Many writers are inspired by different situations of their life. Some of them are even creating characters similar to the people they met. Nevertheless, human relations are not changing over time, because people are always falling in love or separating. These relations were always described by our ancestors and they are also depicted in the classical mythology. That is why it can be said that there are a lot of similarities between modern novels and classical mythology.
Wharton Edith is a well known American novelist. Her life was full cycle of emotions, which inspired her to write her novels. For instance, her love life was very unstable. Her husband suffered numerous nerve disorders and been discovered embezzling her funds, so Wharton had to divorce him (Skillion, 252). Her divorce had significant influence on Wharton’s novels. The same year she divorced, Wharton’s most distinguished work “The Age of Innocence” was written. It described a thwarted love affair over the course of lifetime (Skillion, 252). Therefore, this novel is also reflecting a lot from the writer’s personal life. In addition, for the large cast of characters, Edith drew freely on her family and friends, mixing and matching their qualities (Benstock, 358).
“The Age of innocence” is reflecting many of Wharton’s feelings at that time. “The Age of innocence” re-creates a world bound by form and convention (Benstock, 358). At that time Wharton moved to a new place, which presented her its new rules of living. At that time the New York City society rejected the “upstarts” and nouveau riches bent their talents toward social reform, which moved them up in social order (Kirk 7). These new social conditions had tremendous affect on her idea of love and institute of marriage. That is why “The Age of innocence” shows the conflict brought about by this transition, with a main theme being “right people” following “correct rules” and marrying into “acceptable families” (Kirk, p. 7).
Mythology and “Age of innocence”
First of all, it is important to analyze the characters and their behavior. Newland Archer is a young man from New York, who is following the “life plan” by deciding to marry a nice, quiet woman. However, his story is very complicated, because the man is constantly struggling with his inner desire and world and his duties. He is practically scarifying some of the most important human values, such as freedom and love to his duty before his family and society he lives in.
“In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number” (Wharton 4). It is interesting to compare Newland to the God of sun, which according to different mythologies is called Saule, Ra or Helios. Helios is rather good god, who is also equipped with arrows (the sun’s rays) (Grant 9). These arrows can symbolize his children. In fact, later on in the novel Newland also becomes a good father.
“May Welland Archer a young socialite, who marries Newland and settles down to a totally conventional life, following the lead of her mother in all areas and representing the societal attitudes of the wealthy social class” (Kirk 8). There is an important part of the novel, when Newland Archer is looking at the May’s portrait, which reveals her true features. “With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features” (Wharton 24). This part is describing a young woman, who was strictly following the rules, constructed by the wealthy part of society.
May can be compared to the Roman goddess of the moon, called Selene or Luna. It is interesting that in mythology the god of Sun and the goddess of moon are usually perceived as husband and wife. Selena was the sister of Helius and Eos and she is the best known about her connections with a shepherd boy, Endymion, when she put him into eternal sleep that preserved his youth and beauty, and watched him sleep every night (Colakis, 74). May reminds the goddess Selene, because she also was able to “put Newland to sleep”, because she was insisting on their marriage, despite the fact that Newland was attracted to her cousin. Therefore, as Endymion was bound to Selena, Newland was strongly attracted to May.
Countess Ellen Olenska is a Polish cousin of May, was always referred to in the family as “poor Ellen Olenska” (Wharton 6). She is also visiting New York and breaks into traditional order with her liberal and frivolous attitude to life. When Newland speaks to Ellen for the first time – a passionate and exotic woman, unlike his quiet innocent May – he finds himself falling in love with her, despite his engagement (Kirk 8). Ellen can also be compare to the Roman Goddess of the dawn, called Aurora or Eos.
According to the myth, Eos was rising from her bed each morning to bring light to mortals and immortals (Hansen 221). In addition, Eos is closely connected to the God of sun Helios. The goddess Eos arises each morning from her bed after which the god Helios ascends from the River Ocean (Hansen, 21). In the novel Newland, who was already compared to sun, is completely changing when he sees Ellen, he is also “rising up”, because she is awakening his true feelings.
Ellen can also be associated with this goddess, because she was mystical woman, who would light up the room with her presence as the dawn lights up the dark sky in the morning. There was something about her presence and behavior that attracted Newland and she was not like everybody else. Wharton wrote that Ellen was thin, worn, and a little older-looking than her age, which must have been nearly thirty, but there was about her the mysterious authority of beauty, assuredness in the head carriage, the movement of her eyes (Wharton, 34). That is why Newland was strongly attracted to this woman.
Secondly, it would be interesting to compare life of people described in the novel and life of gods, described in different classical myths. From the beginning of the story there is quiet anticipation of something big, an explosion of feelings and drama of life. “As young Newland Archer, lawyer and man about town, gazes up at his soon-to-be fiancé, May Welland, in the Mingott-family opera box, he is disconcerted by the arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her profligate but wealthy Polish husband” (Kirk 8).
The reader begins to realize that Ellen is a person, who is going to change the course of life of main heroes and bring new colors to the story. The same thing is usually happening in mythology, which is always based on anticipation of some crucial moment. Although, the life of mythological gods should be peaceful and quiet, they are always quarreling and competing with each other. In fact, in the novel influential and wealthy people are also enjoying their “happy life”. However, behind their smiles there is always some competition or secret.
It is interesting how the author described this artificial model of wealthy lifestyle and happiness, which was full of hypocrisy. “All the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system” (Wharton 4). Here we see the men, who are bound to follow social norms by communicating only with people from the same class, who also compete between each other. There are also women, who are forced by the system to obey these sociological ideas, which do not leave them any other option but to marry these white-waistcoated gentlemen.
This lifestyle can be compared to the life of Greek Gods on Olympus. Many gods always wanted to be liberated from the boring lifestyle. However, they were always bound with some responsibilities. Newland was always torn apart between his duty and his inner desires. In love with the cousin of his fiancée Newland was in confused state of fear and unknown future. The man was desperate and did not know how to resolve this situation.
“Worried by temptation, Newland flees to Florida where May’s family is vacationing and asks May to move the wedding date up” (Kirk 8). This love was like a forbidden fruit for him, which was so sweet, but which could not be touched. Later, during the conversation, Newland Archer exclaimed, “Women should be free – as free as we are”, struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent (Wharton 6).
It was very hard for Newland to experience love to the person he is not supposed to love, and the hero is experiencing guilt. “Newland decides to confess all to May, but she interrupts to tell him that Ellen is leaving for Europe and the Archers will give a farewell dinner for her” (Kirk 9). May is also seriously affected by this unplanned love affair of her future husband and cousin. Later May announces that she is pregnant and this chance, on her opinion, can bond her and her husband even stronger. The whole family is also engaged in this problematic situation, because rumors are being spread all over the place. That is why they all give funds for Ellen to live in Europe.
Last but not least, the idea of unhappy lovers had to be resolved in the novel. “At one point Wharton decided to have Newland and Ellen run away together, but have Newland eventually go home because he could not give up his leisure-class values” (Kirk 8). In fact, this is quite predictable scenario that is why the author comes up with a new idea. Wharton does not come up with an easy solution by letting the two lovers escape and enjoy their love life.
In fact, she is complicating the plot by missing a big time span. “In the end Wharton decided to keep the lovers apart and use their love to show how individuals must sacrifice happiness for duty and the greater good of the social order” (Kirk 8). This solution can also be compared to classical mythology, because gods are always fighting for their feelings and their ability to be with each other, but they are usually guarded by their parents.
“The Age of innocence” is famous novel, written by Wharton Edith, which describes love triangle. It is also reflecting many of Wharton’s feelings. “The Age of innocence” shows the conflict brought about by this transition, with the main theme being “right people” following “correct rules” and marrying into “acceptable families” (Kirk, p. 7). Nevertheless, despite important social elements, this novel describes simple human feelings. In addition, there are a lot of similarities between this novels and classical mythology.
One of the main heroes is Newland Archer. His story is very complicated, because he is constantly struggling with his inner desire and world and his duties. It is interesting to compare Newland to the God of sun, who has arrows that symbolize his children. In addition, the god of Sun and the goddess of moon are husband and wife. May Welland Archer can also be compared to the Roman Goddess of the moon, called Selene or Luna. She reminds the goddess Selene, because she was also able to “put Newland to sleep”, while insisting on their marriage, despite the fact that Newland was attracted to her cousin. Countess Ellen Olenska is a Polish cousin of May can also be compared to the Roman Goddess of the dawn, called Aurora or Eos. In addition, Eos is closely connected to the God of sun, Helios. In the novel Newland, who was already compared to sun is also “rising up” when he sees Ellen, because she is awakening his true feelings.
It is also possible to compare life of people described in the novel and life of gods, described in different classical myths. As well as Greek Gods on Olympus, wealthy people were separated from the rest of society, because they had their own norms and beliefs. Many gods wanted to be liberated from the boring lifestyle; however, they were always bound with some responsibilities. And in the novel Newland, for example, was always torn apart between his duty and his inner desires. Therefore, this artificial model of wealthy lifestyle and happiness of New York people was actually full of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, the idea of unhappy lovers had to be resolved in the novel. As the result, Newland and Ellen are parted and he preserves his love for the rest of his life. This solution can also be compared to Classical Mythology, because gods are always fighting for their feelings and the opportunity to be with each other, but they are usually guarded by their parents. To sum up everything, although this novel is reflecting serious social issues, it is also similar to the classical myth, which describes the same feelings.