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Decency above courage

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Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is difficult to resist.  The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint."  Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life."  The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this? 

Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline.  Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.

In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage."  Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty." 

Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential.  But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." 

Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]"). 

The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.

Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty.  The difference arises elsewhere.  Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones.  But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people. 

Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility.  She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband.  She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control.  She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer.  When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.

Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled.  He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault"). 

The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise.  She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.  

Courage has fitted her for life.

Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of The Age of Innocence from Gonemovie.com.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Dignity category.

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