“. in metropolises it was not the thing to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not the thing played a part as important in Newland Archers New York as the inscrutable totem errors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.” (Book One, Chapter 1, p. 4) The manners and customs of fashionable society are portrayed as being as tyrannous yet as difficult to know and master as the symbols of an ancient culture – creating traps into which the unschooled and unwary will fall.
” Im sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots… Women ought to be free – as free as we are, he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.” (Book One, Chapter 5, p. 35) Newland Archer defends the right of separated or divorced women to make a new life with another man, and condemns the double standard prevalent in society at the time that allowed men, but not women, to seek sexual fulfillment outside a failed marriage. However, Wharton points out that he has not thought through the implications of his progressive view, perhaps with regard to his own very traditional marriage.
“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 Wellands familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.” (Book One, Chapter 6, p. 36) Newland Archer, whose old settled convictions have been shaken up by the case of the unconventional Ellen, reflects on his coming marriage to the traditional May.
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announced her daughters engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents tent.” (Book One, Chapter 6, p. 38) The author remarks on the hypocrisy of New York society.
“Being here is like – like – being taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all ones lessons.” (Book One, Chapter 9, p. 63) Ellen Olenska comments on the “safe” feeling that New York gives her.
“It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young womans eyes, and bid her look forth upon the world. But how many generations of the women of had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?” (Book One, Chapter 10, p. 70) Newland Archer wonders what of value, if anything, lies beneath his wife-to-bes innocence and unworldliness, so carefully inculcated in women by the society of the time.
“The affair, in short, had been of the kind that most of the young men of his age had been through, and emerged from with calm consciences and an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between the woman one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied. In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs Archers belief that when such things happened it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman.” (Book One, Chapter 11, p. 82) Wharton notes the double standards that applied to men as against women in the matter of illicit love affairs.
“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” (Book Two, Chapter 24, p. 205) Ellen wonders why American society tries to ape old European society.
“Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?” (Book Two, Chapter 29, p. 247) Ellen doubts that there is any place on earth where they could live free from the judgments of others.
“There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe.” (Book Two, Chapter 33, p. 285) New York society finally manages to be generous towards Ellen, now that she is leaving for Europe.