The Age of Innocence

Ellen Olenska: Commodified Innocence College

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton paints an intimate view of New York culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wharton does this by masterfully presenting a slice of New York, focusing on a few intricately developed characters in New York’s aristocracy. Of these characters, Newland Archer, through his pursuit of Ellen Olenska, encapsulates everything New York society represents. Through Archer’s projection of himself, it is tempting to view him as a heroic rebel, a man above others in his recognition of the superficiality of New York society. However, by critically examining the root of Archer’s attraction for Ellen it is clear that he is no different from anyone else in New York. Indeed, Archer’s love for Ellen mirrors Marx’ concept of commodity fetishism, where Archer values Ellen not for who she is, but for the value that she gives to him. More specifically, Archer falls in love with the identity he finds in Ellen—one where he vicariously lives through her uniqueness, making him feel different from what he views as a superficial New York society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Archer’s commodity fetishism towards Ellen evolves into an obsession, eventually turning what could have been...

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