Watch Men Watch: Surveillance in The Age of Innocence

2015 ‘A’ Level Paper 1 Q2a
‘The novel is about being watched.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence?

You’d think that the bewilderment from seeing the 2013 specimen question (arguably) repeated in the 2015 paper would be gone by now. The Archer-like impotent indignation has been quelled at least and we will, in this post, try to escape the typical concerns of privacy, scrutiny, the tribe and the hieroglyphic world to comment on Archer’s transition in the novel. Even though Archer finds himself ‘being watched’ with sinister undertones in Ch 33, the reader remembers that this was not always the case. Ch 1 opens in the Academy of Music, Archer taking his place in the boxes as one of the ‘chosen specimens of old New York gentility’. The invisible surveillance, where the reader’s understanding is limited by Archer’s perspective, takes place as Archer explores the social boundaries of New York between these two chapters. Why present this development? Is the novel more about watching (as an appreciation of New York’s defences) or more sympathetic to those being watched (as a critique of the above tribalism)?

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(Context) Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Wharton places her reader within the Academy of Music – an encampment within an encampment – that is as much about watching as it is about being watched. (Concerns) The ‘spectacle’ in The Age of Innocence in question would be the fading conventions and customs of Old New York, a closed social circle being enveloped by the larger winds of social change. Its watchmen fiercely guard the lines between old money and new money, proper and improper attire, the moral and the amoral, and most certainly, the ‘pleasant’ and the ‘ugly’. (Thesis Statement) As Newland Archer wanders around these boundaries, the novel too moves from criticism of surveillance in Old New York towards a reasoned understanding of its intrusiveness. The Age of Innocence is premised on being watched, yet concerned about why its insular world watches — to preserve whatever it can in spite of inexorable circumstances, at the expense of personal freedom.


Pleasure of the Gaze
(What) Old New York is on first glance built as a society of the spectacle. In Ch 1, the actual performance of Faust is a metaphor for Archer’s outward journey. Instead, reality – the people sitting in the boxes and the stalls – is performance. (How) The first two chapters themselves sashays between the appearance of the Countess Olenska – the main attraction no doubt – Archer’s internal thoughts and of course, the verbal sentencing from New York’s chief judges, Sillerton Jackson and Lawrence Lefferts. (How) Wharton’s narrator is quite transparent about the watching that takes place. The lexis of sight extends from Archer’s ‘glance flitting back’ to May to Jackson having also ‘silently scrutinised’ his own box. Ellen is described to be ‘attracting the undivided attention of masculine New York’ (Ch 2, 10), where the opera-glass becomes the obvious instrument of surveillance ‘hand(ed) back’ and forth between Jackson and Lefferts. (How) Later in the novel, Archer considers the Newport Archery Tournament a similar ‘spectacle‘ to the opera in the opening chapter, an ‘opportunity’ for Old New York ‘to show off pretty dresses and graceful attitudes’ (Ch 21, 169). The same attention to appearance, particularly women’s clothing, is evident in the narrator’s cinematic detailing of May’s ‘modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia’, her ‘cheek’, ‘brow’, ‘the roots of her fair braids’ and to the ‘young slope of her breast’ (Ch 1, 5), and Ellen’s ‘dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom’ (Ch 1, 7). (Why) The objectification of women, and to some degree, Old New York, as a whole points to the habit of watching and being watched. Such fastidious ‘possessorship’ of each other, as the reader will gleam from the subsequent chapters, is not without reason: society is guarding not just formal etiquette but also a moral code of behaviour.

To Spot or Be Spotted
(What) To do so, the closed world of Old New York hears and ‘talks’. (How) The novel is punctuated by ‘gossip chapters’ that report what the authority figures ‘see’ and find reprehensible. In Ch 5, Sillerton Jackson arrives at the Archers with the intention to ‘talk about Ellen Olenska, and of course Mrs. Archer and Janey wanted to hear what he had to tell’ (29). The delineation of right from wrong is altogether more obvious in Ch 16, when Mrs. Welland verbally segregates the ‘foreigners’ and ‘they’ from ‘us’ and with emphasis, ‘poor’, ‘wayward’ Ellen from their circle. (Why) While not explicitly on the concept of ‘seeing’, the narrator ushers the reader into Old New York’s private residences to witness how the watchers ‘watch’ over social norms. (How) Yet, this intimate knowledge also allows the reader to discern the innate duplicity of the ‘watchers’. Jackson is indeed ‘certain of’ Lawrence Lefferts’s ‘affair with the postmaster’s wife’ and claims to have ‘seen him try the same thing often before’ (Ch 7, 45) (How) While men are still watched, they are rarely censured, or at least to the extent New York ‘effaces’ women and expect them to ‘disappear’ for financial or marital misconduct (Ch 31, 224). (Why) These discrepancies (or sheer hypocrisy if one were to be forthright) lead the reader to challenge the foundation of watching  – if one exonerates the men, can New York really claim to watch for the sake of cultural preservation?


Dry Your Eyes… and Let’s Go Home
 The novel’s sympathy for those ‘being watched’ emerges in its protagonist’s journey from the panopticon to prison cell. (How) Archer is introduced to us as a part of the ‘little inner group of people who… disported themselves together daily and nightly’ with gossip and banquets, one of ‘all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, buttonhole-flowered gentlemen who…. turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies’ (7). The language at once locates Archer as part of a tribe (‘little inner group’, ‘all the… gentlemen’) and as a watching subject (‘turned their opera-glasses critically’). (How) Before this sequence, the narrator merges Archer’s perspective with ours as he ‘turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house’ and later ‘drew a breath of satisfied vanity [as] his eyes returned to the stage’ (Ch 1, 5). The verbs, ‘scanned’, ‘turned’ and even ‘returned’, accentuated further by ‘a breath of satisfied vanity’, imbue Archer with a similar agency and power as ‘watcher’. (How) The attentive reader would catch the shift in subject-object relations as soon as in Ch 8, the scene of Archer’s first real meeting with Ellen:

‘Archer, feeling his host’s admonitory glance on him, rose and surrendered his seat’ (Ch 8, 53).

(How) Archer’s role has evidently moved from ‘watching’ to ‘being watched’. The use of ‘admonitory’ and ‘surrendered’ is a reminder that Archer is committing wrong in the eyes of the community — its ‘arbiters’, the van der Luydens, no less. (How) For the rest of the novel however, the Archer-Ellen romance is developed in mostly private confines, free from ‘countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears‘ (Ch 33, 276) that finally appear near the end. (How) The motif of sight returns in May’s ‘triumphant eyes’ (279), ‘glitter of victory in his wife’s eyes’ (280) and ‘her blue eyes wet with victory’ (283). May clearly watches over Archer’s interactions with Ellen in Ch 33; the reader is left to infer the sinister, unreported ‘watching’ for much of the novel.


(What) When Archer (and by extension, the reader) is finally conscious of being watched by society, the narrator provides us the most illuminating of observations:

As these thoughts succeeded each other in his mind Archer felt like a prisoner in the centre of an armed camp. He looked about the table, and guessed at the inexorableness of his captors… ‘It’s to show me,’ he thought, ‘what would happen to me-‘ (Ch 33, 277)

(How) The prison motif, simultaneously damning the tribe for its ‘armed’ captivity and Archer himself for his passivity, captures the victimisation of the novel’s ‘objects’. More interesting, one might argue, is the word, ‘felt’ and Archer’s internal thoughts that follow. Where Archer was first presented with the pomp of ‘satisfied vanity’, the reader is privy to his descent to feeling like a helpless ‘prisoner’. (How) The deliberate reference to emotion suggests a kind of realisation on Archer’s part — the prison motif rejects the notion of being watched, but the ‘direct discourse’ surfaces an acceptance of this state of control. (Why) The paradox here fits (strangely) into the tension between ‘watching’ and ‘being watched’ evident in the whole novel. The reasons, to govern Archer’s moral behaviour and in some ways protect his social standing, are set against his individual freedoms and desires; the lines between right or wrong, criticism or sympathy, remain murky at this stage at best.

Conclusion – Watching the Tribe Go By
By the end of the novel, Archer remains a passive observer by choose — holding steadfast to his marriage whilst savouring one last look at Ellen Olenska’s window. Ellen is preserved as a momentary glance in Archer’s life, much in the same way the obsessive ‘watching’ in Old New York is but a fragment of New York’s own coming-of-age. The choice of a concluding chapter that is set 26 years after the main action suggests that the novel is ultimately more about watching than Archer being watched: Archer is now accepting of his past, and his son recognises the futility of Old New York’s silent mode of surveillance and communication (294). Effectively, the novel shows a mature understanding of why a tightly knit tribe might watch over its members; it arrives finally at the idea that what ‘used to be necessary and important to forgotten people’ (255) are no longer known or appreciated in a present-day that values freedom and expression. In watching over New York’s watchmen, The Age of Innocence seeks to bring the reader towards a greater understanding of both.

The Literat

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