This article features an analysis of the character of May Welland, one of the two female main characters in Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. May is a paradoxical figure, and this commentary discusses the various aspects of her personality.
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The Perfect Wife
Newland Archer chooses to marry May Welland more for what she represents than the person she truly is. To Newland, May represents what the perfect wife should be—someone who knows all the rules of the society of which they are members and who is admired by others within the society. She is an exemplary example of a perfect New York, high society upbringing, and this is something that Newland values.
May is very much her mother’s daughter, and she takes on the role of wife in the same way that she has seen her mother doing for her father. She strives to manage both the household and Newland’s time with precision. She represents, for the time period, what would have been considered the perfect domestic partner.
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Newland sees May as an innocent who he will be able to teach and mold. He dreams of introducing her to the things that he loves, such as books, art, and travel. However, it soon becomes clear that May will not be an intellectual companion for him, and the innocence he found so attractive in the beginning of their courtship becomes an annoyance to him.
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Interestingly, May is often portrayed in the novel as a goddess figure, namely Diana the goddess of the hunt who also represents chastity. Newland seems to view May as a figure of purity and chastity, but he does not realize this other side of her character—the huntress. That is a much stronger figure, and one who is willing to be more assertive than Newland gives May credit for.
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Ironically, just like Newland, we as readers do not truly understand May until close to the end of the novel when it becomes apparent that she is not as innocent, or as clueless, as we have thought her to be. She is able to manipulate matters in order to protect her marriage. She knows how to use the rules of her society in order to keep Newland. She knows he will not leave her once he realizes she is pregnant and that Ellen would not let him even consider doing such a thing. Also, May is able to rally the other members of their society around her and push out Ellen, as Newland sees during the farewell dinner party that May insists on hosting for her cousin. A determination is revealed as she works to defend the things she loves. Because we as readers see May through Newland’s eyes, we too are blind to what she is capable of for much of the novel. Her true character comes into focus at the end, when it is revealed that she knew all along about Newland’s love for Ellen and knew what it took for him to give up that love.