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Distorted Innocence: the Naturalistic Features in the Age of Innocence

Author XuXiaoZuo
Tutor DongHongChuan
School Chongqing Normal University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton Naturalism Environmentaldeterminism Hereditary determinism Chance Fate
CLC I712.074
Type Master's thesis
Year 2012
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Edith Wharton (1862-1937), who was born in the later19thcentury, was one of thefamous American female writers at the turn of20thcentury. She has created more thantwenty novels, among these literary accomplishments; it is The Age of Innocencepublished in1920and won the Pulitzer Prize in1921that is regarded as her creationapex. Her writings are mainly set the upper-class in New York society as thebackground. It vividly and truthfully portraits the old social customs and etiquettes andreveals the suffocated human beings in that traditional environment.However, the critics pay over focus on the feminism and the growing of femaleprotagonists that Wharton shapes in her novel, they tend to ignore the naturalisticcharacteristics in Wharton. As a matter of fact, Wharton is a naturalist writer. In herworks, she spares no efforts to explore the contradiction between personal pursuits andenvironment, as well as the destined fights under a suffocating environment.This thesis tries to explore the naturalistic features in The Age of Innocence fromenvironmental and hereditary determinism and other naturalistic elements of fate andchance by analyzing the major characters whose fates are not mastered by themselvesbut by the stifling social conventions, heredity, the predestined fate and unformedchance. Firstly, it gives brief accounts of Wharton’s life experiences and the novel TheAge of Innocence. Literature review is provided in this part too.Secondly, the thesis mainly discusses the naturalistic literary of Zola and itsinfluence on Wharton. Emile Zola, the ancestor of modern naturalism, puts forward thegeneral principles and considers the determinism as the core of naturalism. AlthoughWharton was born in the noble class, she didn’t receive systematic education. Yet, hermany valuable experiences of traveling in Europe and reading about science in herfather’s study produce effect on her novel creation.Thirdly,the thesis chiefly focuses on the environmental determinism, biologicaldeterminism which includes heredity, chance and fate showed in the novel. Under theextreme suffocating environment, Newland Archer once tries to escape it; finally, he adapts himself to it. May submits herself to the traditional family code and concept,becoming a typical product made by that social system. Being unable to endure herunfaithful husband, Ellen Olenska leaves Europe with the purpose of seeking help inNew York. However, after meeting contempt and difficulties, she is ruthlessly expelledto Europe again by her relatives. Therefore, after analyzing those main protagonists, itcan be concluded that neither the freedom-seeking Newland, conservative May norcould the brave Ellen break themselves away from the control of environment, heredityand forces of fate and chance. In a word, each individual is always under the control ofsocial environment and the influence of heredity. And their free is manipulated bydestiny.Fourthly, it points out that the naturalistic features can be seen in The Age ofInnocence from the aspects of environmental and hereditary determinism as wells as therole of fate and chance in deciding the major characters’ fates. Briefly speaking, thisthesis aims to show Wharton’s attention and understanding on the relationship betweenenvironment and individuals, thus, making a further proof that Wharton is a strikingflower in the history of American naturalism.

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