Author: Edith Wharton
Publication Date: 1920
Publisher: D. Appleton and Company
Blurb(GR): Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion,
Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.
The title of this book is now one of my favorites of all time. At first glance, it seems so dry, so suggestive of sweeping historical detail. It made me think of the fond memories of an age gone by – how quaint, how rosy-hued and idealistic it all was. Summoning the vague ideas that I had about 1920’s New York, I pictured smoky clubs and laughing ladies in fur-lined cloaks and peacock feather hats.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across another title so seemingly innocuous, yet so absolutely loaded with darker meaning. Shouldn’t there be some quotation marks or italicizing in there? Shouldn’t she have warned us?
But she doesn’t, and this book is all the more devastating for it. The beginning had me laughing along with how ridiculous it all was – the gardenia in the buttonhole, the fashionably late arrival, the opera translated within an inch of its life, the fiancé waiting in all her cosseted “perfection”. She lured me in with these little witty and darkly humorous asides. How silly! And then, just when I was getting comfortable, she twisted all those details into something stifling and malevolent and tenacious. She’s violent with her readers, but her blows aren’t passionate or frenzied. Rather, they are given out systematically, calmly, and with absolute precision.
This is how to write a love triangle. My god! I honestly don’t think I will ever read a more vivid and lacerating portrayal of the guilt, inner conflict, and yearning of it all. These three characters are so fully realized and exposed to the reader, yet within the world of these pages, they are neatly sectioned. They are sequestered inside of their own thoughts and feelings. They do not see each other at all. We are given the best/worst seat in the house, and it’s painful, but always absolutely compelling.
May is sheltered and grown in a tiny space, like some sort of delicacy. She is preserved and wrapped, like a present, for Archer to unwrap – an offering to his male vanity. But is that all that she is? Archer constantly assumes that she is child-like and vacant, with no hidden depths. But then, she has unexpected moments of shrewdness and lucidity. I think that she has more insight than he knows. She is very much a product of her environment and she has learned to navigate its roads. She has learned to succeed in her role.
Unlike May, Ellen is given experience and perspective in childhood. Her eyes have been opened by her eccentric upbringing and the bad marriage that she’s run away from. She’s realistic to the point where she’s almost lost the ability to be romantic. Does she love Archer? I still don’t know. She sees the reality of their relationship so much more clearly than he does, and I think that holds her back.
Archer is given center stage in this drama and so he is the most visible to us. In the beginning, he is the favored son, almost worshipped by his mother and sister. His every need is cared for; his whole life set out before him. But when Ellen arrives – a color photo in a sea of black and white – he suddenly begins to see his society as an outsider. Without even intending to, she jars him out of his set course. She makes him examine his own thoughts. But his transition isn’t instantaneous and complete: he regresses to his earlier state of complacency when she’s not around. Or at least, he tries to. He's idealistic and romantic in his innocence, hoping for impossible things.
And then there’s a fourth main character: society. Acting as a single, terrifying tribe, they collude to set trends, make rules, and excise bad elements. They are a “society wholly absorbed in barricading itself against the unpleasant,” but as a result they also eschew learning, experience, and perspective.
The ending is intense, and made me question my own much touted love of sad and ambiguous endings. Quite a feat. I think that it can be interpreted in a couple of ways. If you’ve read this book, please comment because I’d love to have a discussion about it.
Archer seems to have fallen back into his old groove, but he feels that he’s missed out on “the flower of life.” When he’s given an opportunity to see Ellen once again, he resists, thinking that the memory of his association with her will be more vivid and real if he doesn’t see her again. Has he simply become complacent, or does he finally see things as they really were? Reflecting on his son’s attitudes, he thinks,
“The difference is that these young people take it for granted that they’re going to get whatever they want, and that we almost always took it for granted that we shouldn’t. Only, I wonder – the thing one’s so certain of in advance: can it ever make one’s heart beat as wildly?”
I’d like to think that he’s realizing there that maybe he didn’t miss out on the flower of life: he had passion and sadness and powerful feelings. Maybe the flower of life is more about the wanting, not the getting. His mind is so obviously opened and broadened by his experience with Ellen, even if they are never meant to be, and he now sees his idealistic visions of freedom from society realized (at least somewhat) in his children. In the end, he isn't courageous enough to reach for more.
This is some of the most breath-stealing, gorgeous writing I’ve ever read and I am now very happy that I have an old, battered, highlighted and written-in copy from a library book sale, because I dog-eared the life out of this thing.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Mendelssohn – Wedding March (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Joyous, grand, lively, triumphant…structured, traditional, confined, false…I’ll never hear this damn song the same way again.