The Huntress and the Hunted

By: Jenna Niemeyer

Academic, 2019

The Age of Innocence is a novel that dissects New York Society and the expectations that come with being a part of that society in the 1870s. In Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence several characters are dynamic and experience changes in character as the novel progresses. One of the most dynamic characters is May Welland-Archer. As the novel begins May seems shy and even subservient, but as things progress, May turns from a woman being controlled by Newland Archer into a woman who controls him instead. In Book I, May is referred to repeatedly as “Diana-like,” but as the reader enters Book II and May and Archer marry, the references cease to exist. May shifts Archer’s understanding not only of who she is, but also reveals herself to be more free-willed than initially supposed.

Before exploring the significance of the sudden disappearance of Diana references, it is necessary to briefly describe Diana’s significance in Roman mythology. Diana is primarily the goddess of the hunt, who is often pictured holding the bow and arrow. Diana is considered the goddess of chastity and fertility, who “fiercely defended her virginity” (“Diana (Mythology)”). However, as time progressed, Diana became a symbol of the “competent, free-spirited, independent female” (“Diana (Mythology)”). The changes that Diana experienced as time progressed parallel the changes that May experiences as the novel develops. Given this understanding of Diana, a close reading of the novel reveals that May is depicted as the innocent, uncomplicated Diana in the first half of the novel, but transforms into the cunning Diana that is able to execute her will freely under her society’s constraints as the novel concludes.

The first time that May is introduced to the reader at the van der Luyden’s home, she is referred to as Diana. The novel specifically states, “In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like a Diana just alight from the chase” (Wharton 42). This introduction to May as Diana is purposeful. The fact that May is presented to the reader for the first time in a white dress provides her with the image of innocence that the mythological Diana possesses. As Diana is the goddess of the hunt, May is immediately likened to her when it claims that May looked as though she had just finished hunting. This allusion to May as a hunter is established through her later marriage to Archer and her ability to entrap him forever with her pregnancy. However, during May’s initial introduction, Archer sees only an innocent virgin Diana, not a more free-minded Diana.

Throughout Book I, Archer has the idea that May is very innocent and fragile. Archer believes that “It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her to look forth onto the world” (Wharton 53), and again on page 78 Archer makes the observation that “May’s ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination” (Wharton 78). These two quotations not only point out Archer’s cluelessness, but they also point to the face that May presents to him. From Archer’s point of view, May is innocent and completely oblivious to the ways of the world, but it is clear as the novel progresses that May is in fact much more tuned-in than Archer ever assumes.

At the onset of chapter 16, Archer decides to visit May in St. Augustine. While he is there, he feels the urge to kiss May passionately on a bench. Archer has never done anything like this before, and May reacts in a very startled manner. “The blood rose to her face and she drew back as if he had startled her… he saw that she was disturbed and shaken out of her boyish composure” (Wharton 92). May’s reaction of shock and what could also be classified as disgust, again parallels with the description of Diana. As mentioned previously, Diana was extremely protective of her virginity, and that is what May’s reaction in this section of the book suggests. Archer’s advances threaten May’s virginity and innocence, thus she reacts with the emotions of fear, disturbance, and disgust, for she must protect her innocence above all else.

Archer first begins to observe and understand the cunning side of May’s personality during his visit to St. Augustine. When May first sees Archer, she asks him if he is alright, and the novel reads, “it occurred to him that it would have been more ‘feminine’ if she had instantly read in his eyes why he had come” (Wharton 91). This passage points out the first time that May is seen in a different light by Archer. May begins to shed a small piece of her innocent Diana-like image, and begins to slowly assemble her more independent Diana that is less concerned with her femininity, and more concerned with her independence of thought.

In this same chapter, Archer proposes to May the idea of getting married as soon as they possibly can. May is aloof at first, insisting that they wait a year before marriage, but after Archer insists, a new side of May emerges that he has never seen before. “For a moment she remained motionless; then she raised on him eyes of such despairing clearness that he half-released her waist from his hold. But suddenly her look changed and deepened inscrutably. ‘I’m not sure if I do understand,’ she said. ‘Is it—is it because you’re not certain of continuing care for me?’” (Wharton, 95). Then, two lines later it states, “May Welland rose also; as they faced each other she seemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity” (Wharton 92). These two pieces of information are crucial to Archer’s view of May’s apparent change of character. After May ensnares Archer into a quick marriage, she can become the cunning Diana that she could not previously be. As soon as May is promised to Archer, she transforms before his very eyes from an innocent girl into a strong and independent woman.

To further impress on Archer her idea that she is not at all as innocent as she was believed to be, later in chapter 17 May goes on to state, “‘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’” (Wharton 96). This quotation solidifies the idea that May has become a cunning Diana, because she knew how to make herself appear innocent while still being able to use her society’s code of conduct to extract the life she wanted for herself. May is every bit Diana, in that May is the huntress instead of the hunted. May sees what she wants to win (Archer) and outsmarts him until she is able to win him through their marriage, all without Archer catching on.

Immediately after Archer and May are married, they are walking out of the church and Archer begins talking about how nervous he was that marriage would turn out to be something terrible, and that while he was waiting for May to walk down the aisle he “‘had time to think of every horror that might possibly happen,’” and May responds by saying, “‘But none [horrors] can ever happen now, can it, Newland, as long as we two are together?’” (Wharton 120). This exchange between Archer and May shows the final step in May’s ability to completely transform into the cunning Diana. With this exchange, May shows the reader that she is no longer going to be innocent, but that she has trapped Archer in marriage, and that Archer now only belongs to her. As May once fiercely protected her virginity, May now fiercely protects and guards Archer from any other woman, specifically Ellen.

The final time that Diana is referenced in relation to May is during Archer and May’s honeymoon. “She (May) has the same Diana-like aloofness as when she had entered the Beaufort ball-room on the night of her engagement. In the interval not a thought seemed to have passed behind her eyes or a feeling through her heart; and though her husband knew that she had the capacity for both he marveled at the way in which experience dropped away from her” (Wharton 136). This final allusion to May as Diana is important because this is the moment that Archer realizes that his wife is not at all what she first appeared, and he has come to accept his fate of being her husband (at least for the time being). With this passage, Archer recognizes May’s intelligence and cunningness. He sees that she is a mastermind of the emotions. At one moment May can appear completely void of thought or opinion, and the next, she is overflowing with ideas. With this section of the novel, Archer comes to respect May’s intellect and her ability to be the strong-willed and independent Diana.

Near the end of the novel, Archer decides that he wants to be with Ellen instead of May. May, who has been aware of Archer’s infatuation with Ellen the entire time, knows that there is only one way for her to guard Archer from Ellen, and that is by conceiving a child with him. And to thicken her plot even more, May decides to tell Ellen about her pregnancy before she tells Archer, to ensure that Ellen will leave and Archer will be trapped with her forever. When May tells Archer that she told Ellen about her pregnancy before him, she asks him if he minds that she told Ellen first. Archer responds by saying, “‘Mind? Why should I?’ He made a last effort to collect himself. ‘But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today?’” To which May responds, “‘No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right!’ She exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory” (Wharton 222). So, even though May is not 100 percent sure that she is pregnant, she decides to tell Ellen that she is. What May wants most is Archer, and she is clearly willing to do whatever it takes to keep him to herself. The final line states that May’s eyes were wet with victory, which seems appropriate due to the fact that Diana, as goddess of the hunt, is victorious in achieving her goals, just as May is also successful in ensnaring and containing Archer, despite his attempts to flee. May’s pregnancy and termination of Ellen Olenska from Archer’s life is the final proof that May is both cunning and free-willed.

The endless references to May as Diana in this novel are consistently pointing to the idea that May is both simple and complex. At the onset, May appears to be a shy and innocent young woman with no original thoughts or opinions. However, as time progresses, May continually showcases that she is both an original thinker and a cunning mastermind. From her courtship to her marriage to her pregnancy, May Welland-Archer is a goddess of virginity and fertility, and also a goddess of the hunt. She is able to appear as prey through her aloofness and feigned innocence, all while still holding the bow and arrow in her hand, ready to strike at any moment.