Transatlantic Exile and Othering in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a tale of transatlantic exclusion and differentiation depicting the Europeanized American Countess Ellen Olenska’s return to the capitalist and insular society of Old New York. This article examines the fundamental irony of what is a broadly cosmopolitan novel, permeated by differing degrees of hierarchy, racial and ethnic labelling, and immigrant activity. In this novel, Wharton shows how continental expatriation, which is the legacy of being American, is written out of the national narrative. Ellen’s status as the compromised and exoticized cultural ‘other’ becomes demonised as a corruptive force by the American elite, who fear that evidence of American cultural adaptability and cosmopolitan acculturation disproves the founding myths pertaining to exceptionalist notions of the New World’s racial distinction. By tracing the tribal savagery that the upper echelons of New York society display in response to Newland Archer’s and Ellen’s flirtation, this article demonstrates the inaccuracy of enforced hemispheric binarization. I argue that Ellen’s forceful and brutal eradication from New York society, although intended to reinstate the near compromised dignity of American ideals and future bloodlines, instead derives from self-conscious misjudgement concerning national insularity.
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