narrative strategy is clearly at work in the transition between Books 1
and 2 of The Age of Innocence. Returning home from a visit with Ellen
at the end of Book 1, Newland receives a telegram from May. His rendezvous
with Ellen just prior to the telegram culminates in their mutual admission
of love for each other and Newland’s plaintive cry, “Do you see me marrying
May after this?” (Wharton, 170). Upon arriving home, the telegram
announces the Wellands’ acquiescence to a shortened engagement and the
couple’s pending marriage. The telegram itself is doubtless the result
of the family’s machinations to keep Archer in line by sealing his union
with May, and in effect the conventions of society, in prompt public ceremony.
For up until this telegram, May tried to convince Archer that they should
not hasten their wedding, and even generously expressed her wish that she
could not have her “happiness made out of a wrong--an unfairness” (Wharton,
148) to another woman Archer cared for. So why would she turn around
without telling him and get her family’s support to marry Archer early?
And why did she have to send a message to Ellen about the change in plans?
Clearly, the machinery of the family tribe is at work, and it is up to
the reader to uncover within the telegram itself the underpinnings of manipulated
social convention. With the advent of the telegram, Archer is forced
into a timetable for making a decision between May and Ellen.
But where does that time go and when is Newland’s decision made?
For Book 2 opens with Newland standing on the chancel step of Grace Church
waiting for the approach of his bride. Thus, Wharton whisks us from
Newland’s declaration of his love for Ellen, via May’s telegram, immediately
to his marriage ceremony to May. The narrative strategy enclosing
the central moral decision of the novel is key in the transition between
Books 1 and 2, where Newland makes a choice that we do not witness.
As readers we have been caught in a literary ellipsis, a narrative discontinuity
between story and discourse (Chatman, 68). Wharton halts her narration
of events immediately after the telegram arrives, even though time has
continued to pass in the novel. Newland will make a decision, and
he will prepare for his wedding, but there is no narrative discourse to
allow us to watch these events unfold. Wharton’s ellipsis thus makes
the discourse-time of the narration shorter than the actual story-time
of the novel; so much shorter that the discourse-time is zero (Chatman,
Gary Lindberg asserts that “here, instead of accounting for lapsed time
by postulating a chain of consequences, the reader is forced into Archer’s
bewildered sense of what has happened” (49). The rapidity of the
sequence leaves no time for the reader to even question whether May’s telegram
should really have changed everything again for Archer. In fact,
the sudden movement in events between Books 1 and 2 seems to emphasize
the power of a simple public gesture, like a telegram, when it is backed
by a complex web of social obligations and personal standards conditioned
by convention. The almost nonexistent interval between the telegram
and the wedding further suggests that the wedding is the immediate and
only recognizable consequence of the telegram. Archer seems to have
no choice; and our perception as readers of Newland’s entrapment is heightened
by Wharton’s narrative technique: “Wharton’s arrangement of interstices
engages the reader in Archer’s own illusion that May’s announcement eliminates
moral choice entirely” (Lindberg, 49).
In effect, Wharton’s narrative strategy also includes psychological gaps;
that is, not only are sequences of time in the novel condensed, but elisions
occur at critical junctures in Newland’s mental decision-making process.
It is important to note, however, that Wharton’s narrative strategy does
not free her protagonist entirely from personal responsibility. It
is just that as readers we do not see Newland accepting much responsibility,
as he succumbs to the demands of social circumstance. As far as we
can tell, Newland does not even deliberate over his pending decisions;
in this sense, his choices are almost non-choices. He only follows
the path of least resistance, the option with the least immediate difficulty
through the web of social obligations. Thus, “it is the power of
social expectancies, reinforced by the pressure of public time, that creates
for the character the illusion that only one line of action is even imaginable”
(Lindberg, 49). Wharton’s ellipses condense the time during which
such decisions take place, and emphasize what clarity of insight and strength
of action (which Newland sorely lacks) would be needed to even contemplate
a course of action other than that enforced by societal pressure.