This is not related to this post. I just want the world to appreciate how cute (and cramped) my room is.
So surprise, surprise. I have a paper due in T-7.5 hours and I am here—not writing the paper. Instead I’m going to talk (briefly) about the last paper I wrote for this class. After all, I pulled one all-nighter already this week, so why not two?
Anyway, this paper was written for my American Novel class and it continues my theme (which has already been discussed at length on this blog) of championing too-often overlooked, underestimated, and forgotten female characters. This time it was May Welland, long-suffering wife of Newland Archer.
A Shared “Victory”: The Unacknowledged Sacrifice and Lost Potential of May Welland
Of all the central characters in The Age of Innocence, May Welland is perhaps the most easily forgotten and ignored. Neither May nor the reader can be blamed for this unfortunate fact as both are victims of Newland Archer’s consciousness, through which all we know of the story is filtered. As a result, it is all too easy, in thinking about the novel, to dismiss May as easily as Archer himself does, taking her as an innocent, simple society girl at the least and a symbol of the stifled society of “Old New York” at best. This, though, is too narrow a view and one which should be avoided, in favor of examining what we know of May through her actions, discarding the lens of Archer through which we view her as dangerously unreliable. When viewed this way, on her own terms, it becomes clear that May, far from being the helpless, spineless “terrifying product of the social system. . . [who] knew nothing and expected everything” (32) that Archer believes her to be, possesses a strength of will and character as well as a capacity for sacrifice and passion surpassing those of her husband, creating in her a vast potential for intelligence which, though awakened enough for her to transcend the social system and save her family from ignominy, is largely left untapped, creating in her a tragedy of lost potential.
From the very first, May Welland is outlined to the reader as the perfect realization of a type, that of the ideal society wife: pure, innocent, virginal, and not too inclined toward having her own thoughts or opinions. In short, “there was no better match for Newland in New York,” (28) for no girl fit society’s ideal so well as May. For his part, Archer is incapable of seeing her in any light other than the one that New York has already cast her in. To him,
“her face [has] the look of representing a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess. . . The blood that ran so close to her fair skin might have been a preserving fluid rather than a ravaging element; yet her look of indestructible youthfulness made her seem neither hard nor dull, but only primitive and pure,” (140-141).
This description of May, like many of Archer’s others, is oddly dehumanizing and lifeless. He compares her first to a classical statue, implying that she is nothing more than the lifeless image of society’s ideal, incapable of movement, development, or life. However he takes this already strong image one step further in likening her blood to formaldehyde, taking her from lifeless statue to dead body preserved—not only an imitation of life, but an absence of it. Archer very clearly cannot conceive of a May more complex than this one; he does not acknowledge any sort of interiority in her to the extent that, though he wishes for women to have the same freedoms as men (or so he claims), he imagines that were he able to strip away the “bandage” her bringing up placed over her eyes, he would find that, like the Kentucky cave-fish, she had not developed eyes because she had had no use for them and would “only look out blankly at blankness” (62). To Archer, May is like a piece of clay who has, up until this point, been molded by society and her parents, but will soon be entrusted to him and it will be his duty not only to be her “soul’s custodian” (32), but to finish the job of molding her. Initially, he looks forward to this project, imagining with excitement how he will “create” of her a “miracle of fire and ice” (7), for he “did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton” (6). His downfall (and more poignantly, hers) is in imagining that May is in need of “creating,” that she has no capacity for self-creation at all and is in need of his guidance and sculptor’s hand. Never once does it occur to him that underneath the carefully crafted image of society, May Welland may actually be a living, breathing girl with her own thoughts and feelings and potential for shaping herself, were it only to be awakened.
However, May is much more than a lump of warm clay, though her husband cannot recognize it. Indeed, despite the consistency of Archer’s characterization of May as innocent, pure, shallow, and incapable of intelligent thought beyond the consideration of who best to invite for dinner, there are many surprising moments in the novel where Archer, despite himself, recognizes in May a spark of something beneath her marble-like surface, though he is so set in his pattern of thinking about her, that he dismisses these incompatible signs and never stops to consider their implication. It is these small signs which first serve to tip the reader off to the idea that May is not entirely what she seems and must be considered more closely, simultaneously alerting us to the fact that Archer as a narrator is fallible and not altogether to be trusted.
The first intimation of hidden depths in May comes early on, at the Beaufort’s ball, when Archer describes May’s eyes as “remain[ing] distant and serious, as if bent on some ineffable vision,” (18) though she tries to smile. Though Archer makes nothing of the observation, it is the first intimation we get as to the existence of an interiority to May, belying the idea that she has nothing going on inside her Diana-like head. Later, though, May surprises Archer when she instinctively perceives his lack of faith, demonstrating a perceptive ability far beyond anything he had thought her capable of. In this scene Archer notices her “eyes of such despairing clearness” (110) which surprise him so much that he involuntarily recoils from her, half-releasing her waist. From there, her look “deepen[s] inscrutably” and he is startled by “her quiet lucidity” (110-111) in perceiving his motives. Only a page later, Archer goes so far as to say that her “recklessly unorthodox” suggestion that he break off their engagement and follow his heart, even if it means doing so with an already-married woman, is “something superhuman” (112). None of these indicate a thoughtless “Kentucky cave-fish” of a girl, incapable of original thought or observation—in fact, they do quite the opposite. Archer is so set in his ways of thinking of her as a tabula rasa in need of writing on that he ignores these signs. Indeed, Archer is so narrow in his own perception that it is only at the end of the novel when his son Dallas tells him that May had known all along of Archer’s sacrifice in quitting Ellen, that Archer begins to understand May and the extent of her own sacrifice and intelligence.
It is imperative, then, that the reader separate himself from Archer’s perspective and step back from the portrait of May that Archer paints in order to consider her on the strength of her actions alone, as they are the only indisputable indicators of her character available. The scene discussed above, in which May confronts Archer in St. Augustine is not only noteworthy for the surprise Archer shows in noting in Ellen’s person small displays of intelligent thought, but for the intelligence evident behind May’s actions. She immediately perceives that something is wrong when Archer shows up unannounced in Florida to beg her to advance the date of their wedding. That she does not take his avowals of passionate love at face value nor does she accept them as reason for his eagerness to move up their wedding date is testament to the fact that she possesses a capacity for intuitive perception which Archer has not guessed at. Though her conclusion that Archer still harbors feeling for a woman he was once connected to years before is false, her intuitive feeling that another woman has supplanted her in his head is entirely correct. The fact that May also manages to trace the beginning of his odd behavior to the exact night upon which he met Ellen Olenska further evidences of May’s observational prowess and intelligence. Comparing May’s action to those of other women in her position further highlights the intelligence of her observation: Mrs. Lefferts, for instance, has been formed so
“completely to [Lawrence Lefferts’] own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness, saying that “Lawrence was so frightfully strict”” (33).
May is far too intelligent for such embarrassment, nor is she so weak-willed as to ever allow herself to be Bedroomed in such a way by her husband. Instead, she confronts her fiancé upon the first hint that something may be wrong and it is through no fault of her own that he dishonorably lies to her, taking advantage of her noble-mindedness.
May’s intelligence of action, which is so diametrically opposed to Archer’s portrait of her, is underscored in the revelation of her orchestration of the demise of Ellen and Archer’s budding affair, through the weapon of her pregnancy—one of the only weapons allowed her as a woman and wife. In telling Ellen that she is pregnant even before she is sure of the fact herself and then in lying about the conversation to Archer, she ensures that Ellen, who is noble and unselfish, will leave New York—and, indeed, the States—so as not to tempt Archer. This action is the masterstroke of a savvy and ingenious mind, capable of fierce passion, perception, sacrifice, and one which is dedicated foremost to the preservation of a greater good, rather than any selfish instinct. This last we can be sure of because May, in St. Augustine all that time earlier, chose to give Archer an out in suggesting the “recklessly unorthodox” solution that he break their engagement and live a life with the woman he truly loved, whoever that might be. In this situation, it is Archer, not May who acts as a slave to society. As Archer observes, what May suggests is not within the bounds of acceptable behavior in New York society, for it would involve, as far as May knows, a relationship with an already married woman at the least and a messy divorce at the most. May displays remarkable intelligence, perception, and selflessness in remarking that “when two people really love each other. . . there may be situations which make it right that they should—should go against public opinion,” (112) and certainly demonstrates that rather than simply being a product of society, a robot acting by a set of programmed rules, she is actually keenly aware of the cage of New York society, its limitations, and beyond that she is capable of transcending them. Archer, though, for all his talk, cannot transcend society’s limits and May spends the rest of the novel paying for the mistake Archer makes in not accepting her offer then and there and breaking off their engagement. In not doing so, he hypocritically violates his own values in bowing to his fears of societal backlash for leaving May in the lurch and running off with the social pariah Ellen and sacrifices, selfishly, May’s chance at happiness, not only his own. Because he decides to stay with her, though he does not love her, he condemns May to a loveless marriage and a life of sacrifice dedicated to protecting their family from the pernicious thorns of New York society.
In point of fact, not only does May possess the intelligence to save her budding family from the threat of Ellen Olenska, but she has the capacity for grace, understanding, and selflessness required to protect both Ellen and Archer from the scorn of society by hosting the farewell party for Ellen. In inviting Ellen into her home as a guest of honor, May presents Newland and herself as a united front and denies any inappropriate relation between Archer and Ellen. Not to acknowledge Ellen would have been as good as to confirm the story, but in not only acknowledging her, but celebrating her, May puts rumor to rest and restores some of Ellen’s dignity, both through denying the affair and inviting her into a respectable home—the sort of place she had, of late, been denied access too after offending the van der Luydens. Of course, the farewell party has much the same effect on Archer’s honor, which had been in danger of being sullied, and restores his position in society, saving both he and his family. Without May’s careful and clever maneuvering in the organization of farewell party, Archer might never have been able to achieve the status he does later in life, which we are given evidence of in the last chapter. It is only through May’s intelligence and capacity for selfless love and sacrifice as well as her remarkable lack of vindictiveness that their family reaches the level of success and comfort it does.
In light of this examination of May’s motives and actions, it becomes important to study Archer’s use of the word “victory,” which he uses twice to describe May’s final pièce de résistance. Archer, who has already been proven to be a biased and unreliable narrator, uses the word unfairly, for in his selfishness, he imagines his relationship with his wife to be one of opposition: either she or he must “win” and, in his eyes, she has outfoxed him, claiming “victory.” May, though, is not acting out of selfishness. She does what she does in order to preserve her family; in her mind it is she and Archer against New York. If there is a victory in her mind, it is is not a vindictive one, but a shared one. Interpreted this way, Archer’s final use of the word “victory” makes far more sense as he describes May’s eyes following her revelation of the lie regarding her conversation with Ellen about the pregnancy as “wet with victory” (256), which strikes the reader as a rather odd image. Read rather as a relieved May thankful that her dinner party achieved its purpose—that is, rescuing her small family from imminent ignominy—and a May, despite this success, regretful of the necessity of lying to her husband, the wet eyes make far more sense, rescuing May from the oppressive role her husband has cast her in.
In the end, The Age of Innocence is the story of a life not lived—but it is May’s, not Archer’s. May’s is a story of lost potential; potential which ironically is snuffed out by her own husband—he of the dreams of equality of the sexes—who cannot believe that she is capable of becoming her own intelligent person without his help to shape her. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” declares Archer near the beginning of the novel, “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences” (32). The dreadful irony is that Archer never does realize the “terrific consequences” of his discovery because he never applies them to anything. Though he says he believes that women ought to have the same freedom that men do, he does not believe that they are capable of achieving that freedom, but must instead be “created” by man. Poor May suffers the fate of a woman brimming with potential, but who is so oppressed by her own uncomprehending husband, that her potential goes to waste, used only to rescue the family from the blunders of a husband who never allowed her to achieve her full promise. And it is for that reason that May Welland must not be ignored and her intelligence and complexity of character must be acknowledged—lest we risk committing the same crime Archer did.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: The Modern Library, 1999. Print.