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The Significance of The Unsaid in The Age of Innocence

“As he entered the box his eyes met Miss Welland’s, and he saw that she had instantly understood his motive, though the family dignity which both considered so high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so. The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done.” (Wharton 16) This statement vividly illustrates the power of the unsaid within New York society during the 1870’s, the time in which The Age of Innocence was set. At that time, there existed a powerful set of rules, regulations, and codes pertaining to one’s conduct that were most often unspoken and, therefore, were never “formally” outlined. However, this did not in any way lessen the degree to which these standards were adhered to, and, thereby, upheld as if they were carved in the same stone as the Ten Commandments. Because New York Society did not have much need for religion, other than for rites of passage, the rules of society were to them like rules of their religion. As a woman who was raised in this society, Edith Wharton was able to illustrate with great clarity the influence that the unsaid had when it came to knowing how one should behave if society is to look on them favourably. She further goes on to express the perils of a life lived within these particular codes.

In the initial example used in the introduction, which took place in Chapter II of the novel, the reader is not only able to see the reason for Newland Archer’s behaviour, but the example also acts as a method of foreshadowing which alludes to the significant role that that which is left unsaid would play within the novel. After having read the entire novel, the reader would be able to reflect back and see this as the first of many times where discussions were replaced by unspoken understandings, and where the correct course of action is implied, but never spoken of directly. Although there are many times in the novel where thoughts and feelings are left unsaid, there is no relationship more affected by it than that of Newland Archer and May Welland/Archer.

Right from the initial example the reader can see that Newland and May subscribe wholly to Society’s dictates concerning appropriateness of public behaviour. They do not discuss the fact that Archer would like to announce the engagement earlier in order to assist May’s family in protecting Ellen Olenska. In place of a discussion on this issue, there exists an exchange of glances that Archer sees as a mutual understanding between he and May. This understanding exists in this case, and in others yet to be analyzed, without any verification of its accuracy having ever taken place.

The second time that the unsaid played an imperative role in the relationship of Newland and May was in Chapter XVI when he had travelled to St.Augustine to advance the date of their wedding. This is a paradoxical point in the novel where the reader may feel as if May was abandoning all of the social customs in order to speak what was on her mind, yet as the conversation progressed she spoke her mind only to an extent and the couple subsequently left what would have been the most important part of their conversation unsaid. May questioned whether or not there was another woman between them, but she ended her questioning after having her suggestion of Archer’s previous mistress rebuffed. This was one time where Archer seemingly could’ve told May about his feelings for Ellen Olenska without further recourse, however Archer decided to hold fast to his traditional values and avoided the embarrassment that such an announcement would have brought.

The next, and possibly the most important, time in which the unsaid played a crucial role in the novel were the circumstances surrounding Ellen Olenska’s final departure from New York. When Newland had tried to revel his feelings for Ellen Olenska to May in Chapter XXXII, May cut him off with her announcement that The Countess was planning on returning to Europe. Arguably, May was attempting to leave unsaid something that she already knew. For a long while she must have known of Newland’s affair with her cousin. This brings into question all of the other circumstances surrounding Ellen Olenska’s departure. Although it was never explicitly said in the novel, one could assume that upon finding out about her pregnancy, May discussed the situation with her cousin Ellen in order to make certain that her affair with Newland would not ever be announced. This must have led to The Countess’ decision to move to Europe, as it was the proper thing to do to allow her cousin May to maintain a long-standing marriage for the sake of her unborn child. All of this, at the time, was left entirely unsaid, however, the reader would have had to deduce very little in order to be certain that this was what must have happened.

Not until the end of the novel are all of the suspicions of the reader realized. After May’s death, Newland reluctantly travelled to Europe with his eldest son. In what was, by far, the most emotionally charged passage of the novel; the reader is finally shown exactly what May Welland/Archer knew of her husband’s affair with Ellen Olenska. After the conversation where Dallas asked his father if Ellen Olenska was once his love, and the woman he would have “chucked everything for” only he didn’t, Dallas reveals to his father a conversation he had with his mother the day before she died. “Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone—you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.” (Wharton 356)

To see the significance of the unsaid in The Age of Innocence, one must only see the power that things left unsaid had in holding together a society such as the one that existed in New York during the time of the novel. Things that went unspoken, but were left to be solved by duty and appropriateness had the ability to act like the glue that held the Newland/Archer family together for a lifetime of children, and a lifetime of existence within a society that would not have accepted it any other way. Until the day before she died, May Welland/Archer acted in accordance with the unspoken rules of society in order to protect herself, her family, her marriage, and even the social structure itself, the very structure which forced her into accepting what life had given her long ago, and had taught her to learn to accept it.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York:


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