Study Guide

May (Welland) Archer in The Age of Innocence

May (Welland) Archer

"Would that he watched, not felt, the hounds' (his hounds') fierce savagery! Now they are all around him, tearing deep their master's flesh, the stag that is no stag; and not until so many countless wounds had drained away his lifeblood, was the wrath, it's said, of chaste Diana satisfied." (Source#Aktaion)

Like A Virgin

In the above passage, Ovid describes the fate of poor Actaeon, who stumbled upon the Roman goddess Diana bathing naked in a pond. Furious, Diana had him turned into stag, and his own hounds chased him down and tore him to bits.

Mythology time: Diana is the goddess of virginity and childbirth, hunting and wild animals, the protector of women andthe bringer of female ailments. Does all that sounds really freaking paradoxical to you? Good. It's supposed to.

Chaste and cruel, that's the Diana we get in Roman mythology, and it also tells us how the novel feels about May Welland Archer, who is frequently compared to Diana (19.40, 21.22). This comparison is perhaps most obvious when she wins— hello—an archerycompetition. Everyone admires her form as she holds a bow and arrow, and her prize is a pin in the shape of an arrow. The bow and arrow were two of Diana's symbols, kind of like how Thor's symbol is a lightning bolt.

Newland Archer often congratulates himself over his engagement to May, even as his passion for Ellen Olenska grows. Daughter of one of the most prominent families in New York, niece to the powerful Mrs. Manson Mingott, May seems to be chasteness and virginal innocence personified (like Diana). May is also associated with birth (like Diana), as she bears Newland three children.

Roman-tic

Underneath May's innocence is a fierce commitment to tradition, propriety, and the status quo that persists even into her old age. And just as Diana's virginity masked a vengeance powerful enough to sic poor Acheron's hounds on him, underneath May's purity is a ruthless violence that punishes anyone who dares hurts her. May's preferred mode of killing isn't so much bloody as it is a cold. May serves death in an elegant dining room between swigs of—wink, wink, nudge, nudge— Roman punch.

Newland realizes May's power at the farewell dinner she throws for Count Olenska. He is surrounded by New York society, who has all conspired to keep him apart from Ellen Olenska and arrived at this final dinner to witness the death of Newland's passion. In this extended metaphor, New York society is Acheron's dogs and Newland—you got it—is like Acheron.