Friday, January 20, 2006

Book Notes: "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

warning: spoilers ahead

The Age of Innocence is an excellent, multi-layered look at late ninteenth century (circa 1870) high society in New York City. It's a love story, but it's not a romance novel. It's more concerned with painting an incredibly detailed, accurate picture of a rigid society that traps and confines everyone in it. Love cannot flourish in such an environment, which should give you a clue as to the prospects of finding a "happily ever after" ending.

Newland Archer is, like Fitzgerald's Amory Blaine, a well-educated, intelligent young man on the rise in high society. What Newland gains over Amory though is a more open mind that is less tainted by vanity. Newland begins to see through the proper facade of society to the hypocrisy and oppression that lies underneath. He even goes so far as to blurt out, "Women should be free--as free as we are." Though he himself is not ready to accept the implications of his statement, he is quite progressive for his time.

He looks forward to discussing books and poetry and philosophy and everything else with his fiancee, May. But May has been raised since birth to be the ideal society wife - pretty, agreeable, unassuming, and utterly submissive and incurious. Initially Newland relishes the idea of "removing the bandage from her eyes", but as his interest is diverted elsewhere he abandons all hope of cultivating May's intelligence.

That diversion is Ellen, aka the Countess Olenska. Fleeing a terrible marriage to a Polish noble, she is nevertheless a compromised woman. She will not return to her husband but New York society will not allow her to get a divorce. That simply was not done in those days. She is experienced, wordly, and too weary to play games. She speaks her mind, she defies conventions, and she pushes limits without flinching.

Of course, this all thrills Newland. They quickly develop a passion for each other that grows increasingly impossible for them to consummate. Society maneuvers and traps the pair, pulling them farther and farther apart. It's never clear if Newland and Ellen would make it as a couple ("flame out" is always a strong possibility when things burn so hot), but becomes clear that they'll likely never find out.

The beauty of this novel is how clearly and how precisely Wharton is able to articulate the pressures and demands of their society. These people really are trapped in an impossible situation. Newland makes various mistakes of his own along the way, but he is as much a product of his society as he is a victim of it. It's easy to blame Newland for much of his unhappiness, but he can't be expected to be able to blaze such a bold new trail on his own. He can see a brighter, better world, but just isn't quite capable of going after it.

The conclusion is devastating and profound - Newland must give up the love of his life and remain in the life he did not want. But he makes a genuine go of it and finds a way to be content, though never completely satisfied. When faced with an opportunity - thirty years later and with all the previous entanglements far in the past - to resume his romance with Ellen, he cannot. Society and circumstance are no longer standing in his way. Only fear of the future and fear of inviting regret into his past stop him.

All his life he has been the type to savor the anticipation of the moment and that anticipation is often more enjoyable to him than the moment himself. But when faced with the real possibility of a complication-free, the-world-is-your-oyster opportunity for happiness, he is just too humbled a man to grasp it. The bold declarations of love and his willingness to shun convention have been replaced by fear and smallness.

This sounds like a character flaw in Newland. But he has carried on with his life - for thirty years! - as a husband to May and father to three children. He loves his children and he grew to love May and genuinely grieved for her upon he death. He invested himself in that life, with that woman. To go back to Ellen after all that would, in a way, signal that those thirty years were just a compromise, a second-best option to be discarded when a better option came about.

Certainly at first his life with May was a second-best option (maybe even third-best), but in order to survive and live in that life he had to make it into his first option. He invested in that life and made it a decent life, built a good family. In a way he had to fool himself into accepting it. Over time that life did become his first option.

With so much invested he could not afford to peel back the curtain and admit to himself that that life never really was his first option, his first choice. He's too far down that road. And therein lies the heartbreak. He probably would have happiness ahead of him, in his remaining years, with Ellen. But the past weighs him down so much that even without society - which was the initial barrier to his life with Ellen - he finds it impossible to be with her.

The novel may be a bit too stiff and slow for many readers' tastes. But coming on the heels of This Side of Paradise (which is similar in its exploration of high society near the turn of the century), Wharton's novel is an obvious breath of fresh air. The quality of writing is remarkable and the characters and situations are infinitely more complex and fascinating.

And also having just read Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice I was already somewhat accustomed to the extreme formality of high society. Austen is a good warmup to this world (even though her high society is England in the 1820s) because her novel is so much lighter and is pure enjoyment. Wharton is more studious, analytical, and somewhat stiffer. Therefore a stiff introduction to a stiff society may make for stifling reading. But with Austen as a primer on stiff society and Fitzgerald as a primer on stiffer writing, the going is much easier on the reader. More importantly, it's easier to appreciate Wharton's abilities by contrasting her writing to Austen and especially Fitzgerald.

Overall The Age of Innocence is an excellent novel and well worth the read. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize - the first awarded to a woman - and is no less relevant today, despite the fact that society has changed so much in the intervening century.


Post a Comment

<< Home