Discuss Wharton’s presentation of the character development of Newland Archer
The character of Newland Archer is presented in this passage through his meditations on a range of issues. The scene is set directly after an Archer family dinner with a friend, Sillerton Jackson. Archer’s reflections give us a glimpse into the way he thinks and the sort of person he is. Initially we learn about Archer himself and his background, he is from a wealthy family, with ever “vigilant ” servants, “bronze” statuettes and his own study. We can also see from the description of the study that he is cultured, intelligent and well read.
The passage allows us to see a little of his history, especially of the tale of his romance with May Welland. Her “large photograph” has displaced all others on his table, signifying that she and no other is first in his affections. Archer’s view of their impending marriage is initially that he will be her “soul’s custodian”, showing that it will be a very traditional relationship, that she is nai??ve compared to him, and that he must protect and enlighten her. He was taught that marriage to May would be like “safe anchorage” in life but he tells us his belief is changing, that he believes it may be like a “voyage on uncharted seas”.
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This clear nautical imagery lets us see how Archer is coming to doubt his previously unquestioned conventional beliefs – “old settled convictions” – and that it may be dangerous for him to go into this marriage so unprepared. He is moving on, intellectually, questioning what he once held firm. Archer’s attitude to his relationship with May is inextricably linked to his basic conventional traditional mindset. He sees himself and May as key players in a courtship ritual that they possibly could become stereotypical examples of people “linked by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other”.
In a way he believes this is inevitable due to the society they both belong to, but it is not what he wants from marriage. He desires “passionate and tender comradeship” with May in their marriage; he loves her “sincerely”. However her attitude to her character shows that he does not fully understand her. He sees her as partly as an ” artificial product” produced by her family, her up bringing, making her innocent and frank. He feels this is wrong that she has somehow been denied the right to be a full person, as she has been denied the experience of life, social, cultural and sexual, that he has been allowed to explore.
He feels what has been created in her personality is false, but somehow we get the impression that this is something that has been hard for him to come across. He sees her as less than him intellectually, as she is not educated as he has been, in the arts and literature, and therefore senses her comprehension is less, when really it may just be her lack of exposure to his amount of learning. Newland Archer’s relationship with the women soon to be his cousin through his impending marriage to May, Ellen Olenska, is that this point in the novel, still slight. He knows her partially through acquaintance but mostly through gossip.
The way he thinks of her as “Countess” shows the distance and formality between them and he does believe that she has done something reprehensible that requires “championship”. This shows that although he believes ” Women should be free”, this will never really apply to New York standards and he resents the “coil of scandal” her arrival has placed him in. Her arrival and the talk surrounding it seems to have acted as a catalyst to his thought patterns, hinting of a deeper relationship to come. She is this woman with foreign ways who could be “free” as men are, and she makes Newland aware of the implications and reality of his betrothal.
Newland Archer’s character development is presented throughout the passage as a struggle between what he did believe in and what he is coming to doubt the validity of through new experiences and thoughts. His attitude to society is important as it stands for his old conventional self, and his reactions to its dictates, especially on the theme of marriage, show how he is maturing and thinking independently. The imagery he uses to describe New York society are important, “conventions that tied things together and bound people down” – this rope imagery suggests the constricting nature of tradition and how it hods all subject to it captive.
The irony betrayed by Edith Wharton’s’ tone in the presentation of the conscious thoughts of Newland Archer shows the slightly ridiculous nature of New York society. The situation Archer is in regarding his own defence of Countess Olenska is ironic, as he would be forced to condemn May should she ever behave similarly to her cousin. Another irony in the passage is the description of the state of typical New York high society marriages as having an “enviable ideal” when frankly they are in a pitiable state.
Lefferts is described as the “high priest of form” when really he has no substance or true beliefs and is truly hypocritical, especially in regard to his treatment of Beaufort’s affairs. The behaviour of Mrs Welland’s simulated reluctance at the announcement of the engagement when really she expected it is sarcastically commented on showing the double standards between what is said and what is expected throughout New York society. Edith Wharton uses conflicting ideas within Newland Archer’s mind to effectively present a man who is changing and developing into a deeper way of thinking about his own life and society in general.