Throughout time, humanity has placed meaning upon objects that supersede even religion, and therefore God himself. This drive for monetary value and priceless objects has driven humanity to adapt and develop into modern society. Especially within New York Society during the Nineteenth Century, a person's, as well as their family's, worth was determined by the value of their possessions, causing an obsession with expensive trinkets to display the individual's lavish lifestyle. Within Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, it is through commodity fetishism that the characters establish their identities and thus their elitism. Being such, it is only a matter of time before Archer is forced to fall for Olenska due to his conditioning to look for things that can provide him the most status pertaining to monetary value as well as his reputation.
In 1867 within his economic manifesto, Das Kapitas, Karl Marx introduced the concept of commodity fetishism. In these two words, one with an economic connotation and another with a religious connotation, money and God are combined to form a term that describes the post-industrial revolution, strictly capitalist, economies. In particular, commodity fetishism was used to describe the borderline idolatry and reverence placed upon objects that had no inherent value.
The first word “commodity” is oft synonymous with a “good,” or any produced item that is bought and sold (Spickard). Being such, a commodity is something that can be used for commercial and economic advantage. Furthermore, a product is no longer a commodity once it loses this advantage, making a commodity fluid. Meaning, that a commodity is fluid. For example, a Parisian dress is only a commodity if someone is willing to buy said dress.
On the other hand, the word “fetish,” despite its sexual implication in today's society, is religious within its emergence. A fetish is an item that is presumed to contain magic, often being associated with shamanistic or pagan religions. Therefore, a thing to become a fetish must be inundated with magic to make it more than an inanimate object. The item is no longer a physical matter; rather it is a spiritual one.
Within capitalist societies, the lower class produces commodities, of which the economy depends on, which are then, profitably, sold to the consumer, who has no concept or how the item was made nor how it was made. The lower class producer and the higher class buyer never have an interaction with one another. A series or peddlers or middlemen oversee the transactions, selling them “as separate exemplars of a given type of commodity, regardless of who produced them” (Rubin 15). Being such, a middleman can change the price of the item to whatever he chooses in order to swindle the market. Thus, the face value does not correlate to the item's market value.
Even though the “use value is an intrinsically rooted property of a product,” the market value is “an expression of social relation” (Wenning 26). Marx describes this same relationship using the term “phantasmagorical form.” Value is not objectively assigned to an item. Rather, the value is not derived from the object itself at all, it is formed by society's reaction to a commodity. Value is found in the interaction of people, not the item itself at all. Thus, the value of a commodity is also fluid as the market value “and the illusion accompanying it are not permanent, but peculiar [to each] society” (Wenning 34). Society uses peer pressure, brands, and marketing, to evoke emotions and make a commodity more than just an object. Therefore, commodity fetishism finds its niche in society as items replace “human relationships with relationships between humans and objects” (Wenning 35). The person that buys the object forges a connection not with a producer, or even a seller for that matter, but with an item. Society will never know or care about the face value of, and thus the labor put in to produce, a commodity; rather, a buyer searches for the value society and emotion has determined. Being such, the term commodity fetishism was coined by Marx to describe the over-value of commodities within capitalist societies.
In Wharton's The Age of Innocence, old New York society, in all its politeness and pretense, is dissected into almost a collection of items, relations, and the social politics of both. The fundament that this society thrives on is their material possessions. Whether this is a dress, cars, food, or even their cigarettes, the entirety of society is constantly watching to make sure that no taboo, or cheap, objects, and furthermore cheap people, are welcomed into their elitist group. The only thing that can surpass the importance of physical items is one's bloodline. The obsessive attention to detail is the foundation upon which society is composed. In fact, Archer even describes such details of “luxury [within] the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, [stealing] into his system like a narcotic” (344). The wine that is served at dinner is as important to his guests as his personal ethics. Even such, New York highs society is not just a “carnival of consumption”(Linder 21), they do not enjoy excess and objects for the point of merely possessing things. Newland describes “Few things more awful than an offense against ‘Taste,' that far-off divinity of whom ‘Form' was the mere visible representative and viceregent” (22). Newland is not a man that takes just to take, a man that has an insatiable appetite for nice things. In fact, it is having poor taste that eclipses even the devastating effects of the Civil War to Newland as being the worse offense. Contrary Newland, as well as the entirety of New York high society, derives pleasure in the historical connotations of objects and see artifacts as objects that it is their duty to make sure the integrity of which stays intact.
The tension between demonstrating wealth and enlightening society is apparent from the inception of the novel. As it is known that all of New York's high society all possesses their own “carriages” (3), it is seen as more fashionable to arrive in a “brown coupe” (3), or uber for the Nineteenth Century, as it is both more expensive and more convenient. Rather than literal, bought items the commodities within the novel are things that advance and develop the roles one plays in New York society. A “narrow band of diamonds” (13) nor the ‘“Josephine look,' [that is] carried out in the cut of [Olenska's scandalous] dark blue velvet gown” (13) are not of dire importance, although they do provide New York with commentary and entertainment. Wharton is rather, trying to warn against the result and terrors of commodity fetishism. As America, the defender of all capitalistic endeavors meets the Upper Class, the people with the most expendable income, the people who have no concept or concern for money, the only thing that can arise is commodity fetishism. In fact, it is an unspoken rule within New York that “what or was not ‘the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago” (4). Not only does society see it as their duty to protect and be informed of history, they believe that they are making it in the present moment. It is their wealth, their class, their objects that will land make them of the utmost importance for decades to come.
But what is truly this “thing” that Wharton places so much power in? It is an implicit contract between New York highs society of what is fashionable and expected of its members. As humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, New York society is created in the image of what their predecessors, although current fashion, demand. This spurs extreme attention to detail, to the point of bordering on absurdity. Newland, a product of his culture, is so wrapped up in details and what he wishes his reality would be like that he becomes a “dilettante” (6), incapable of separating his ego from reality. Thus making his view of himself one of “vanity [that he] can never probe to the bottom of” (10). This vanity and false knowledge is a survival tactic to emulate the correct personality to be able to live in a world where rules are unspoken and of the utmost importance.
The same can be seen with May, as she is also a product of the same culture. Although May may actually like the “sofas and armchairs of pale brocade” (83) that adorn her drawing room, as wells as the “little plush tables densely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals and efflorescent photograph frames; and tall rosy-shaded lamps [shooting] up like tropical flowers among the palms” (534) it is done more out of necessity to avoid scrutiny. These commodities are placed, not for providing the room with light or comfort, but because it is fashionable to do so. If May had not built the correct persona for herself, although she is young, she would have been pushed to the margins, and eventually completely out, of society as seen after Mr. Beaufort made some questionable purchases.
Olenska does not hold any of the inhibitions, as can be seen with her purchases. Her drawing room, which might as well be considered a reflection of a lady's soul, is filled with “bits of wreckage” (108) that have no rhyme or reason besides their sentimental value. Within May's drawing room, a price can be derived easily, as she has the objects from places that are to be expected, but within Olenska's drawing room, amongst the “small slender tables of dark wood, delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-piece, and stretch of red damask nailed on the discoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames” (108) no exact price can be pinpointed, making the room, and thus by extension the person to which it belongs to, priceless. As Archer continues to explore Olenska's drawing room, “He [attempts] to analyse(sic) the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses” (110). Every one of Archer's senses is stimulated by Olenska— her presence, her items, her pricelessness is intoxicating to him. As she has original, obscure “Italian paintings” (108), Olenska can be determined to be a woman who not only values the arts but also values the historical significance of her “bits of wreckage” (108). Perhaps these objects are only “wreckage” because they have been saved by the Countess, due to her protection and vocation to preserving time. Even her Jacqueminot roses— which the significance is truth and preservation— hold Archer's attention.
Through her items, Olenska presents herself as a mysterious, rich, woman who does not give heed to manner or pretense. Rather, she works to rescue historical objects and commodities that would have become obsolete in the face of time if it were not for her loving touch. On the other hand, May through her drawing room builds her persona as a woman who cares too much, for fear that she will lose her social standing. As the undercurrent of economic fetishism drives the character's ways of presenting themselves, Archer finds himself bored by May's classic and organized room whereas he finds himself captivated by, enamored with, and drawn to Olenska's objects. Thus, Archer blurs the lines between lust for possessing objects and lust for a woman.
The characters within Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence derive their personality and sense of identity from the objects, and historical significance of said objects. Thus providing a commentary on the current of commodity fetishism that overruns New York society within the Nineteenth Century. When Archer is presented with a commodity he cannot equate to a price that he can understand, he is enamored by it. Thus, it is through this commodity fetishism that Newland mistakes love for curiosity and lust. Within modern day society, if identity is dependent upon objects and possessions, humanities identity, and thus morality, will have no compass pointing due North. Therefore, it is imperative that humanity learn their true selves so that they can better the world around them for the next generation, rather than just focusing on material objects and history that will do no good in the future.
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