Power/Influence of Society on the Individual
In Wharton’s novel, society exerts an enormous power on the characters. The individuals who belong to the upper level of New York society must obey a set of unwritten rules. Everything they do is scrutinized to see if they are correctly following these mandates. An example of this is found in the first scene of the book where everyone is paying more attention to what people are wearing and who is sitting with whom rather than the opera that is being presented. When the rules of the society needed to be clarified, people like the van der Luydens would step in and make sure everyone fell back in line.
For most of his life, Newland Archer has followed, and even admired, these rules. However, as he prepares to marry May Welland, he finds himself wanting to move outside of the structures of society because he has fallen in love with May’s cousin, Ellen. With this new love, he finds societal rules to be stifling. Yet, he is unable to break away from them. He wants to declare his love for Ellen, but in the end, he succumbs to the influence of society and family and stays with May. Both he and Ellen must give up what they want in order to maintain the status quo.
By the conclusion of the novel, the next generation has broken free of much of society’s influence and is able to do things that seemed impossible in Newland, May, and Ellen’s time, such as Newland’s son marrying Julius and Fanny Beaufort’s daughter.