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Wharton’s 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, 68).

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.
 

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