The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Highly recommended.
A classic novel made famous by a recent movie, The Age of Innocence is the story of a society man, Newland Archer, caught between two very different women. On the one hand is May Welland, the virginal Diana of New York society, whose seeming frankness and innocence discourage and oppress him: “Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile.” All this is “supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.” Her counterpart is her cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, vaguely exotic, vaguely dangerous, forbidden — primarily because she is not the “artificial product” of society, but a genuine, sensual woman whose independent way of thinking is enough to tacitly and then overtly banish her from the very company that Newland’s life is built around. She is “different,” as Archer will later discuss with one of his children. No one else would say, “Why not make one’s own fashions?” thus giving a voice to what Archer himself deep down believes but can’t put into practice.
Ironically, it is May who first forces him and Ellen together, against his will, in her efforts to be kind to her cousin, who has just returned from Europe. As he sees more of “poor Ellen,” estranged from her emotionally abusive husband and seemingly vulnerable to the wiles of the wealthy outsider scoundrel Julius Beaufort, he finds himself returning again and again to her until he realises he is in love with her — long after the reader has reached that conclusion. He resolves the dilemma by rushing his marriage to May, which makes it that much worse. Thus ensues a delicate balance between the life he has chosen with May, with whom he now realises he has no emotional bond, and the life he would choose if he were more sure of himself, more sure that being true to oneself is more important than being true to one’s system.
Nearly every character is memorable — from the massive Mrs. Manson Mingott, May and Ellen’s grandmother who is old enough and skilled enough to intuit all and manipulate all; to the womanizing Lawrence Lefferts, whose behavior is acceptable because he knows how to play the game, how things are “done”; to the frigid bastions of society, the van der Luydens; to May’s mother, who cannot be exposed in any way to “unpleasantness”; to Archer’s virginal sister Janey, who lives life vicariously through gossip and guesswork.
Many scenes and locations are equally vivid: Beaufort’s lavish house and party; the contrast of the van der Luydens’ dinner party; Archer and May’s conventional and stifling honeymoon, more sporty than romantic or passionate; Archer’s pursuit of May in Florida and his following Ellen to the Blenkers’ and then to Boston; a revealing ride with Ellen in May’s brougham; Mrs. Mingott’s house in the middle of “nowhere,” where she rules like a queen and where the politics are only slightly less complicated than those of Elizabeth I’s court — all unforgettable places and scenes.
In less intelligent or skilled hands, the plot could have become mere melodrama, but Wharton knows how her society worked, who inhabited it, what it forgave, and what it could not pardon. Affairs are pardonable; treachery, real or perceived, to the framework of what holds these people together is not. In the end, May saves Archer from himself — and dooms him to her kind of life by doing so. When he gives up all his dreams, he looks into May’s “blue eyes, wet with tears.” She knows what he does not and remains cold as the moon that the goddess Diana rules.
It could be said that May and Ellen represent two sides of Newland Archer — both are people he is afraid to become. If he is like May, he experiences death of the mind, death of the soul, death of the emotions, becoming what he is expected to be to keep the foundations that society is built upon steady, strong, and standing. (It is no coincidence that a theme in Wharton’s The House of Mirth is the vulnerability of that house to the influx of modern ways.) If he becomes like Ellen, he will lose everything that he has built his own foundations on. In the end, he is neither, nor is he himself. His tragedy is not that much less than that of The House of Mirth‘s Lily Bart, both victims of a society they need but cannot survive.
28 April 2001
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf