Ellen Olenska as a Mythological Muse in The Age of Innocence
Long ago in ancient Greece, mythology was used to explain our world, our lives, and most importantly, our interpersonal relationships. Still today Greek mythology is infused into the literature of almost every influential and lasting author, one of the more effective authors being Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence. The relationship between Newland Archer and Madame Ellen Olenska, two protagonists in Wharton’s novel, is an example of the classic relationship between a muse and an inspired man. Wharton was obviously well learned in the art of mythology as seen in her stories, The Lamp of Psyche and The Muse’s Tragedy, and used this knowledge in order to portray a tragic tale of an inspired man.
From Ellen Olenska’s first appearance at New York’s ornate opera house, her presence is of a mythological being that “catches the eye and the interest of every man of the prominent New York social scene” (Millicent 229). Blake Nevius states that Ellen has the mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience (185); it is a classic trait of a muse to evoke ideas of a life superior to the ordinary with endless possibilities.
There are nine muses of Greek mythology who evoke different arenas of inspiration in a man; a muse of epic poetry, a muse of tragedy, a muse of comedy, a muse of history, a muse of astronomy, a muse of dance, a muse of sacred song, a muse of lyric poetry, and Erato, a muse of love poetry and passion (Marks 34).
Erato, whose name translates into passionate is known as the “awakener of desire” (35), and most closely resembles Ellen Olenska. The poet Hesiod wrote, “the muse’s spirit is free from care and for though men has sorrow and grief in his soul, when the Muses sing, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles (34). This explains Archer’s state of mind whenever he is in the company of Ellen, for an affair was of bad “taste,” and Archer believed that “few things seemed more awful than an offense against ‘Taste,’ that far-off divinity of ‘Form’ was the mere visible representative and vice-regent,” yet this notion slipped out of thought whenever he was in the presence of Countess Ellen Olenska.
More aesthetically, Wharton portrayed Ellen as close as possible to the ideal vision of a muse. Tracy Marks explains that muses from Greek mythology are typically represented as young women with red lips, blue eyes, and a melodious voice, who usually wore long flowing robes and a reflective or smiling expression. Already Wharton’s vivid picture painted with words comes to mind, but Marks continues on to describe a Muse as “far from virgin goddesses, rather one who induces sensuality” (Marks 36). Archer parallels this perception as he views Ellen as one “who does not seal the mind...