and partly archaic. He is a graduate of both Harvard and Oxford. Although he has got a brilliant education, he is a dreamer and like his family that he has declared to be doomed to disappear, he is also destined, as his friend Charles Bowen says of him, “to go down in any conflict with the rising forces” (Custom, 176).

He hopes to elevate Undine just as Archer hopes to elevate May. He thinks that Undine is an innocent girl who needs him as a rescuer. However, he “not only cannot ‘save’ Undine, but in the end commits suicide because he cannot save himself from her” (Joslin, 1993: 348). As Archer undervalues May’s capacities, he too undervalues Undine’s capacities. And during their honeymoon he is astonished to realise “the curious fact that, for all her light irresponsibility, it was always she who made the practical suggestion, hit the nail of expediency on the head” (Custom, 103-4).

He is an embodiment of the chivalric values of mediaevel era; like the era, the values in question are also out of date. They do not have a chance to survive in an age of capitalism which is based on competition and speed. Ralph, who “against his wife … has no defense” (Jessup, 1965: 28), cannot save even his son from Undine. “Unable to speak in the face of Undine's perfidiousness, Ralph makes no claims against her divorce action and thus loses his son; by his blindness and inarticulateness, he is as much the agent of his own destruction” (Fryer, 1939: 114-5).

We are informed that Ralph had rebelled against the provincialism of his own set whom he calls Aborigines and likens “them to those vanishing denizens of the American continent doomed to rapid extinction with the advance of the invading race” (Custom, 78) under the impression of the new ideas prevailing in the America of his day. However, when he gets into a close acquaintance with the code of conduct of the invading race, he suddenly realises that “the ideals of the aboriginal New York … were singularly coherent and respectable as contrasted with the chaos of indiscriminate appetites which made up its modern tendencies” (Custom, 79). He abandons the desire to be “modern” and takes his place among the doomed Aborigines.

His having been educated into the chivalric manners and morals makes him vulnerable against the ruthless invaders. His values requires him to avoid indecency of conduct. He is a passivist, an escapist. Although he is a lawyer, he shows the imprudence of giving the right for custody of his son to his ex-wife without thinking about the consequences. When he learns that his wife even kept her marriage to Moffatt a secret from him, he commits suicide because he cannot endure his wife’s moral decadence.

The new values affect even Ralph’s “archaic probity” negatively. Ralph, who is in need of money because of his wife’s huge expenses, silences his conscience and helps Moffatt with his deal in order to get a commission. He cannot be sure if the money was filthy or not, but senses a corruptness in the deal and in spite of himself he accepts it. Again, when Undine tries to extort money in return for the custody of Paul, Ralph feels compelled to ask Moffatt to help him to get a “quick turn” in Wall Street. Thus he also is drawn to the world of Wall Street.

Moffatt, who is “the exact counterpart of Undine” (Fryer, 1939: 106) is an unscrupulous self-made man who “see[s] things big” and who leaves Apex City finding it “too tight a fit for” him and goes to New York because New York is his “size” (Custom, 84). He is a perfect example of the capitalist man. Although he was compelled to divorce Undine, he finds Undine’s acceptance of it understandable because he was penniless at the time. However, it is also understandable for him to use his former marriage to Undine as a blackmail in order to get the necessary information about the Eubaw deal. He is also not above of recommending Undine to use the custody of her son to extort from Ralph Marvell the money she needs to annul her marriage to Ralph in order to get married to Raymond de Chelles.

Although we are not given much information regarding the nature of Moffatt’s success “[i]t is clear that all his enterprises are on a grand scale, highly speculative, and involve a large degree of opportunism and a willingness to use anything and anyone to gain his ends” (Orgel, 1995: xix). He suffers successive failures in Apex City; however, he has a firm belief in himself and he is too resilient to get frustrated in the face of undesirable happenings.

In The Custom of the Country, which is set in New York of 1910s, we see that the new rich and the new values have got prominence as the scope of industrialism and the scale of business enterprises have increased dramatically. It is a world where the people of the old values who are unable “to get a mental grasp on large financial problems” (Custom, 162) and whose “ignorance of business” is “fathomless” (Custom, 163) cannot assert themselves. Their “reserves and discriminations” have no chance against “the new spirit of limitless concession” (Custom, 191). We see that the New York of The Custom of the Country is a place where the rules of Social Darwinism have gained full speed through Sumnerism and driven the members of old families from their stronghold.


Edith Wharton wrote mainly about the New York of the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its upper class society. During the period, the United States transformed into an industrial country from an agricultural one. New inventions followed one after the other. Industrial revolution triggered agricultural revolution which, in turn, caused the prices of agricultural products to decrease dramatically and diminished the percentage of the peasants compared to the population of urban areas considerably.

The influx into urban cities disturbed the existing order of the cities. Although the first wave of immigrants to New York city accepted the established order, the struggle for supremacy acquired momentum eventually as the hordes of immigrants began to overwhelm the number of the indigenous New Yorkers.

As Mrs Archer remarks in The Age of Innocence, the New York of the 1870s is already changed a great deal. The two ends of it are occupied by old Mrs Mingott, who is very fond of novelties and Julius Beaufort, who is a parvenu that has found his way into the New York society through marriage. It is a world where a daughter of a good family of aristocratic origins can become penniless and be compelled to marry a wealthy newcomer. The members of the New York society of the 1870s, the descendants of the merchants and statesmen of the colonial period, are very different from their ancestors. Although their forebears were interested in arts and politics, the members of the society of New York of the 1870s evades politics and arts. When he is asked to go into politics by Ted Winsett, Newland Archer laughs at the recommendation because “[t]he day was past when that sort of thing was possible: the country was in possession of the bosses and the emigrant, and decent people had to fall back on sport or culture” (Age, 80). It is understood that “decent people” were defeated in those battle-fields by the newcomers and retreated to their last strongholds. Now the country is under siege of the capitalists and the newcomers who do not have much moral scrupples and decency.

According to Mrs Archer, only a few families can be rightly called to be real aristocrats such as the Dagonets, the Chiverses and the van der Luydens. The members of these families who rarely condescends to go down the city seem to have already disappeared from New York. Of these families, only the van der Luydens are known to us to a certain extent and they are dealt as if they are dead. They live “as much as possible in the sylvan solitude of Skuytercliff” (Age, 36). They appear in the city only when they are needed to restore the order. And we see Amy Sillerton (who had been a Dagonet) is married to an “eccentric man” and submitted him “so tamely” (Age, 139).

The New York of the 1870s is depicted by Edith Wharton as an ever-changing world and we see that even the most conservative members of the society contribute to the transformation. The fashion of going to Mrs Struthers's Sunday evenings is started by Ellen but even May start to go there in a short time. The van der Luydens, who are “the arbiters of fashion, the Court of last Appeal,” can invite Ellen, who has escaped from her husband and wearing indecent apparels, to their house in Skuytercliff where they invite only particular people.

Wharton creates an ambiguity in her attitude towards the new and the old. She says, in A Backward Glance, the leisure class was an opportunity for the United States but was neglected; however, she portrays the members of that class as doomed unreal personalities. A possible solution to that dilemma posed by Mrs Wharton is that, while she yearned for the old, she was aware, as a wide-open-eyed realist, that the day of the old order was over.

Her central characters are torn between the old and the new values. The central female characters of her novels are the embodiment of the new woman in different degrees. Although Ellen seems to have sexual freedom to a certain extent, she also has moral scrupples which make her at least loosely tied to the old values. However, Undine is a perfect and extreme example of the new woman who sees her beauty and the people about her as assets and sells them as commodities “to gain power, prestige, and money” (Innes, 1993). The central male characters are aware of the inconsistencies in their own social sets but their true selves do not let them go astray.

Their being torn between the old and the new, between their hearts and their brains make them ineffectual and indetermined. And their being superior to others in terms of education and imagination is no help for them: “the typical masculine figure in Edith Wharton's fiction is a man set apart from his neighbors by education, intellect and feeling, but lacking the force or courage either to impose himself or to get away” (Wilson, 1948: 166).

Newland Archer and Ralph Marvell’s tendency towards books and fine arts is a sign of retreat, a result of their weakness in character, since their reading habit and their ideas about arts and social issues seem to be inconsistent. “Unable to wrench himself free from the binds of convention, Newland retreats to the aesthetic pleasures of books, art, and opera to experience passion and imagination” (Skaggs, 2004). And Ralph Marvell does not know how to finish a literary work. Although they stick to the principle of maintaining the established order of the society, they are aware of the inconsistencies and contradictions in that order. This awareness of theirs makes their lives a kind of imprisonment and them tragic victims. They are among “Wharton's tragic victims [who] are prisoners of consciousness because of their marital state, the dictates of society, their moral choices as artists, or their fear of the supernatural” (Fracasso, 1994: 4).

Newland and Ellen are torn between the old and the new. Newland is fascinated by Ellen’s originality which is, at least partly, a result of her foreign upbringing; she is different from the other female members of Newland’s social set. While Newland’s inclination to originality, which is an outcome of his interest in arts and new ideas, draws him to Ellen, his natural instinct drives him to block his own way. The tension between his natural and acquired character makes him suffer and at the end his real character prevails. Ellen is different on the surface but what makes her refrain from marrying Newland is her American side: she learns that May is ready to sacrifice her own happiness because she does not want her “happiness made out of a wrong––an unfairness––to somebody else” (Age, 93) and sticks firmly to May’s example and refuse to be happy at the expense of someone else’s unhappiness.

Both Newland and Ellen seem to be knights in rusty armours: what they choose to wear make them unable to move. Although their problems can be related to their scrupples regarding others, neither of them can be moral in the exact sense of the word: they kiss each other more than once although they are married to other people. Like the other members of the society, they are more concerned with propriety which required “indecent affairs” to be out of sight than with morality. They are ready even for an adulterous relation. Newland has a “past” with a married woman and it is at least implied that Ellen enjoys sexual freedom. Their interest in the new ideas both unite and part them. They advocate freedom and pay for that. At the end, Newland, whose willpower is not as strong as his dreams and aspirations, returns to his immutable self and Ellen to Paris where she really belongs.

The case of old Mrs Mingott shows that one can impose his/her rules upon New York “by strength of will and hardness of heart, and a kind of haughty effrontery” (Age, 9). Newland lacks these qualities. He finally seems to be determined at the farewell party given for Ellen; however, it is too late because his wife is pregnant now. May’s pregnancy can also be read as another blockade erected by Newland himself: although he finds his wife dull, he has a sound sexual relationship with her.

The novel which was written in 1920 when Wharton was nearing her sixties seems to be very nostalgical; the ironic rendering of the old New York seems to have been a curtain to cover Edith Wharton’s own commitment who thinks that “[l]ife is the saddest thing there is, next to death” (Backward, 14.7.). She conceals her own feelings under the veil of irony and of sarcasm; but there are moments her feeling of sympathy with the old New York reveals itself unavoidably. Her constant play of irony is a defensive gesture; “her intelligence has transcended her special group and tradition and society; her heart and her instincts are with them” (Lewisohn, 1939: xxix). Perhaps the most important message of the novel is that: although “there was good in the old ways” (Age, 219) “[t]here was good in the new order too” (Age, 220).

Newland’s returning to his hotel without seeing Ellen at the end of the novel leaves a chocking bite of tragic feeling in the throat of the reader. The tragic feeling aroused in the heart of the reader springs, I think, not from the fact that Newland turns down the chance to reach the object of his ambitions since Ellen has now turned to be “some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture … the composite vision of all that he had missed” (Age, 219) but from the fact that it turns a lifelong turmoil of contradicting feelings to an acknowledgement of total surrender. The instance confirms that what makes Newland Archer abstain from enjoying “the flower of life” is his “second nature” and not the social constrictions of his social set.

Although the socio-economic structure never stayed the same, easily discernable changes did not begin to appear until the 1870s, the time when The Age of Innocence begins. As of the 1870s, the old good families of New York have an undisputable control over the city. However, they have developed a form of idle life and, unlike their ancestors, they are condescending working for money. Besides these, they have lost their interest in administrative duties, too.

These features of the old families cause them to lose strength against the robust invaders who are after money as a means of power. The old New Yorkers continue to keep to the old ways of making money while the new occupations that the American industrial revolution has made available enable the parvenus to prosper incomparably and gain a cosiderable economic power. Eventually, the newcomers defeat the old families, the remnants of the medieval age.

With hindsight we can say that the transformation was a universal and an inevitable one. And, Although in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, she laments for the old New York, Edith Wharton, as a realist writer, does neither condemn the parvenus nor praise the old New Yorkers directly. She seems to have seen the transformation inevitable and tries to give a true portrayal of the society in question with its inhabitants.

We see that if a prominent member of the New York society of the 1870s starts something new, it becomes acceptable to the public very soon.

The allurement of novelties is also effective in these acceptances. Old Mrs Mingott and Beaufort are responsible for some of the novelties. Old New Yorkers are not immune or closed to novelties but they need novelties to be introduced so slowly that they could pretend not to have noticed them before the novelties have established themselves firmly as Edith Wharton ironically states in both novels.

The changes in the composition and behaviour of the old New York society are in accord with the pace of American industrialism. The more the United States progress materially, the more the social stratum and social groupings suffer alterations. Sumnerism, the American version of Social Darwinism, and laissez-faire economic system support the capitalists who are supposed to pursue their own interests and prove to be the fittest to survive.

The precepts of Social Darwinism are opposed to the old values which are based on decency of conduct. The old New Yorkers are helpless against the Invaders; they are doomed because, if they responded to the blows of the Invaders in kind, they would not be themselves. They are the heirs of a tradition that has remained seemingly the same for centuries and the tradition has no place in a time of rapid change. They have no chance other than clinging to their conventions in order to prolong the life-span of their old tradition.

The greatest threats for the old values are the new money and the New Woman. The new money is acquired by people whose “special morality” does not require them to deal with each other decently and is so abundant that it could easily make it impossible to tell a gentleman from a rascal. While the intruders are getting wealthier, the old families are being empowerished. The allurement of the newcomers’ “conspicuous waste” fascinate the descendents of the old families, and the intruders could creep into the society easily with the help of their filthy lucre. In The Custom of the Country, Ralph is critical of his own set: “The daughters of his own race sold themselves to the Invaders; the daughters of the Invaders bought their husbands as they bought an opera-box” (Custom, 82).

The new woman who became a powerful social figure by the late nineteenth century “both embodied new values and posed a critical challenge to the existing order” (Tichi, 1988: 589). The New Women, who was a product of capitalism and was the driving force of the socio-economic changes, was well informed about her place in society and was resolved to lead her own way. Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence “is a portrait of the beginning of what we have always called with no real discrimination the new woman” (Lawrence, 1936: 257). With her independence and sexual freedom she poses a threat for the serene atmosphere of the old New York. And she is dispelled by the women of the old New York because “in attracting one of their husbands, she threatens the community itself” (Fryer, 1939: 141).

Although Ellen, “the beginning of the New Woman,” has moral scrupples that can make her a statue of sacrifice, her counterpart Undine in The Custom of the Country, which is set in 1910s, seems to be an embodiment of ruthless capitalism. Undine, who “is both beautiful and alien in nature, devoid of heart and soul” (Silver, 2000: 80), can take risks and, if she falls, she rises again. She has the kind of resilience that Moffatt has. She can manipulate anybody to her advantage without feeling any scrupples. She is also a false counterpart of May in The Age of Innocence. Although May’s innocence is artificial because she is devoid of free will, Undine’s is an imitation. She is like an actress playing the role of being innocent. Comparing her with her counterparts in The Age of Innocence, we can infer that, within the forty years between the 1870s and the 1910s New York changed drastically.

Although Phillip Barrish says that “Wharton was indeed harsh ... towards what she saw as the self-indulgent narcissism of the ‘new’ New Woman” (Barrish, 2001: 99) and although Undine “embodies all that Mrs. Wharton most hates” (Parrington, 1930: 382), some other critics do not think that she condemns Undine. As a representative of the New Woman, Undine rejects domestic duties and, unlike her mother, is devoid of maternal instinct. She is independent, outspoken and rejects “such ‘truths’ as the maternal instinct and the role of child-rearing as the highest duty of women” (Tichi, 1988: 590).

She sees domestic life offered to women as a form of slavery. She is aware of the value of her physical beauty and use it as an asset to benefit as a beautiful member of the fair sex.

The Age of Innocence was published in 1920 but it begins with the New York of the 1870s. The Custom of the Country was published and set in 1913, in the eve of the First World War. These novels are seen among the best of Edith Wharton’s novels by many of her critics. They deal with different phases of the disintegration of the old tradition in New York. In The Age of Innocence, which was written after World War I which put an end to the age of innocence, we are given a picture of the old New York which is in process of disintegration. However, the New York of The Custom of the Country is unrecognizable compared to the New York of The Age of Innocence. The title of the book seems to be ironic because what we see in this novel is a hypocritical society with an artificial innocence based on narrow-mindedness. However, what is called innocent is not the society but the epoch preceding the First World War, which marks the end of the age of innocence.

Edith Wharton was in France during the First World War which destroyed the old order completely. The social and cultural values which she respected much were given a death-blow by the great war. Wharton thought the unhappy events of the war were the results of an inherent destructive capacity “within both modern civilization and modern psyches” (Barrish, 2001: 13). She had to leave Fauborg St German where she had lived for twenty years when the war began and must have felt the sense of displacedness. Her losing some of her intimate friends such as Henry James was also effective in her turning back to the tranquil atmosphere of the 1870s in The Age of Innocence in which “she journeys into her own past, a past that she had rejected, in order to recapture a time of lost stability and to achieve a reconciliation with that past” (Fryer, 1939: 128)

As a “relic-hunter” she tries to dig “the compact world” of her youth in bits in The Age of Innocence. However, in the foreground we have Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska who are torn between the old and the new values. It is a novel about the disintegration of “the compact world” and the formation of the modern life. In the novel, we see that the representatives of the old New York still retain their hold on New York society and certain conventions of them are still powerful in the city. However, none of the unalterable rules of conduct preserves its original strength.

For Mrs Wharton, the impact of society and heredity on an individual is enormous. However, she does not think that individuals are shaped wholly by their society and heredity: “She does not believe that an individual is so fully forged by heredity and environment that he is merely a powerless product of the two. Instead, Wharton constantly asserts that people are the result of the choices that they make” (Cahir, 1999: 109). Individuals are responsible for what happens to them because the society is made up of individuals; individuals and their society affect each other. Social changes take place slowly because they are concerned with all members of the society. However, an individual can leave his society if he does not want to be restricted by its customs and manners.

In The Custom of the Country, society is described as “the devouring monster” (Custom, 54). It can be said that in Edith Wharton’s novels society and traditions are dealt as major influences whose power on individuals are very great. Another source of power that affects the life of the characters in her novels is their inherited tendencies. The inherited tendencies are a great deal responsible in refraining individuals from behaving differently from their ancestors. However, their power is limited as well; otherwise, no changes or evolution would occur.

Some of the heroes or heroines neither belong to the old nor to the modern world. In other words, they partly belong to the old and partly to the new one like Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence and Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country. Newland and Ralph are set apart from other characters by education, mental power and sentiment. However, their being indeterminedness to choose between the two sets of values forms the source of their weakness.

In Archer’s case the source of the failure is apparent. His modern views cause him to be fascinated by the originality of Ellen Olenska; however, his inherited tendencies drive him to obstruct his own way to Ellen by hastening his engagement and marriage to May. Ralph Marvell is well-educated and inclined to literature but do not know how to finish a work of art. Although he must know the consequences as a lawyer, he does not claim the custody of his son when he is divorced from Undine and thus helps her destroy him.

Newland and Ralph’s sense of decency which is very much affected by the new ideas prevailing in the contemporary America does not let them behave either according to their hearts or according to their minds. In The Custom of the Country, Ralph Marvell is likened to “a modern man in a mediaeval armour” (Custom, 294). Newland and Ralph are as if in rusty armours of the chivalric age which restrict their movements. It is apparent that they are destined to disappear.

Although Warthon thinks that a novel should have a moral dimension, the moral lesson in her novels is difficult to detect. Because of the ambiguity regarding the moral quality of her characters, no two critics say the same things regarding her moral attitude. Although she apparently laments for the “long-vanished America” (Backward, 14.4), her rendering of the old America in her novels do not give the impression of an appraisal. The old New York in her novels “is in a period of decadence” (Donner, 1999). It can be said that her yearning for the old America is highly nostalgical. But she does not let her nostalgia to colour her novels. She seems to share Newland Archer’s view that there was good both in the old ways and the new ones.

Wharton’s wisdom seems unfathomable. The scope of her world, which loomed larger each time I tried to intensify my probe on it, is a multi-windowed world. The range of diversity among the findings of the critics in her works bears testimony that one can see different things looking through the different windows of this world.


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The problem of cultural transformation and individual integrity ın Edith Wharton’s novels
Marmara University  ( Faculty of Literature)
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Ihsan Durdu (Author), 2006, The problem of cultural transformation and individual integrity ın Edith Wharton’s novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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