Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Philip Sipiora, Ph. D

Committee Member

Ruth Banes, Ph. D

Committee Member

Nicholas Samaras, Ph. D


Water, Elements, 1870s, Edith Wharton, New York


This study will explore the dichotomy of culture and psychological landscape in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. To lay the foundation for this study, I first consider how Ms. Wharton often employed dichotomy in her own life: her role as socialite and author, woman of old New York and European maverick, and her life as spouse or beloved. Compartmentalizing her life’s roles prevented her from having to compromise the distinct qualities of each paradigm. Similarly, in The Age of Innocence, Ellen and May are completely opposite representations of life and culture in the 1870’s who cannot happily coexist together. Wharton draws this contrast by painting their psychological landscapes, relying heavily on the motifs of water and fire, elements that if combined are mutually destructive. Ellen is unpredictable, uncensored, and exotic—even Promethean; Wharton uses images of fire to convey this mindset. Conversely, May’s character is often cold, controlled and pale; she is a sculpted product, not a creator. In rare moments, May is “radiant,” even warm, but she never approaches Ellen’s heat. Wharton emphasizes then that there is no true bridge between Ellen’s and May’s ways of living through Newland Archer who fails to cross from his world to Ellen’s even though his love for her is true and enduring. My writing will argue that Newland fails to consummate his love for Ellen because Wharton has drawn a character who lacks the ability to choose. Although he admires the “fire” he sees in Ellen, it is something he must do from afar, for he is a man ultimately made of water.