The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, contains many flat, static characters representing Old New York society. At the apex of that society is Mr. and Mrs. Henry van der Luyden. As the narrator describes, their appearances are rare, but yet these few appearances provide more than enough information for the reader to “know” the character. This information comes from several sources. The first is the narrator, when most of Old New York society is described. The second reference involves Newland Archer and Mrs. Mingott’s seeking of approval of the van der Luydens and the exchanges that took place. The final instance is the rare occasion of a dinner at the van der Luyden home and the occurrences here. From the information here, readers develop a complete picture of the van der Luydens. At the end of chapter VI, the narrator describes the hierarchy of Old New York. The last family described is the van der Luydens. The narrator writes, “…the van der Luydens…stood above all of them” (50). The narrator blatantly tells us that the van der Luydens are the highest “ranking” family of Old New York society. Just previous to this, the narrator informs the reader that they descended from both British and French aristocracy, supporting the fact that the van der Luydens are the most revered family. Next the narrator makes it known to readers that “[Mrs.] and Mr. van der Luyden were so exactly alike… neither had ever reached a decision without prefacing it by [a] mysterious conclave” (52), this conclave being, “I shall first have to talk this over with my husband/wife.” This shows that, one, the van der Luydens cannot be characterized separately for they are exactly alike, and, two, they consult each other before making decisions. Once again the narrator brings forward, quite openly, information about said characters. The narrator’s informing the reader of such facts sets up the reasoning behind the character’s motivations, and the reactions of other characters. One of such instances involves Archer and Mrs. Mingott’s seeking of the advice of the van der Luydens. First, it is important to note that double-checking one’s plans, as Archer does here, indicates the high status of the van der Luydens. Archer and Mrs. Mingott’s having to ask another family for the “proper” thing to do proves their dominance over society and that they are the experts of “good form.” Archer, then, proceeds to tell his narrative of Ellen’s being advised by her family not to divorce and his preference of her relieving herself of her husband. Once the information is laid on the table, “Mrs. van der Luyden glanced at her husband, who glanced back at her” (55). This exchange is another example of a “mysterious conclave” that they use to consult each other. Their glancing at each other was to agree as to whether or not the family decision against divorce is to be overridden. Mr. van der Luyden then responded with their answer against the veto. The instance formerly described proves what the narrator had previously informed the reader, that the van der Luydens never reach a decision without consulting each other and their high status in Old New York society.
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The final point of characterization to be discussed is the happenings at the van der Luyden’s party for their Duke. The other character’s reaction to the party and the party itself reveals more information about this family. The invitees of the party all put on their best clothes and wore their best jewels. This reaction by the other characters at the party shows, once again the van der Luydens status. Almost as a rule, the van der Luydens are so important that one must wear their very best, so as to not offend them. Separately, the party itself discloses an additional trait about the van der Luydens. All the best china was laid out, the guests (in this case the Duke) were received with old-fashioned cordiality, and the doormen all had the same uniform. These aspects of the party show the van der Luyden’s strict adherence to Old New York society’s “rules” and “regulations.” Both the actions of the van der Luydens and the other characters’ reactions provide much information about the van der Luydens themselves.
The characterization performed by Wharton on the van der Luydens was very thorough for the type of character she is portraying. Everything from Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden’s likeness to each other to the strict observance of all of society’s “good form” shows that these two are very flat, static characters, for nothing about them changes. The narrator provided the basic background knowledge about the van der Luydens and then the plot-related events confirmed what the narrator had written earlier. This provides for two very plausible characters, but at the same time, two who do not change. The van der Luydens, exactly alike, authorities on everything that is proper, are the ruling family of Old New York society.
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