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Wharton Understood the Margin

In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, protagonist Newland Archer is impressed with the influence upon New York high society exercised by the van der Luydens. Henry and Louisa van der Luyden are elderly, stately, proper, rich, and dull. They almost never leave home, and seldom entertain. Nevertheless, their opinions matter to everyone who is anyone in New York City, circa 1870. Here’s a conversation between Newland Archer and the free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska:

‘The van der Luydens,’ said Archer, feeling himself pompous as he spoke, ‘are the most powerful influence in New York society. Unfortunately – owing to her health – they receive very seldom.’

She unclasped her hands from behind her head, and looked at him meditatively.

‘Isn’t that perhaps the reason?’

‘The reason – ?’

‘For their great influence; that they make themselves so rare.’


This is a fine example from fiction of the margin at work.  Were the van der Luydens more free with their opinions, the value of each expression of their opinions would be less.  Their influence, at least at the margin, would be lower.