Reading Update: Edith Wharton in “The Age of Innocence”

As I repeat the title of this post, imagine my voice at a much lower octave and much, much smoother.  Imagine, if you will, that I was a voiceover artist for movie trailers and I was introducing you to the cinematic take on Edith Wharton’s classic tale of passion and loss.  Imagine it, because even though I finished The Age of Innocence more than two weeks ago, whenever I think back on it, I think of this movie trailer and the themes it pushes.

Now, this movie doesn’t look very good and I can comfortably say the book is much better.  But the trailer is still stuck in my head because of the message it’s trying to convey: underneath all this fluffy clothing and fancy language, there is a heck of a lot of passion going on in this story.

The Age of Innocence tells the story of upper class New York society in the 1870’s–an age when social status (and the appearanecs thereof) mean everything, and anything considered “distasteful” is cleverly repressed or hidden.  Out of this culture comes Newland Archer, who begins the novel perfectly content with his upcoming nuptials with society beauty, May Welland.  Despite being a “thinking man,” Archer accepts society’s inane rites and rituals, albeit with an ironic feeling of superiority.  He understands that May is simple and merely the product of proper “womanhood,” yet she sure is nice to look at and he’s confident he can introduce her to the world of the mind.

Then everything descends into chaos with the introduction of Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin who returns from Europe after running away from a bad marriage.  New York society can’t settle on the most outrageous part of Ellen’s abrupt intrusion into their world–whether it’s Ellen’s indifference to people’s outrage, or the fact that she left her husband (and perhaps committed an infedelity along the way).  All Newland Archer knows is that Ellen changes his life.  As one might expect, he becomes first fascinated, then enchanted, then head-over-heels in love with her, and she reciprocates his passion.  Well, not in that way (there are a lot of scenes where Archer and Ellen stand annoying far apart from each other), but it’s clear that their relationship is built on that fire lit in the soul when we meet our soulmate.  Soon, Archer recognizes all the falsity and pretense in the world he inhabits, even as society drives him toward marriage and his destiny.

All the while I was reading The Age of Innocence, I kept thinking how it seemed like a mish-mash of Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Perhaps it was the fact that James and Wharton were friends, or that the last name of James’ heroine is also Archer.  Still, all three novels shared the same passionate love, repressed emotions, stifling societal pressures and a general dissatisfaction with one’s life.  The difference is that while Portrait of a Lady left an indelible mark on 20th century novels, and Anna Karenina was astounding, The Age of Innocence seems to be the oft-forgotten novel perennially bringing up the rear.

That being said, The Age of Innocence was still very good.  It did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Not only that, it was with this novel that Edith Wharton became the first woman to receive the prize.  That, my friends, is nothing to sneeze at.  Plus, while I felt it didn’t measure up to what I consider to be its peers, the novel surprised me by striking a cord deep inside me.  How could I not sympathsize with Archer’s plight; not feel his pain as he moves through life, unable to live the way he desires.  Newland Archer is not only an intellectual, he’s a romantic.  He wants his life to be great, yet is stifled by circumstances and his own perceived “duty.”  How often do we run into that in our own lives–forced to reconsider our ideals in the face of a reality we are both attached to yet despise.  This is where the strengths of Wharton’s novel emerge; the subtly of human relationships, and the indecision and unfortunate circumstances that direct our lives.

This being said, I found myself growing more and more frustrated with Newland Archer with each passing page.  I know that Wharton wrote him this way, but his cowardice annoyed me more than anything else.  I mean, he blames society, but the little voice in the back of my head argues that he could have found a way out.  He could have said “to hell!” with society, chose to ignore petty New York gossip, and run off with Ellen Olenska like he so desperately wanted.  Ellen manages to escape her bad marriage and ignore the whispering, so why can’t Archer take the leap as well?  The answer is, of course, that Archer is a coward.  In the end, he refuses happiness not out of some misguided noblesse oblige, but because he ain’t got the balls to go through with the affair.  Wharton makes sure her readers understand Archer is an impotent coward, but at the same time, she doesn’t seem to be wholly sympathetic to Ellen either.  It’s clear Wharton admires Ellen for making bold moves toward reclaiming her happiness, but at the same time, she abandons Ellen to the wolves and allows her to be torn apart.  “While I admire her, this is what happens when a woman tries to strike out on her own.  It’s no good either way,” Wharton seems to be saying.  This statement also seems cowardly and weak, like Wharton is afraid of offending anyone.  Anna Karenina’s affair and suicide seems heroic in this light–at least she didn’t choose to regret.

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