May Welland in Edith Wharton’s
Louis Coxe asserts: “I believe that if any character in this novel partakes of the heroic nature it is indeed May Welland, she of the pink and white surface and the candid glance, whose capacity for passion and sacrifice her husband never knew” (159). Coxe is not the only one who pays tribute to the under‐appreciated character May. Gwendolyn Morgan also contends that, in spite of being a minor character in the novel, May can be the novel’s “true heroine” (101) with her many triumphs in her fights for her home and husband.
On the other hand, feminist scholars such as Elizabeth Ammons and Emily Orlando attempt to illuminate the oppressed nature that Wharton hides within “the innocent American girl” May. Ammons and Orlando both note the implied meaning of innocence by relating the title of the novel to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the daughter of his favorite niece, “The Age of Innocence.” Orlando describes Reynolds’s picture as “the profile of a small girl seated barefoot in a pastoral setting with bow in hair, eyes open and unquestioning, and hands demurely crossed over her breast” (70). Ammons argues that the “child‐woman” May is “America’s answer to Chinese foot‐binding . . . perfectly embod[ying] her class’s ideal of helpless femininity” (147). Feminist scholars agree that the myth of the American Girl, that she is a perpetual innocent child, is damaging to women because it makes them victims of their husbands and the patriarchal system.
While there is a considerable controversy over how May’s enigmatic nature is to be interpreted, May is a character Wharton created to challenge the patriarchal prejudice that has been culturally conditioned. The narrator throughout the novel shows Newland’s tie to the “masculine New York” (
In Western patriarchal society, for many centuries, the man was concerned with being dominant and superior while the woman was relegated to a position of dependence and inferiority. The preconception prevails to this day that men are superior to women not because of personal achievement, character, or strength but because of being men. Men justify their devaluing women and feminineness, and women suppose their “natural inferiority” (Neumann 34) by downgrading the feminine principle.
The Jungian analyst Mary Esther Harding defines the feminine principle as “the mainspring of woman” (15) that controls both her physical and psychological being. Carl Jung borrows the old Greek philosophic concept of Eros or relatedness in order to explain the feminine principle, in contrast to the Logos, which is the masculine principle dealing with factual knowledge and wisdom. Furthermore, Eric Neumann clarifies that “the matriarchal‐maternal element” (240) in the human psyche belongs symbolically to the feminine and the unconscious. He points out, however, that the ego in both sexes is symbolically masculine. Neumann conceptualizes the masculine ego in a form that had emerged from the feminine matrix of the unconscious. In other words, the heroic‐patriarchal development of the ego involves giving up security, engaging in risktaking, and accepting suffering. Otherwise, the ego remains infantile, fixating on a mother. Neumann elaborates on the difference between “matriarchal consciousness” and “patriarchal consciousness”:
For matriarchal consciousness, Neumann observes understanding is not an act of the intellect as an organ that perceives, works through, and organizes, but that of a “conception” (93). Neumann also notes that the conceiving and understanding in matriarchal consciousness result in a transformation in personality, while adapting to the patriarchal culture can be achieved only by avoiding the transformative aspect of the feminine.
Before Fifth Avenue became a social equivalent for industrial wealth, May was born into an elite family in Old New York. Historically, New York society ― defined by the parameter of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom, the “New York Four Hundred” ― was a closelyknit community (Waid xvi). Ward McAllister wrote: “the old Knickerbocker families,” an established elite “represent[ed] the best society of this great commercial city” (224). This small but powerful New York clan, descended from old Dutch settlers and English merchants, clung together, intermarried, and made the rules for society in Manhattan. Despite the absence of a true aristocracy, Old New York, a small class that passed for an aristocracy, dominated the New York of Wharton’s youth in the years after the Civil War.
May is the prototype of what a young woman should be in her community. She actualizes “whiteness, radiance, goodness” (
On the other hand, at the opera, Ellen shocks New York society, including Newland, with her audacious costume. The reader first sees Ellen at the opera through the eyes of Newland when she returns to America after twelve years in Europe in order to divorce Count Olenski, her husband, a dissolute Polish nobleman. Although Newland initially responds to Ellen’s foreignness as “an offense against ‘Taste’” (850), he soon grows attracted to the simplicity of her manner and “the mysterious authority of [her] beauty” (888).
Her name, Ellen, a variation of Helen, connotes aesthetic beauty in a classical sense. Helen is the Greek protégée of Aphrodite and is herself a prototype of beauty and passion. Newland sees Ellen personify the ideal of the eternal feminine, the goddess who lives within a man’s psyche, an image of beauty. Jung names this aspect of psyche “
Ellen plays the role of
Newland’s dream of a life that transcends social boundaries remains unattainable and he comes to think of domestic life as a kind of life‐in‐death in which he has become fatally buried. Wharton affirms this image by describing his entrapment with May as “stifling” (1074). One winter evening in his library, watching May as she sews, Newland opens the window in need of “a little air” (1074). He looks out the window to “a whole world beyond” (1074).
This scene recalls the traditional American hero who looks to the landscape and the frontier for escape from a domesticated world. Newland yearns to be a romantic hero whose goal is to get beyond society. This scene suggests that he wants what his name reveals, some “new land” or territory outside the web of his culture, beyond the constraints of his community in New York. Just as the hero cannot exist without conquering danger, a man cannot develop without stepping into the unpredictable danger that transformation demands. However, May’s caution brings him back to reality, reminding him that his world has no place for retreat to individuate a self: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death” (1074). May’s restriction from even opening a window implies that “a whole world beyond” leads to dangers or even death. Newland understands May exactly because her message always follows standard code in the patriarchal marriage.
According to Neumann, the stability of the family is guaranteed in the patriarchal marriage as long as it ensures the man identifies with the father figure and the woman with the mother figure. Jung explains that where the prototype of conventional marriage dominates, the relationship between husband and wife remains within the bounds of the biological goal, which is “the preservation of the species” (167). Since the goal is collective in nature, the psychological relationship between husband and wife will also be collective. Nancy Chodorow also notes that marriage with a mother or a daughter figure is the given formula for the patriarchal marriage. The husband sets up his wife as “an asexual mother” (Chodorow 22), and she must correspond to it because “a marriage is not made secure until the wife has succeeded in making her husband her child as well and in acting as a mother to him” (Freud 133?34). For the man, this means he can overcome his initial mother fixation, but he cannot project his
Newland regards May as a vessel holding all the virtues of home and family life. Newland marries a woman his mother would choose, a suitable bride for a leisure?class man, a woman who will carry out, to the letter, the social norm he is trained to admire and respect. On the part of New York society, therefore, Ellen is unforgivable because she jeopardizes May’s marriage by attracting Newland. May is part of “the circle of ladies who [are] the product of the system” (
Assumed to be incapable of intellectual pursuits, women in Old New York are to obey their husbands in all things and depend upon their guidance and protection. May’s world of innocence is also that which “seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience” (954). Many of the older New York matrons in the novel reveal their narrow?mindedness. For example, at every Thanksgiving dinner, Newland’s mother, Mrs. Archer, complains that New York is changing. Her complaints are part of the yearly ritual such as the opening of the season, summer vacation in Newport, and the holiday dinner. These rituals cease to have any meaning beyond a confirmation of the status quo. Immersed in the ritual of her dinner and her fixed ideas about change Mrs. Archer does not in fact see some of the real changes that have occurred.
New York society seems to predestine woman’s failure to evolve into a character of intelligence and individuality. The patriarchal marriage has been “un?individual” (Neumann 259), and made by families exercising power over their women. The woman is expected to submit herself to daughter psychology under the protection of the patriarchy in which “the male carries the projection of the father archetype and the woman remains subordinate to him, infantile and daughterly” (35). Otherwise, a woman’s discovery of herself often brings a marital crisis considering the predetermined gender roles of husband and wife are essential to harmony of their marriage.
Newland detects in May’s mother a “middle?aged image of invincible innocence” (
Newland visualizes May as an “image made of snow” (844) designed to flatter the “lordly pleasure” (875) of the husband who smashes it, but he soon realizes that her “abysmal purity” (844) is a myth of his own formulation, reinforced by societal myths. Newland understands his limits with regard to “disengag[ing] her real self from the shape into which tradition and training had moulded her” (1100). For instance, Newland plans their honeymoon to begin the process of enlightening May. He hopes to show her the best of European culture, complete with a tour of the Italian Lakes. Instead, he discovers May is extremely interested in clothes. Newland finally gives up on transforming her suddenly into a woman with “the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess” (874). In Newland’s eye, her life and interests appear to be reduced to what is merely personal and to strictly material realm.
Newland and May live a life dominated by a hierarchical family system in New York society that wants to preserve itself. Old New York systematizes its conventions to function as self?preserving rules that “tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern” (873). People in Old New York accepted culture as a way of life since it gave them a sense of security and belonging. At the same time, however, culture also constrains individual conduct, and even forces people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of family, so that New York would not have to deal with pain or dishonor. Newland once fantasizes that May’s veins are filled not with Ellen’s “ravaging” blood, but with “preserving fluid” (988). He feels that May will always keep a rein on his rebellious imagination, keep him grounded, and put him securely in touch with the familiar New York world in which people carry out “precise and inflexible” (860) rituals.
May represents hearth and home, the private sphere, the female sphere, which contrasts with the world of money, of capitalism, a public dimension, and a male one. May is resolute to do her best in her domestic duty such as managing the household and looking after her husband and children. Because May is conventional and limited, she seems to be at the center of power in New York society. The novel portrays Old New York as a “tight little citadel” (863), emphasizing the primitive, defensive, and self?protective nature of the community.
New York society women, including May, are housewives and mothers who live only to give birth to children and to nurture them until they are ready to be on their own. For the sake of the children born and yet unborn, they want security, material comfort, and the status quo. A New York woman has no life of her own apart from her children. Society would exclude elements that might cause discomfort, disturb the status quo, or stimulate change. People organize their public and private lives based on strict codes and conventions that mostly women uphold in order to solidify society and maintain its social and economic values. Clearly, women have become the hub around which society revolves because men are unable to give birth to children.
Newland thinks that May is naive and provincial even though she says to him, “You mustn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices ― one has one’s feelings and ideas” (957). When Newland visits her in St. Augustine to hasten the wedding, she knows before Newland does that he has fallen in love with another woman even if she does not yet know it is Ellen. May mistakenly believes it is his former mistress, Mrs. Rushworth. However, her intuition tells her what he does not face openly. He wishes to hasten their marriage to avoid temptation, but she refuses to allow him to build their future on such shaky ground, offering instead to break off their engagement.
Although May appears to Newland as an image of purity and helplessness, she is not as naive as he believes. May seems to perceive too far and too deeply into the unconscious for people to be comfortable around her as they recognize her intuition. She is apt to sense what is happening before it becomes manifest in outer life and to communicate her intuition in thought and action. Contrary to Newland’s perceptions, it is instinct and intuition that give May much of her strength.
Furthermore, she encourages him to marry the woman he loves even if doing so has to involve a divorce:
Obviously, she understands the need to rise above convention when it is narrow and hypocritical. Newland senses something “superhuman” (958) in her suggestion that he should marry his former mistress. However, Newland’s masculine approach to his wife’s consciousness does not lead him to understand the “superhuman” quality in her.
She also recognizes the times when one can and should act contrary to its conventions and traditions and does so herself when she feels it to be necessary. In other words, May acts upon the demands for authenticity rooted in the actual context of each situation instead of preoccupying herself with “authoritarian oughts”(Haddon 253).
For a woman, the “authoritarian oughts” are represented in the man’s ideas and opinions, such as “one must do this to be liked,” or “a girl should act thus and so if she wants to get married” (Harding 125). The woman highly esteems this concept of man, who may be manifested in an actual man such as her husband or father, or in an abstract idea of what society expects from her. Harding calls this man within the woman, “her own
After she marries Newland, May remains “the simple girl of yesterday” (880), preserved in an “indestructible youthfulness” (988). May, nevertheless, never falls victim to the
In the novel, Newland compares May to “a Diana” (
Herbert Spencer Robinson and Knox Wilson note Diana as the Roman goddess of the hunt as well as the goddess of the moon. Diana is the virgin goddess of the chase, never marries, and never experiences either the joys or the sorrows of love. Diana cures the ailments and solves the problems of humans. She also imposes evil and suffering upon them. Women in childbirth pray to her for help; the arrows of Diana bring instant death to whom they strike. Jean Bolen finds the Artemis archetype in every woman as well: “Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and moon, the only goddess who came to the aid of her mother, had women companions, and preferred to be in the wilderness” (219). Bolen emphasizes that the strong bond of sisterhood with other women and with Mother Nature characterizes Artemis. Both Diana and Artemis chose virginity over male companionship.
Concerning virginity, Harding notes that the unmarried girl belongs to her father under the Western patriarchal system, but in earlier days, as still in some primitive communities, she is free until she marries. Interestingly, J. G. Frazer defines virginity in terms of a psychological attitude rather than physiological fact. That is, virgin refers not to external circumstances but to an inner attitude. Harding elaborates on Frazer’s notion of virginity:
Based on the psychological connotation of virginity, May is a virgin who maintains an attitude of independent thought even after married to Newland. She neither does nor says things that she does not mean.
As McDowell observes May is actually a woman of “considerable strength,” with “a toughness and a tenacity of purpose”(99). If she has a choice, she would like to spend time on athletic activities, such as mountaineering, swimming, riding, or rowing. The narrator twice mentions May’s big hands as meant for playing sports. Gary Lindberg draws attention to May’s “clear brow”(1074), which is the sign of her “self?control”(107) rather than the innocence that Newland senses. Carol Wershoven also mentions that May is neither “her class’s ideal of helpless humanity” nor “a cardboard stereotype”(87). Instead, she is a perceptive, strong?willed, and determined woman who develops into “a person of greater depth” (89) than Newland could ever have imagined. It seems that the representation of May subverts the notion of the American Girl as a child who is “to be manipulated, not manipulative” (Orlando 70).
May’s careful, knowing control of her situation contrasts with Newland’s ignorance. To suit her own ends, May also plays primitive, instinctive tricks on people and situations. For example, May goes to Ellen without her husband’s knowledge and prematurely announces that she is pregnant in order to pressure Ellen to give up her affair with Newland voluntarily. But she has kept hidden from Newland the details of her “really good talk” (
Other instances also reveal May to be a strategist of the sharpest kind. A word here and there, a casual question or an observation that appears random and meaningless, makes its point with regard to what Newland must do, how he ought to behave. When May detects a household threat in Ellen, she expresses her challenge in an exchange about a smoking lamp: “‘They smell less if one blows them out,’ she explained, with her bright housekeeping air” (1052). Newland cannot deceive her about his business trip to Washington. May penetrates through his alibi and urges him, “You must be sure to go and see Ellen,” but “in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: ‘. . . since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval’” (1052).
Pamela Knights calls May “the lovers’ malign and implacable enemy” (31). Nevertheless, Mary Suzanne Schriber discusses how “unconventional” (199) May is in her conquest of Newland and in her victory over Ellen. Schriber praises May’s quiet and unassuming manner of handling her husband’s affair without undermining their relationship as husband and wife. Overall, critics highly evaluate May’s character based on her intuitive knowledge of her husband’s love for another woman, and her determination to suffer silently and carry on with her tasks. May successfully manages to keep her husband without playing role of the outraged wife. May is resolute to do her best in her domestic duties, such as managing the household and looking after her husband and children. She has become a so?called wise wife by developing skill in coping with her husband and the situation between them. May cultivates her intuition to a functional degree to attain her goal, which is making her marriage a success. Thanks to their mutual understanding, as husband and wife Newland and May never quarrel over any substantial conflict.
Newland is, however, incapable of seeing May clearly. He only views in May the repression, the narrowness, the stifling, and unimaginative life that entraps him. From his position of being “a wild animal cunningly trapped” (
Their marriage is not a model of matrimonial happiness or companionship. Newland regards his life with May as monotonous and passionless because “he was weary of living in a perpetual tepid honeymoon” (1073). Dallas even mocks his parents’ marriage as a “deaf?and?dumb asylum” (1122), but he is awed by their mutual understandings and sacrifices that save their marriage even after his mother’s death. In the last chapter, the reader also finds fifty?sevenyear?old Newland “held fast by habit, by memories, by a sudden startled shrinking from new things” (1118). He is ironically turned into “a Mr. Welland” (1074). Their three children are grown up, and May has been dead for years, having given her life to nursing their youngest child through infectious pneumonia. May lives her life as fully as she can and dies content, believing that world is “a good place, full of loving and harmonious households” (1116). She thrives in New York society, appreciating and preserving what is good in the old order.
Nevertheless, May was unaware that Old New York is transitioning in manners and values and is destined toward its “Atlantis?fate,” as Wharton observes in her autobiography (
Newland, a free man at last, travels to Paris to stand beneath the windows of Ellen whom he has loved in tormented secrecy for almost thirty years. To Newland, Ellen is still a “vision” that represents the missed opportunity, “the flower of life” (1115). However, instead of the reunion with Ellen, the novel ends with his discovery that May had always known of his love for Ellen and his “sacrifice” (1004). Newland finally realizes that a life apart from his all?loving, even dead wife is impossible. For her sake, and indeed toward her, he comes to feel sorrow over having rendered his marriage as perfunctory, as dry as possible in order to keep psychological fidelity to Ellen. His heart is touched by May’s love that is all?accepting, even of his desire for Ellen. Above all, his heart is filled with regrets for the life he has not lived. Newland concludes that although he has lost “the flower of life,” he has gained the dignity that comes with fulfilling his duty: “After all, there was good in the old ways” (1115).