Two Worlds Conflict in Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Passos’s “Manhattan Transfer”

Subject: Literature
Pages: 9
Words: 2445
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: Master

A human being should live in harmony with nature to be happy. We live in the time of the development of modern technologies when nature has become isolated from people. People live in cities that are opposed to a harmonious nature. Arnold Goldsmith points out that nature is absent in modern urban novels (Goldsmith, 1991). Urban novels depict life in the cities separated from nature. Are these changes good or bad for people? Taking into account two literary works namely Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and John Passos’s Manhattan Transfer we may conclude that urbanism as a popular phenomenon in our times has a lot of drawbacks for human life. These authors depict the tragic fate of people captured with a new fastness of life. More than that, these works touch upon the influence of changes connected with an encounter of a new world and an old one over human life. The conflict of two worlds is the main theme of both these novels. People who have been accustomed to living in the old world with its culture and traditions find it difficult to cope with the changes that the new world provides. This conflict of cultures becomes the reason for people’s ruined lives.

The Age of Innocence represents the struggle between an individual and society. A human being depends on society and its rules. It dictates the rules for living and even for thinking. There is the conflict of changes or the conflict between an individual and the whole city depicted in The Age of Innocence. The main characters, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska sacrifice their desires to the established rules of society. They do not even dare to rebel against the accepted norms of society, although nobody is sure of the usefulness of these norms. These characters cannot do whatever they want as far as the opinion of the society that is very valuable for them stops them from the realization of their desires and dreams making them unhappy. Although Newland Archer is afraid of communication with the scandal Countess Olenska, he does not stop his relationships with her as society expects from him. When Ellen decides to divorce her husband she is afraid of unpleasant gossips that stops her from this act. Every individual is expected to follow the rules of society that are considered to be the high code of morality. People’s desires and wishes are oppressed by society.

The author depicts the tragic fate of those people who have moved from Europe to New York or from the old world to the new one. People who had been searching for a better life were trapped in the rules of the new world. Although they hope for more freedom and better life, they have become the slaves of modern society with its oppressive rules and dominating classes. There is the conflict of cultures or the conflict of two worlds that hampers the characters to live happily.

The author depicts Old New York as a place that is full of hypocrisy. Appearance does not correspond to the reality in this city. Everything surrounding people is pretentious, even a human life seems to be artificial as far as people cannot use the freedom that they have. Friendship, relationship, and marriage are pretentious too. Human life is like a play in which rules are established with the society that does not care about human life. They do not even know what they want as far as all their desires and wishes are imposed on them by society (The Age of Innocence, n.d.). People seem to be the objects of the city without any freedom of behavior and thought.

People hide their real thoughts under the mask of innocence. Everyone in this society considers himself to be an example of morality. Larry Lefferts who proclaims himself to be the pillar of the moral code is factually one of the main hypocrites depicted in The Age of Innocence. The respectful families who attend Julius Beafourt’s balls regularly abuse his hospitality and judge his actions behind his back. People who seem to be friends are real victims. A city that seems to be hospitable and beautiful does not make people happy. It is not people’s fault that they behave in such a way leading a life of hypocrites and liars. It is the society that has captured their life. As a result, Ellen and Archer decide to part rather than disappoint the expectations of society. They lie to themselves pretending that they do not have feelings for each other. These characters have lived but they cannot be the owners of their lives and do whatever they want.

Despite the moral collapse in society, some characters are still innocent and naïve despite the hypocrisy surrounding them in The Age of Innocence. May Welland is depicted as innocent compared to the corruption of Larry Lefferts (Wharton, 1984). Archer is also portrayed in some way being naïve as far as he believes that their private feelings are the business of the society and this problem should be solved with the help of the society. Old New York itself is depicted as an innocent and naïve city believing that the so-called moral code may save it from the approaching collapse of the twentieth century.

Wharton depicts the encounter of the new world with the old one. Many people’s fates are destroyed as far as they are not ready to live in these new conditions. These changes have captured their lives and people even do not pay attention when they get enslaved in this new world with great promises. Deception and hypocrisy are everywhere and people’s lives are full of them despite their belief in a high moral code. The corruption of the new world is masked under this moral code accepted by society. People who have been seeking freedom from any oppression have got in worse situations than they were before. Having got freedom from one kind of oppression they become the slaves of another one.

John Dos Passos also touches upon these great changes of the new world depicting New York as the city-destroying millions of lives in his work Manhattan Transfer. He depicts the city as being merciless and brutal towards people. People are absorbed with the new fastness of life without paying attention to the value of human life. They have lost their human qualities have become the subjects of the city. People are depicted as the property of the city that is portrayed as the main character of Manhattan Transfer (Levin, 2000).

Passos presents the life of people in New York with their failures and wins, joys and sorrows. The work presents the life of Jimmy and Ellen in its development. Factually it seems that they are ordinary people with ordinary problems. These problems may seem to be an integral part of their life but the author points out the role of the city in their fates. Are they guilty of their unhappy fate or it is a corrupt city that has destroyed their life? Not everyone may cope with this new fastness of life with hypocritical citizens living in this city. Even if Ellen seems to accept her fate, Jimmy is searching for the rescue as far as he is the only one who understands the influence of a new world over an ordinary human being. He decides to run from this city. Although the author does not point out whether he finds this rescue or not and where he may find it, Passos leaves a piece of hope for his character. Although there is some hope for the rescue for Jimmy other characters’ lives seem to be impossible to change. They are captured with this new fastness of life and they do not even understand their unhappiness. They pretend to be satisfied with their lives and to be happy and they do not want to accept the fact that they live in a corruptive world with hypocritical people. Living in masks seems to be easy for them and they do not want to live another way of life.

The existence of the new world presupposes the appearance of a new human being with a new way of life and mindset. The world changes and people should adjust to these changes. Those who cannot accept these changes or do not want to do them are oppressed by this new world. It may seem that there is no rescue for these people and everything is destined to be collapsed and destroyed. It should be noted that the author leaves hope for their characters which means that there is a rescue for them and they dare to hope for it. A new world promises a lot to ordinary human beings but there is no evidence that these promises are not pretentious and unreal. People do not want to accept their lives to be pretentious and unhappy. They live in their new world with new hopes pretending that they are satisfied with it and they do not want to change something. Even if they want to change this world the efforts of some people are not enough to realize these changes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald touches upon the theme of the hostile city and the citizens in his essay collection My Lost City. He also depicts New York in his essays. He expresses the role of the city in his life in the following words: “One by one my great dreams of New York became tainted…. I wandered through the town of 127th Street, resenting its vibrant life; or else I bought cheap theatre seats at Gray’s drugstore and tried to lose myself for a few hours in my old passion for Broadway. I was a failure – mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home….” (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Iridescent City of 1919, 2011). People who realize that their dreams have failed cannot find a place in this life. Their dreams are not realized not because they do not make efforts but these dreams cannot be realized in a city where everything is pretentious. Fitzgerald understands that his life reaches a deadlock and he finds consolation in alcohol and drugs. His essay collection My Lost City as well as Manhattan Transfer and The Age of Innocence depicted human lives destructed by the city or the so-called new world.

The fate of Gus McNeil from Manhattan Transfer is a typical situation of the life destructed by a new fastness of life. This man who is disappointed with his life finds consolation in alcohol and he drinks a lot trying not to pay attention to the problems surrounding him. Alcohol helps him to forget all these problems. His life ends abruptly and he is hit by “a freight train backing down the New York Central tracks” (Passos, 2003). His death does not shock anyone in the city. People of the new world have been accustomed to such tragic stories and accidents. It seems that human life has become priceless. More than that, McNeil’s wife is not in mourning for a long time and she has an affair with George Baldwin who comes to inform her about her husband’s death. Death is considered to be a natural phenomenon in New York. There are many ruined lives depicted in Manhattan Transfer.

Emile who is a cabin boy on a French ship is on the way from the old world to the new one with a lot of hopes. All people on a French ship dream of the possibility to live in America promising them a lot of chances and hopes. Emile explains his desire to stay in New York with the following words: “[Here] it’s the coin they’re after. They don’t want to fight people; they want to do business with them” (Passos, 2003). Is business better than war? Business is also considered to be the competition and struggle for a better place in society. Although there is no war in New York compared to other countries of the world where people kill each other, the number of deaths in New York does not considerably differ from the countries being in the state of war. More than that, there is another kind of war in New York. It is a war without any hostilities and shots when million people die. It is the war between the new world and the old one, the war between the society and an individual, and the war between a great city and a defenseless citizen. When Emile meets Marco, the immigrant living in New York, his hopes have been destroyed. Marco describes life in New York with the following words: “It’s all the same, in France you are paid badly and live well, here you are paid well and live badly” (Passos, 2003). Factually, there may seem that there are no differences between the old world and the new one. People are still slaves and they still live badly. The only difference is that this new world is more inhuman and brutal towards human life. Marco adds to his words the following statement: “All over the world we are preparing,” he says. “Your Commune in France was the beginning…socialism failed. It’s for the anarchists to strike the next blow” (Passos, 2003). Is a new world better for human civilization? As Marco points out there is nothing to enjoy in this new world.

Wharton’s Age of Innocence also presents the human fates destroyed by the so-called new world. Two people who have feelings for each other have to suppress them as far as society does not accept such behavior. Archer and Ellen falling in love with each other do not have any possibility to be together. They cannot rebel against society. Having spent their lives with other people they realize that they are unhappy, and their lives have been destroyed by society. The new world that promises a lot of freedom to people suppress their thoughts and feelings. People who hope for a better life are still slaves, but their owner has been changed.

These two urban novels present the city playing a vital role in human lives. It is a new world with new hopes and promises and people are striving to live in such a beautiful city as New York. Edith Wharton as well as John Passos condemns the pretense and hypocrisy of the new world. They depict many ruined lives in their novels. People who have been seeking a better life and consider New York to be the city of their happiness are disappointed with their hopes.

Works Cited

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Iridescent City of 1919. 2011. Web.

Goldsmith, Arnold. The Contemporary American Urban Novel. New York: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Print.

Levin, Batya 2000. Rooms, Buildings, Streets: The City as Montage in Manhattan Transfer. Web.

Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003. Print.

The Age of innocence n.d. Web. 2012.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Forgotten Books, 1948. Print.