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Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence

1853 words - 7 pages

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.” These eternal words spoken in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather reflect the importance and prevalence of family allegiances. These allegiances transcend many different cultures, societies and environments. Every society has its own “Fredo”: the social outcast whose decisions make him or her the center of attention in society, and whose family allegiances complicate everything. We can see such a prototype for a character in Countess Olenska, the main character in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Countess Olenska is the black sheep of her family because she is considered foreign, and the complicated decisions she faces often make her the focal point of society. Her decisions are made complicated by the web of family allegiances that are present in “Old” New York, the setting of the novel. On the surface, these agonizing decisions seem to present Countess Olenska as being indecisive and powerless. However by viewing the text through the frame of family allegiances we can see that the Countess truly possesses strength because she can overcome the obstacles put forth in front of her. Any apparent frailties do not reflect her but rather the difficult decisions she has to face. If one is to look past this frame then we can truly see how Countess Olenska is empowered as a woman in her relationships in the novel, even when she has to face such complex decisions.

The plot of The Age of Innocence revolves around Countess Olenska, who was born in New York but is considered a foreigner to the “Old” New York society because she married and moved to Europe. She returned to New York because her husband was abusive and was cheating on her. The Old New York society is a pretentious social clique that is sarcastically described throughout the novel. They like their theaters “small and inconvenient, [in order to] keep out the ‘new people’” (3). This exclusive nature demonstrates the importance of family allegiances in their society; all families were tied together, and as such any member who deviated from their particular family would stain the reputations of all the others, thus hindering their social life. The members of Old New York society are obsessed with propriety and will do anything to avoid controversy. This was the society in which Countess Olenska was assimilated after her separation from her European husband and her return to New York. This is one of the first indications in the text of Countess Olenska facing very difficult circumstances because of family allegiances (in this case the intra-family allegiance of marriage). Countess Olenska commits the ultimate act of intra-family rebellion: separation. While through the frame of family allegiance we can see that the Countess is faced with a very dire decision of separating despite family pressures and may seem powerless, when we look closer we can see how much control she really...

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