EN3392, Dr. Pressman
Age of Innocence (Revision)
Age of Innocence: The Tell-Tale Garden
In Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton tells of a romantic relationship between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, both products of the elite, old New York society. Though these two protagonists have much in common, particularly a distaste for the rigidity of the social code, their affair never reaches full blossom. The author uses blossoming flowers, primarily Lilies-of-the-Valley, Yellow Roses, and Azaleas as a motif to symbolize Ellen’s perceived independence and even the illusory relationship itself, beset with encumbering social provisos.
It was the old New York society (money) who dictated to its members the limitations, if any, on what comportment was to be considered socially acceptable. One acceptable practice by the wealthy was to attend performances at the opera. The novel begins as Newland Archer enters a club-box at the Academy of Music in New York, to see the opera season premier, Faust.
The curtain had just gone up on the “garden scene” when he spies “a
young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage-lovers.” The
girl “dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on
her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the
flowers softly.” The girl’s sudden lack of attention to the performance
prompts Archer to muse, “‘The darling! She doesn’t even guess what it’s
all about.’ And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of
possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled
with tender reverence for her abysmal purity. We’ll read Faust
together...by the Italian lakes...he thought (841–4).
After the performance, Newland was introduced to the young girl, only to learn that he had been fantasizing about Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin to his fiancée, May Welland. Archer will soon pursue a relationship with Ellen, despite his engagement to May.
Wharton employs the opening garden scene in the opera and the lilies-of-the-valley on Countess Olenska’s lap to magnify Ellen’s perceived character traits. The hardy lily-of-the-valley is often white, a color, symbolic of purity. This purity symbolized by the white flowers on Ellen’s lap during the opera is a contrast to her “unpleasant” character, the willingness to move forward with a divorce (932). She is living in New York estranged from her husband and has since fallen in love with her cousin’s soon-to-be husband. In both cases, a sense of purity is absent. Similarly, the lily-of-the-valley is known by its botanical name Hemerocallis, a Greek word meaning day beauty (Brown). Ellen can be likened to a Hemerocallis. She is a beautiful woman who is alone with Archer only by day. Ellen does see Archer at night occasionally, but when he is with May or in public only.
During a friend’s dinner party, Archer found out that Mrs. Beaufort (the wife of Archer’s foil Julius who also is pursuing Ellen) thought her husband was the one who was sending yellow roses to Ellen. In fact, it was Archer who sent them. Initially Ellen could not identify the sender of the roses since the bouquet never included a card. She knew it wasn’t Beaufort because he always sent orchids and always made sure a card was enclosed.
The act of sending flowers to Ellen associated with Archer’s and Beaufort’s desire for her. Since orchids, Beaufort’s choice, have fleeting life-spans once harvested, they may symbolize an equally fleeting chance of an affair for Ellen and Newland. On the other hand, yellow roses symbolize romance, but they also have perilous thorns. These very thorns could represent the probable conflicts that Archer and Ellen would face had they remained together. A major conflict would have been Archer’s reluctance to leave the old order. Archer was a man who only dreamed of living outside the conventions of New York’s elite society. He describes himself as “old fashioned,” alluding to his inability to change. Ellen, who is an independent woman, thinks of change as living beyond the parameters established by the social elite. Perhaps this contrast between them would have been a thorn, an improbability of acceptance for Archer.
Wharton uses one other flower from the tell-tale garden to symbolize Ellen’s and Newland’s illusory relationship—Azaleas. The end of Age of Innocence describes Newland Archer sitting on a bench outside Ellen’s apartment. He imagines her “sitting in a sofa-corner near the fire, with azaleas banked behind her on a table” (1126). Perhaps in thought, Newland was comparing Ellen to an azalea, a flower that is “found in the wild, chiefly in mountainous areas of the Arctic and North temperate zones” (Henning). She, too, had been considered wild (disorderly) by New York’s upper crust—and to Newland Archer, perhaps even a cold woman now. Edith Wharton hints as much when, “At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel” (1126). Archer’s cold feeling of alienation would remain unchanged.
Brown, Christine. “Lilies in the Valley.” March 13, 2000. Online. Available:
Henning, Steve. “Rhododendron & Azaleas Pages.” Updated: February 11, 2002.
Online. Available: http://www.users.fast.net/~shenning/rhody.html.
Wharton, Edith. Age of Innocence. Wharton: Four Novels. New York: Library of