Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature.
Until the arrival of Countess Olenska.
The novel takes place in the late nineteenth century where the American gilded age was developing in the New York society. Before Ellen integrates Archer’s world, everyone knew their roles and everything was smoothly worked out as if orchestrated by a mechanical movement devoid of emotions but filled with social conformity. One’s life revolved around what one ought to wear, say, and do rather than what one prefers to do. One’s social statue evaluated one’s worth, and one’s intellect or imagination was a stifled gift when it does not follow the rules of the society. At times, having a different opinion is equal to being insulting, so one’s integration depended on how much ones agrees with the common opinion.
It was the old New York way of taking life "without effusion of blood": the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than "scenes," except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.
The arrival of Ellen disturbed the balance of this system. She arrived with new ideas, with a lack of shallow fashion, and with enough courage to defy a whole social system, one that dislikes her yet attempts to find in itself to give her a place in its houses and heart. With no success.
Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur.
She just perturbs the lives of the New York society. She is headless of tradition. She does not pay attention to what she should do and when and how, and why…. I don’t believe that she does not know of all the rules she breaks but that she only wants to rebel against a society, which already has a bad opinion of her. It is her way of coping with the rejection that she is exposed to.
At some point she becomes a threat to that system and slowly but surely she is cast away.
Her impact shows in many ways, especially in Archer’s life. His brainwashed mind finds a way to attain his real desire: to be with a woman like her, a woman who does not fear to be herself in a world, which encourages sameness and frowns open newness and difference. She is Helen, a woman who provoked wars. This Helen, or Ellen, starts a particular war in Archer’s heart. He wants to escape the mundanities of his life by following her, by leaving behind everything to live a full life despite how his behavior would be perceived. He is tempted to flee a trap set for him, and his resolve to follow this temptation was so strong that it almost freed him. Almost.
I find it very significant that the novel starts with mentioning the myth of Faust, whose inclination to temptation has destroyed him. In The Age of Innocence, it is the fact that Archer does not follow that temptation that somehow damns him to a dull existence, one which was imposed on him. His tragedy lies in the fact that he was not able to live the life he wanted, a life filled with excitement and dept. he remains trapped in a mundane society, which obliges him to keep appearances and favor duty over courage.
Archer had found himself held fast by habit, by memories, by a sudden startled shrinking from new things….. The worse of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else
His real tragedy is that he was never able to gather enough courage to carry his plans when he was able to. Once he had enough resolve, it was too late for him. Thus, he lived a life he despised. He became a man with a good reputation, but with an empty heart. And he grew so used to that shallow life that at the end he is unable to go back to young yearnings and desires.
Archer remained motionless, gazing at the upper windows as if the end of their pilgrimage has been attained.....Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.