Before reading The Age of Innocence I was familiar with the basic story of the unrequited passion and doomed love between Newland Archer, a member of high society New York in the 1870’s, and his wife’s cousin, Madame Ellen Olenska. I’d seen the movie and also read many reviews of this classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What I was unprepared for was the depth of emotion and strong mixture of reactions that Wharton’s complex tale provoked in me.
Newland Archer and May Welland have both matured in the strict and fussy New York society that demands adherence to its convoluted codes of “form”. While May fully believes in and rarely wavers from the code, Archer has always maintained his distance while going about the motions of what is expected of a young man in his position. When May’s worldly cousin Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe trailing the scent of scandal (she’s abandoned her husband) Archer is immediately captivated by this young woman so different from the women of his acquaintance. And, he wants her. He is sexually attracted to her like he could never be attracted to May. This exhilarating enthrallment begins to consume Archer and it is reciprocated, if not entirely enthusiastically, by Ellen.
Part of Wharton’s genius is her ability to put the reader in each of the major character’s shoes and cause us to feel their anguish and despair. I completely sympathized with Archer when I wasn’t totally disgusted by him. I understood Ellen’s hesitation toward Archer while she was drawn toward him, yet I felt disappointment that she would betray her cousin. My heart ached for May as, at the same time, I felt irritated by her lack of imagination and her rigid conformity.
This is one of two classics I’ve read in the past few years that have really made on impression on me. The other was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. That they both deal with the issue of following your heart as opposed to doing what your family and society think is right for you says a lot to me. But that is a story for another day…
So who in the novel do I believe was right? It’s hard to say. It would be wonderful if everyone could get what they want in life, but part of Wharton’s message is that we can’t possibly. Choices must be made and how you choose reveals where your loyalties lie. Hearts will be broken and dreams will be smashed no matter what, especially in this situation.
The Age of Innocence is not a happy novel and it certainly isn’t innocent. It is a tragic story of star crossed lovers and the power society and family traditions have on our life choices. It is one of the most memorable and dynamic books I’ve read in years.
Edith Wharton had a wonderful gift for simile. Some from The Age of Innocence that I particularly admire:
“It was the weather to call out May’s radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost”.
“They sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking at a cold spring with the sun on it…”
“She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves”.
“Her color did not change, but a sort of white radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning”.
“…coming back to his wife would never be like entering a stuffy room after a tramp in the open”.
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