Food as a Symbol of Societal Identity in The Age of Innocence
by Amanda Kubic
Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s famous 1920 novel, depicts the upper-class society of 1870s New York in all of its decadence, decorum, and deceit. While the film’s primary focus is on the illicit love affair between characters Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, one is inescapably aware of the role “society” plays in the film with its constant presence and influence in the lives of individual characters. Such a society serves as both an oppressive and oppositional force to these two lovers by constantly “asking them to pretend” (The Age of Innocence) rather than reveal their true desires. Indeed in nearly all aspects of life, New York society urges individuals of the elite class to be content with the status quo and to embrace artifice over sincere passion for the sake of appearances, affluence, and societal harmony. Scorsese periodically reinforces this representation of the 1870s New York elite through his use of food and feasting in the film. The scene presented here depicts a dinner party thrown for the Duke of St. Austrey at the mansion of Louisa and Henry van der Luyden—the richest and most socially influential family in the film. In this scene, as well as throughout the rest of the film, the food served and the manner in which it is served is representative of the oppressive artificiality and frigid snobbery that generally characterizes “society” in The Age of Innocence.
The food served at the dinner party hosted by the van der Luyden’s, as well as at other points in the film, embodies qualities of the 1870s New York elite through its emphasis on appearance versus substance, its coldness, and its obvious expense. The large silver fish served with crayfish and caviar-filled cucumbers, the cold oysters and figs, the sorbets shaped like flowers, and the gelatinous desserts are all presented with such beauty and delicate elegance that they seem almost inedible. Neither are any of these foods truly hearty or nourishing, with some dishes consisting almost entirely of water and sugar, and others, like the seafood and caviar, acting as light, stylish alternatives to more substantial meat and vegetable dishes. The value of this meal thus seems to be in its refined appearance and expense, rather then its actual ability to provide significant nourishment. Indeed, though the narrator declares that dining with the van der Luyden’s is “no light matter” (Innocence), this statement only holds true for the occasion of dining itself and not the actual fare of the dinner. Moreover, the temperature of the food served in this scene is predominately chilled, or at least never at a level of warmth one would normally associate with a hearty evening meal. This frigid and outwardly extravagant display directly reflects the values of the elite society in The Age of Innocence. For such a society, truth, passion, and actual substance of character can all be sacrificed for the sake of appearances. After all, these appearances—of wealth, of social accord, of innocence—are really all one has in a society where what matters is not who one truly is, but, as with the food, how one presents himself.
Scorsese uses not only the food itself, but also the concept of the feast or banquet to further represent the deceptive, pretentious nature of the 1870s New York elite in The Age of Innocence. It is said, in reference to their dinner party, that “when the van der Luyden’s chose, they knew how to give a lesson,” implying that the banquet itself, which possesses an “almost a religious solemnity” (Innocence) is a means to define and perpetuate social boundaries—particularly the hierarchy of power. The business of who gets invited to a dinner where “New York’s most chosen company [is] somewhat awfully assembled” (Innocence), who actually comes, who acts as host or hostess, how one lays the table, how many courses one serves, if one includes a dance, or if one has a guest of honor all reflect the values of a society constantly competing for power and repute, and thus “balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper” (Innocence). In this scene, evidence of such meticulous attention to the details of dining can be observed in the van der Luyden’s use elaborate table settings, display of fine china and silver, and most importantly, their extension of a dinner invitation to Ellen Olenska. By incorporating Ellen into their party, the van der Luydens simultaneously assert and re-affirm their societal power. Ellen’s presence is a “lesson” to the other New York elite that despite her questionable past, she is to be welcomed, not shunned by society. The very notion that the van der Luyden’s are even capable of giving this lesson is then a testament to their unquestionable social superiority. Every single detail in this dinner scene thus contributes to the construction and maintenance of a fragile façade of power, societal harmony, and individual character. The individual guest or host is transformed into a dish to be served, judged, and consumed by the voracious masses—a dish forever wary of defying conventional tastes lest he become unpleasant to those he is obliged to please.
In Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, food and feasting are indicative of the pretense and artificiality found in 1870s New York elite society. They also symbolize the hierarchy of power within that society, and the way in which that power is used to maintain a tenuous kind of social harmony. In the van der Luyden’s dinner party, as well as in other parties, luncheons and teas depicted in the film, food not only acts as an agent to reveal the collective identity of society, but also helps define individual identities within that collective, as well as those individuals’ relationships with one another.
The Age of Innocnece. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Columbia Pictures, 1993. DVD.