Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is my second – no, third – foray into the world of Edith Wharton. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with either The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence covers much the same ground as those other novels: men and women who are trapped within the conventions of society and who are left unable to pursue the life that would truly make them happy. With The Age of Innocence, however, I immediately felt settled into it, much like I felt with Lord Jim. Just coming out of my year-and-a-half with The Alexandria Quartet and the pseudo-philosophical hilarious poppycock that is Women in Love, and staring in the face of the remaining 10 novels on the Modern Library list, none of which are under 450 pages, perhaps The Age of Innocence was just what I needed: short and light. Not light in terms of subject matter, because I found it to be heart wrenching (more on that below), but because there isn’t any hidden meaning, no subtext. It’s straight-forward, conventional storytelling.

Newland Archer is a smart young lawyer and part of New York’s upper crust society. He has just been promised marriage to May Welland, a smart young lady of the same Old New York hoity-toities, though their engagement hasn’t been officially announced yet. Newland and May are the perfect couple. But a scandal erupts in the family when May’s cousin, Ellen arrives. She had married a European Count and had recently run away from her husband, with the Count’s secretary (as protector? as lover?) under suspicious circumstances. Not only is that the material for 1870s shock-and-awe, the family has dared – DARED, I tell you! – to allow Ellen out into the world of theater, opera, and balls, as if they had no sense of decorum. This requires Newland and May to announce their engagement earlier than anticipated – in order to add “backup” to the public outrage at this break from tradition.

Ellen and Newland were old child playmates, and in light of his connection to May’s family he feels it is his duty to some extent to help Ellen. Slowly they begin to spend a bit more time together than perhaps they should, and it becomes clear that they harbor feelings for each other.
Newland is torn between the life his “people” expect him to live – a life so expected that he probably never wondered if it really was the life that he truly wanted for himself – and the life he has now discovered his heart wants him to pursue. He tries – really he does – to let go of Ellen, but he keeps getting pulled back in. They should have been together – all their life they should have been together, but because of their own limitations and the rules and commitments of their own lives, they simply couldn’t be. The rest of their lives – or at least Newland’s – was going on with the life that was chosen for him, so to speak, by his not questioning it until Ellen came along – and wondering what might have been. And when, in the end, he has the chance to strike it back up again, when they are both older, Newland is a widower, he decides not to try. He has locked that time up in his heart, and to see Ellen again would be to shatter the place she held in his heart. Nothing would be as he had imagined it for decades. And Newland chooses to live with his dreams and illusions locked away rather than pursue a reality that would only be disappointing.
Archer had pictured often enough, in the first impatient years, the scene of his return to Paris; then the personal vision had faded, and he had simply tried to see the city as the setting of Madame Olenska's life. Sitting alone at night in his library, after the household had gone to bed, he had evoked the radiant outbreak of spring down the avenues of horse-chestnuts, the flowers and statues in the public gardens, the whiff of lilacs from the flower-carts, the majestic roll of the river under the great bridges, and the life of art and study and pleasure that filled each mighty artery to bursting. Now the spectacle was before him in its glory, and as he looked out on it he felt shy, old-fashioned, inadequate: a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being....

I can see two factions of people arising over this novel: those who think Newland is scum for pursuing Ellen as much as he does both before and after (but mostly after) his marriage to May, and those who think Newland is a coward for not bucking the hoity-toities and running away with Ellen and living happily ever after, as he had planned to do many times. But I’m not mad at Newland – in fact, I completely understand, because to some extent I’ve been there. More than once, in more ways than one.

Let’s see…there was the time when I was engaged (not to Shawn),set to graduate college, get a job, get married, and live a conventional life. And then, during my final finals week, a German exchange student showed up on my doorstep for a party. In this case, it was the Ellen/Newland situation, and it ended like Ellen and Newland ended. He and I have kept in contact over the 8 years that have intervened since, have both gotten married, had children, etc. Though there have been mention of someday getting together, I don’t want to. I have that memory – of us in our early 20s, trying to navigate through our not-really-a-relationship-but-something, and I know that meeting his wife and his son would not be beneficial. It’s adding an unnecessary epilogue to our long ago completed story. I do hope our children become penpals, though.

"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

And then there was the time when I was married (not to Shawn), terribly unhappy because the situation was abusive in all ways except physical, and I know that wasn’t far behind, and then someone showed up in my life, well, emerged from the background more than showed up, that showed me that it didn’t have to be that way. It gave me the confidence to resist within my marriage, which lead to a complete breakdown and I got out of that nightmare. And that relationship ended up like Newland and Ellen should have. Well, should have by some people’s romantic notions.

And then there were the multiple times when I projected the Ellen/Newland situation onto various relationships of varying seriousness. Because I’m like that sometimes. I suppose this cynic really does have a romantic streak, but it’s always of the tragic nature.

But really, what Newland does is what most of us would do. Because it takes a lot of effort, courage, and money to go against what is expected of you, and it’s difficult to start your life over from scratch.

"For US? But there's no US in that sense! We're near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we're only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them."

"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned.

"No, you're not! You've never been beyond. And I have," she said, in a strange voice, "and I know what it looks like there."

And let’s face it, if Newland had left pregnant May to run away with Ellen, there would be few who sided with him, not only in the reality of the book, but in the reality of the readers. Here’s a man who did not follow his heart – he stood by his responsibility. Outside of romantic books, isn’t that what we always expect of people? Newland even says so himself:

Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance.

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them ..."

Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920 – already at the dawn of the age of Fitzgerald, the roaring 20s, and “new money.” The world of Innocence, set in the 1870s, was long gone – the age of old money, ruled by long-standing Dutch and English families with strict rules of behavior, decorum, and honor. A world in which it was “daring” to live above a certain street. Now there was long-distance telephone, and the Met was no longer an out-of-the-way haunt that he and Ellen could have escaped to unnoticed for their clandestine meeting. Remember, this was only five years before the publication of The Great Gatsby.

Up until around Chapter 22 or 23, I enjoyed The Age of Innocence – much more than I thought that I would. I found the story compelling, captivating, interesting, the writing excellent. But then I got to, like I said, Chapter 22 or 23 and BAM. Wharton turns up the emotion – an emotion that totally hit home – and I was in love. There are certain novels that can just speak to you – it’s as if they know what’s in your heart and just grab it, reflect it back to you. Perhaps –no, probably- in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, I would have found the whole thing would be cheesy and passionless, and this would be a very different review. But The Age of Innocence worked for me – totally, completely. It’s now one of my favorites of all time.


SocrMom78 said...

I loved this book. If you've never seen the movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, rent it NOW. Francis Ford Coppola directed and it is just as beautiful and heartbreaking as the book.

Kristin said...

I haven't seen the movie. What's funny is that my edition was the movie-tie-in mass market paperback with this sexy photo of DDL and Michell Pfieffer making out. I was suprised in the novel that the farthest Newland and Ellen ever got was when he held her hand after picking her up at the train station...or did I miss something? Their entire relationship was one of restraint.

Tom Goodfellow said...

Fantastic book, I'm welling up a little just thinking about it. And, yes, the movie is gorgeous too (actually directed by Scorsese, btw).

The above fore-mentioned. said...

I read this book for an ungrad Modernism course and was initially turned off by the title. But as you mentioned, you can read your own life narratives in the drama unfolding and the mere accidental touch of a feather from a hat can be the same as hours of conversation.
Many of us have experienced the "one who couldn't be" scenario, but that doesn't make it clichéd or detract in anyway from our own experiences or Wharton's beautiful rendering of something we can fell real empathy for.
I am so glad that you read and loved this book!

Primero Fin said...

I loved House of Mirth, but I thought Age of Innocence covered the same ground as House of Mirth without adding anything new. In fact, to me Age of Innocence seemed like an unofficial sequel to House of Mirth - more superficial, more melodramatic. It, Innocence almost felt like a toned down re-write of Mirth.

Wikipedia entry for Age of Innocence contains and interesting comment that Wharton wrote Age of Innocence as an 'apology' for House of Mirth which was considered to be too brutal. That was exactly why I preferred House of Mirth to Age of Innocence. House of Mirth is a brutal look at society's cruel and crushing constraints on people, particularly women. Age of Innocence convey's the same message but in a much more subtle manner, subtle to the point where the message is trumped by the melodrama.

Anyone else have thoughts on comparison of Mirth to Innocence?