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Dramatic Irony In The Age Of Innocence

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5689 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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Dramatic irony occurs when the reader is aware of past or future events that make it easy to recognize the contradiction in a character’s speech or actions. This essay will explore how and to what effect the literary technique of dramatic irony has been used in portraying the main issue of discord between characters and their respective societies in the novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. This conflict is both external and internal. At times the society disapproves of the behaviour of the individual and ostracizes the person or displays its displeasure, while at other times the character is in a dilemma whether to listen to the public opinion or the voice of his or her own mind. This will be done through a thorough literary examination of the works in question, and also by the reading of critics’ and Wharton’s own writings on her two novels. Wharton uses characters’ speech and actions, narrator’s comments and the events of the two novels to create dramatic irony. This helps in the conveyance of key themes, characterization, plot progression and providing a window into two different societies of upper class New York in the late 1800s.

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Novels of manners allow the reader to delve into the worlds of contemporary cultures, providing a far more enriching experience than factual research. Edith Wharton’s works are attractive for their vividly descriptive prose and mildly derisive view of the societies/ cultures depicted. What problems plagued the outwardly perfect upper class New Yorkers of the late 19th century? In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart is torn between her innate morals and desires and the route that she has been taught to take by public opinion, while in The Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer are thrown into turmoil, at times resenting the constraints and petty troubles of their society and at other times bowing willingly to its guiding hand. In studying the conflicts, it is possible to see the restrictive nature and other aspects of both cultures -their ideals, the role of women, and their outlook on matters such as marriage and divorce. Since both rebels are members of the societies they criticise, readers are able to regard society from the inside as well as the outside, as they mull over societal norms. Throughout the novels, the reader is made to take cognizance of past and future events to feel the impact of a particular line or situation. Thus, Edith Wharton effectively uses dramatic irony to highlight one of the key issues in her novels-the clash between individual choice and society’s unspoken rules.

Marriage and Love

“If she did not marry him?” [1] Lily Bart asks herself as she pursues Percy Gryce. She is supposedly “sure of him and sure of herself” [2] , but the “if” [3] in her mind is the first indication of her departure from society’s expectations. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that the reader is well aware that Lily actually has no desire to marry Percy Gryce, but Lily herself is unaware of this fact. Ultimately, “her own irony” [4] cuts “deeper” [5] for she is the one who wanted the marriage, and yet it is she who consciously drives Gryce away. This incident marks the beginning of the constant clash between what she wants to do and what she is expected to do. Lily’s question after she loses Gryce-“What wind of folly had driven her out again on those dark seas?” [6] is ironic because the “wind of folly” [7] is none other than herself. The metaphor also reveals the frivolity of society, as the journey of life without the comfort of money and a husband is considered “dark seas” [8] . It portrays the extent of the women’s dependence on men. The issue of marriage arises once more when Rosedale asks for Lily’s hand during her exclusion from society. Lily has to “stop and consider that, in the stress of her other anxieties, as a breathless fugitive may have to pause at the cross-roads and try to decide coolly which turn to take.” [9] The simile brings out the tension in the situation and there is a clear conflict between Lily’s “intuitive repugnance” [10] and “years of social discipline” [11] . Ironically, it was earlier Rosedale who was dependant on Lily to give him a permit into society. the power of society is highlighted here-it can make or break a person. Rosedale eventually rejects Lily, as in the time that passes between his proposal and her answer, “he had mounted nearer to the goal, while she had lost the power to abbreviate the remaining steps of the way.” [12] Achieving a position in society is represented as a destination; the steps represent the progress of characters. The importance of social standing is brought out and the unexpected turn of events creates irony since the reader is able to compare Lily’s desperation with her previous dismissal of Rosedale. Lily realizes this, and completes Rosedale’s remark of “Then you thought you could do better; now-Ë® [13] with “You think you can?” [14] . The sharp dramatic irony shows Lily’s descent in society and the materialistic attitudes of people. They are willing to give second priority to love and friendship for the sake of appearances. The caesura shows that Rosedale is ashamed of the shallowness that he is now a part of. In a twist of cosmic irony, it is the person she snubs who helps her in her time of need. When Lily visits Selden, she smiles, recognizing the irony in the situation. “Then she had planned to marry Percy Gryce-what was it she was planning now?” [15] The reader can note the similarity in Lily’s situation now and a year ago-marriage is her only way out, and she is standing in Selden’s living room. The reader wonders if she will finally bow to the dictates of society and marry Rosedale or tread her own path. Throughout the course of the book, Lily also struggles with the feelings that she has for Selden, a man not rich enough and who does not care enough about high society to be of value in Lily’s social climb. They share a conversation, and Selden passes his judgement on Lily’s pursuit of Gryce and all the things she is striving for through it-money, name and a social life. She sums up: “Then the best you can say for me is, that after struggling to get them I probably shan’t like them?” [16] “What a miserable future you foresee for me!” [17] In a cruel twist of dramatic irony, his words foreshadow Lily’s future. Selden is seen as an intuitive character who can see through Lily’s ambitions. “He foresaw that I should grow hateful to myself!” [18] she tells Gerty Farish. Lily’s true character is revealed through her exclamation. She grows disillusioned with the shallow, materialistic life her friends lead. This is seen again as she sets up a comparison between Gryce and Selden at the dinner table. Wharton brings out the irony of the situation by highlighting a fact, which the reader is well aware of: it is this comparison which is her “undoing” [19] . The pull towards Selden that Lily feels distracts her from the task of marrying Gryce, which ultimately leaves her alone, and penniless. Lily’s walk with Rosedale become symbolic in the light of her earlier walk with Selden, which “represented an irresistible flight from just such a climax as the present excursion was designed to bring about” [20] . Lily herself points out the “ironic contrast to her present situation” [21] , thus creating dramatic irony. Ultimately, it is with a kind of tragic irony that Selden resolves to declare his love to her the day after she dies, thinking, “It was strange that it had not come to his lips sooner-that he had let her pass from him the evening before without being able to speak it. But what did that matter, now that a new day had come? It was not a word for twilight, but for the morning.” [22] 

The theme of forbidden love runs through The Age of Innocence as well, in which Ellen and Archer fall in love despite Archer’s engagement and consequent marriage to Ellen’s cousin, May. This is first foreshadowed when Archer muses on Ellen’s alleged relationship with her husband’s secretary, thinking that “Rich and idle and ornamental societies must produce many more such situations; and there might even be one in which a woman naturally sensitive and aloof would yet, from the force of circumstances, from sheer defencelessness and loneliness, be drawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards.” [23] As the reader knows, but Archer does not, this is exactly what happens between Archer and Ellen later on in the novel. The author uses this thought of Archer’s to compare New York society to European ones and indirectly comment on it. The adjectives “rich and idle and ornamental” [24] also describe New York society, while “naturally sensitive and aloof” [25] characterize Ellen. The sentence provides some justification for the relationship that is to develop between the two characters, so that the reader is able to see their side as well as society’s. May at first refuses to hasten her and Archer’s wedding, giving him a chance to leave her. May is the typical young New York woman, and the fact that it is her telling Archer that, “when two people really love each other” [26] , “there may be situations which make it right that they should-should go against public opinion” [27] adds a flash of situational irony to the omniscient dramatic. May is speaking of Mrs. Thorley Rushworth, an older woman with whom Archer had had an affair. Tension is created when she does not mention names, simply referring to “two people” [28] , but Archer and the reader initially believe that May has guessed about Ellen, for the advice is well-suited to Ellen and Archer’s situation. There is a hidden criticism of society in this ironic sentence, for although May says that society bends its rules for true love, it does not in the case of Ellen and Archer, choosing instead to send Ellen out of its tight circles. Archer uses May’s refusal to implore Ellen to throw conventions away and be with him. “She’s refused; that gives me the right-Ë® [29] he begins, but Ellen cuts him off to strike him, as well as the reader, with a sharp bolt of dramatic irony. “Ah, you’ve taught me what an ugly word that is,” [30] she says, reminding the reader of Archer’s staunch adherence to conventions when he convinces her not to get a divorce although she has a right to, by saying that though “legislation favours divorce”, “social customs don’t.” [31] This once again brings out the idea of a parliament governed by society, as well as old New York’s attitude towards divorce. Ellen evidently understands New Yorkers better than one of their own. Finally, Archer meets Ellen alone a few years after they part. They sit at a restaurant, “close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart.” [32] Although their literal propinquity is apparent, Wharton reminds the reader that they are in completely different worlds figuratively. The verb “chained” [33] suggests unwillingness on both parts, while also hinting at the power that society holds over the individual. This type of dramatic irony, known as tragic irony, is drawn out yet again when Archer and Ellen sit next to each other in May’s brougham and interwoven with cosmic irony: “The precious moments were slipping away, but he had forgotten everything that he had meant to say to her and could only helplessly brood on the mystery of their remoteness and their proximity, which seemed to be symbolised by the fact of their sitting so close to each other, and yet being unable to see each other’s faces.” [34] This sentence serves as an explanation of Wharton’s technique. She uses symbolism to convey Archer and Ellen’s predicament. The words “remoteness” [35] and “proximity” [36] are contrasting, highlighting the frustration and sorrow of the characters’ circumstances. Ellen too adds to the tragic irony, saying, “We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other.” [37] This paradox also helps to bring out the almost ridiculous wretchedness of the moment.

The Struggle within the Character

The conflict between the individual and society is in part caused by the battle between two sides of Lily’s character. While one part of her lusts after the money and power associated with New York’s elite, another part of her yearns to be free from the clutches of materialism. At first, Selden is only “aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay.” [38] The simile shows Lily’s superficiality and artificiality. Ironically, Lily’s the reader soon recognizes difference is on the inside rather than the outside, when she voluntarily strays from the beaten path of marriage and comfort. Lily is also compared to an orchid when she works with a charitable organization. “All this was in the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes.” [39] This, unfortunately, does not hold true for her. There is some verbal irony in the metaphor, but it is the dramatic irony that comes through strongest, for Lily, unlike the orchid, does not survive untouched much longer. She has been feeling, and will continue to feel the burden of poverty. The metaphor also reflects the nature of society, for it is also like the orchid, untouched by reality and unable to see anything beyond its world. Wharton employs symbolism to unfurl the dramatic irony, as Lily decides to marry Gryce and thus enter inner societial circles, but thinks that her friends had earlier “symbolized what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up.” [40] This disillusionment is further developed when Lily also feels a “vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation” [41] , and continues throughout the novel. Although Lily herself “hardly knew what she had been seeking” [42] , the reader realizes that she desires freedom from society’s constraints as she later refuses to be tied down by marriage despite having to remain poor and ostracized. The theme of freedom is touched upon here.

Newland Archer too displays a rebellious streak, which is seen first when he visits Ellen’s home, although he thinks that “she ought to know that a man who’s just engaged doesn’t spend his time calling on married women” [43] . This is also the beginning of the irresistible pull that Ellen and Archer feel towards each other. The author also comments that, if Archer had cared to look within himself, “he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as wordly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy” [44] . Ironically, Ellen comes through as “wordly-wise” [45] and “eager to please” [46] , and not his real wife, May. The love between Ellen and Archer is foreshadowed at the opening of the novel. When Archer enters the florist’s, he sees “a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her-there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.” [47] He instead sends them to Ellen and his impulsive action foreshadows his attraction towards Ellen. Therefore, the flowers become symbols, the roses standing for Ellen and the lilies, with their purity and innocence, May. Archer feels that “Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more than her resolute determination to carry to its utmost limit that ritual of ignoring the “unpleasant” in which they had both been brought up.” [48] Dramatic irony is created as he later comes to resent her exactly for this. When she warns him to close the window, saying, “You’ll catch your death.” [49] , Archer recognizes the irony in her words and thinks, “But I’ve caught it already. I am dead-I’ve been dead for months and months.” [50] Archer’s change in beliefs shows his character development; he now feels the monotony of a society that cannot face reality. In yet another case of dramatic irony, Janey, Archer’s sister, is in the dark about past events. Immediately after Archer unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Ellen to marry him since May refuses to pre-pone the wedding, he receives a telegram from May agreeing to postpone the wedding. Archer realizes the twist of fate and throws “back his head with a long laugh.” [51] Janey’s question, “But, dearest, why do you keep on laughing?” [52] further emphasises the irony by repeated references to his laughter.

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The Direct Conflict with Society

Ultimately, Lily finds herself cast out of societal circles. Her destitution is ominously foreshadowed from the very beginning of the novel. Lawrence Selden is “struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen” [53] . It is impossible to imagine this sybarite as anything but rich. The reader, however, recognizes a different kind of irony-dramatic-for Lily does later lead a life even worse than the lonely, poverty-stricken Gertrude Farish’s. However, her real troubles begin when she receives “The Dorsets’ invitation to go abroad with them” [54] . Although it seems to “come as an almost miraculous release from crushing difficulties;” [55] , it is but a precursor to even greater difficulties. Lily does not yet know this, but the reader does. The same type of irony can be seen in the narrator’s comment that “The fact that the money freed her temporarily from all minor obligations obscured her sense of the greater one it represented.” [56] Lily later falls into debt and social disgrace due to her borrowing from Gus Trenor. When Lily returns to Bertha immediately before Bertha accuses her of having an affair with George Dorset, she is “more than ever alarmed at the possible consequences of her long absence.” [57] Ironically, Lily innocently fears for Mrs. Dorset’s reputation, when it is her own she should care for. There is some situational irony as well, since the reader also expects Bertha to be afraid for her reputation, but she is “in full command of her usual attenuated elegance” [58] . Pity for Lily is created, as her kind nature shines through, while Bertha is seen to be cunning and false. “Dénouement-isn’t that too big a word for such a small incident?” [59] she asks, little knowing that the incident is big enough for the word, while the reader shares this knowledge with Bertha. Bertha’s remark to Lily, “I suppose I ought to say good morning” [60] holds dramatic irony as the reader is informed that it is the day Lily is to be thrown out of her friends’ good graces. The author points this out through the phrase “with a faint touch of irony” [61] prior to Bertha’s sentence. Once again, Bertha’s malicious nature comes across. Lily finally finds herself “probing the very depths of insignificance” [62] and “courting the approval of people she had disdained under other conditions” [63] . Lily Bart, once “a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train” [64] and create a “general sense of commotion” [65] by her mere presence, has been reduced to an inconspicuous speck. The reader is fully able to appreciate the tragic irony of the novel’s conclusion through the stark contrast.

Ellen Olenska clashes with the highly conventional New York setting from her arrival as she brings with her odd European ways and the scandal of having left her husband. “Oh centuries and centuries; so long,” she says at first, “that I’m sure I’m dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven;” [66] Although she does not know it yet, New York turns out to be anything but heaven for Ellen later on as her ideals and lifestyle constantly clash with the conformist society. Ellen’s comment shows her to be a very liberal woman, expecting a society rooted in traditions to forget its differences with her, and creates some curiosity about her. Archer warns her, “with a flash of sarcasm” [67] , that “New York’s an awfully safe place” [68] , but she takes him literally. The reader is able to discern his meaning, being aware of her subsequent exclusion from society. Ellen is evidently very innocent, emphasised by her exclamation on New York: “If you knew how I like it for just that-the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!” [69] Little does she realize that most things remain unspoken here, such as the “ritual of ignoring the “unpleasant”” [70] . When Ellen finally realizes this, she admits, “New York simply meant peace and freedom to me: it was coming home.” [71] , but the reader is able to appreciate the dramatic irony in the narrator’s comment: “simple-hearted kindly New York, on whose larger charity she had apparently counted, was precisely the place where she could least hope for indulgence” [72] . Ellen also believes that she is “conforming to American ideas in asking for her freedom.” [73] However, American ideas are the opposite of this, as society is aghast at her desire for a divorce. There is no freedom for the women of New York, and the standing that a marriage brings is esteemed. Initially, Archer too expresses his forward thinking through his violent “I hope she will!” [74] , but he is later the one who convinces her not to go ahead with it, saying “our legislation favours divorce-our social customs don’t.” [75] The power that society holds over even an open-minded man and women’s lack of freedom is manifest here. When the van der Luydens host Ellen’s welcoming party, Archer notices “a number of the recalcitrant couples who had declined to meet her at Mrs. Lovell Mingott’s.” [76] Only when an influential family supports Ellen, society rallies behind her. Its hypocrisy and shallowness is observable here, and also in Mr. van der Luyden’s remark: “it’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to troubles themselves about our little republican distinctions.” [77] Absurdly, this is exactly what they expect of Ellen as can be seen throughout the novel, from the time she is persuaded to remain married until the time she is sent out of New York. At one point, Mrs. Welland wonders, “I wonder what her fate will be?” [78] Archer adds the irony by reminding the reader of what her fate actually becomes towards the end of the novel: “What we’ve all contrived to make it” [79] . Lawrence Lefferts had once remarked, “our children will be marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” [80] Archer’s son marries Fanny Beaufort, “who had appeared in New York at eighteen, after the death of her parents, had won its heart much as Madame Olenska had won it thirty years earlier; only instead of being distrustful and afraid of her, society took her joyfully for granted. She was pretty, amusing and accomplished: what more did anyone want? Nobody was narrow-minded enough to take a rake up against her the half-forgotten facts of her father’s past and her own origin. Only the older people remembered so obscure an incident in the business life of New York” 


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