Age of Innocence
By: Edith Wharton
When about to marry the beautiful and conventional May Welland, Newland Archer falls in love with her very unconventional cousin, the Countess Olenska. The consequent drama, set in New York during the 1870s, reveals terrifying chasms under the polished surface of upper-class society as the increasingly fraught Archer struggles with conflicting obligations and desires.
I read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (review) late last year and absolutely loved it so I was looking forward to reading this book as it’s her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Contains spoilers ahead!
Unlike The House of Mirth, I thought this novel started off rather slow; it didn’t pick up until around chapter 8 of part 1 when principal characters Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska started interacting. Once they did start interacting, I couldn’t put the book down, I had to find out how Newland was going to extricate himself from the dilemma that he found himself in.
First and foremost running through this novel is the love triangle. Now, I’ve been a little irritated in recent years with how often the love triangle is used to present conflict for both the characters and the relationships established but Wharton does a wonderful job in addressing and handling it in the case of The Age of Innocence. In a way Newland’s issue reflects the man of Society torn between two women, two interpretations of a woman’s role in such a Society (May representing Society and Ellen representing a break from Society). It was just bad luck that Ellen came at the time that she did which is a pity because it seemed that they were really in sync with each other’s thoughts and feelings. At the same time, however, I did wonder whether Ellen and Newland would have been truly happy together; unlike Newland, Ellen had already been burned so to speak in the past and knows of the realities of the world and is clawing for something more, something that she can’t seem to grasp. Unfortunately, Society isn’t as flexible in allowing Ellen to do what she wants, something that has troubled her. I really felt for her because she’s not the type of character who is boisterous and basking in the attention (though from the very moment she comes into the story she has been quite the focal point), she just wants to lay low, start over, feel safe and blend in.
At the same time I felt bad for May. I totally understand why she did what she did, retaliating in the only way that she could; she loves her husband and it’s not her fault that she’s a product of her upbringing and Society. She’s not clever in the way that Newland wants her to be but she’s reliable and dedicated. At one point Newland reflects whether May’s niceness and virtues are artificial and fragile and I sort of side-eyed him a little there because we are reading the story from Newland’s perspective; what if she really was, for the most part, contented and kind? And she is generous and thoughtful–until everything important in her life is threatened vis-a-vis Ellen and Newland’s connection.
Stemming from this love story is a reflection of Society’s views and treatment of women during this period. Newland, through his gradual and internal questioning of the way that Society operates–the Society he grew up and learned to navigate through–also questions the role of women in it. It’s clear through its treatment of Ellen’s return that it frowns down upon women leaving their husbands, that a woman’s role should be under her husband’s roof, that she is nothing without him, hence the family’s constant push for Ellen to return to her (womanising) husband. And yet at the same time Newland carries a patronising attitude towards May when it comes to their artistic and intellectual interests, hoping to be the teacher after they were married and May the student. He’s stuck in the middle: he wants to be free from the confines of social obligations and yet he acts all privileged and snobbish as a product of it. The contradiction makes sense–anyone would’ve gone through the same thing–and yet after a while it was a little annoying.
I thought it was interesting how this novel was a story about expectations and reality (again, stemming from the love triangle). Newland’s expectations of breaking free of social conventions, love conquering all and his expectations on his married life being different from everyone else’s were vastly different from how everything turned out for him. In that sense Newland is quite the dreamer and it’s rather tragic to see how he was yanked down from those lofty ideals he was holding. In a way, it was pretty sad how in the end he was unable to break conformity and that what he had with Ellen was nothing more than a memory, an abstract idea of what could have been and what he was grasping for all those years. But he led a full and contented life–stable job, helpful extracurriculars, a supportive and grounded wife and well-off children–and by the end of the novel, it seemed that he was totally okay with it. If anything, the redemption lies in his children, the new generation; the times are changing for them and by the attitude of his son Dallas, it seems that they have more choices and the ability to pursue the things that Newland could not.
As always, Society plays a major role in this novel but unlike in The House of Mirth, we see its role from a different vantage point. New York Society is absolutely rigid, feeling even moreso than in European Societies! It’s funny because for a country that was trying to show that it was different from “the Old World”, its upper class is even stiffer than in Europe, trying to prove that it can be just as good as them, that they are just as cultured. The parts about travelling in Europe echoes the themes and moments touched in Henry James’ Daisy Miller (review). Aside from its scathing and rigid views on the woman’s role, it’s also pretty scathing towards failures as seen with the Beuaforts and how Society shunned them over time. It’s such a force that it even influences the way that Ellen’s family gradually turned their back on her in a time when she needed them the most.
Overall, The Age of Innocence was another interesting read from Edith Wharton. I still prefer The House of Mirth more–the characters were more engaging and the themes were powerful–as this novel had a tendency to drag in certain parts but it definitely solidified Edith Wharton as one of my favourite authors.