Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is the book Edith Wharton wrote in honor of her great friend, Henry James. Set in New York City's sumptuous “Golden Age” of the 1870s, The Age of Innocence is the story of Newland Archer, his fiancée, May Welland, and the rather mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's. It's also a story of the conventions of “Old New York” and how the customs and traditions of society are changing and what happens when the “new” world begins to encroach upon the “old.”

Although its lovers are frustrated at every turn, The Age of Innocence is, without a doubt, Wharton's most romantic novel. The first half of the novel, especially, despite its heavy romanticism, contains much subtle humor, for even as Wharton contrasts, she parodies the society in which she, herself, grew up. The opening chapters are filled with subtle wit, and some of the secondary characters are more like caricatures, chiefly, Mrs. Manson Mingott:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Wharton masterfully begins setting up the contrast between “old” and “new” on the very first page when Newland Archer becomes peeved that Ellen Olenska is allowed to occupy the same box at the opera as May. May is, after all, a woman of impeccable reputation, while Ellen Olenska has committed the unpardonable error of leaving her husband, a Polish count, and running away with his secretary.

Newland Archer is, of course, a man fixated with “taste” and “the proper thing to do.” The importance of “doing the proper thing” and of maintaining one's proper place in society is one of the main themes of this novel. Throughout the entire book, Wharton makes contrasts: the old brownstones are contrasted against the new, cream colored residences; Ellen's dark hair and vivid clothing is contrasted against May's fair complexion and blonde innocence; homes are judged “proper” or not by whether the drawing room is on the same floor as the main bedroom. The “Grande Dames” of society, principally Mrs. Mingott and Mrs. Beaufort, are described as though they never age in order to confer some aspect of immortality on them because they always “do what's right.”

The Age of Innocence is, however, far more than a book about what's proper and what's not. The characters, especially the three principals, Newland Archer, May Welland, and Ellen Olenska, are highly complex people. There really is very little in this book that is clear-cut, despite the wishes of its characters for life to be so.

The arrival of Ellen Olenska triggers some deep soul searching in Newland Archer as he begins, for the first time, to question the very propriety of his engagement to May. As he does, we also learn that “innocence” is, perhaps, only a facade and that “high” society can be the most corrupt society of all.

As Newland Archer becomes acutely aware of the many levels and stratifications in New York society, so do we, and Newland, with his checkered past, begins to wonder just where he, himself, properly fits in. Against his wishes, Newland Archer finds himself falling in love with Ellen Olenska, and falling in love for, what Newland Archer considers, are all the wrong reasons. In a desperate attempt to protect both himself and May, Newland, in his capacity as a lawyer, encourages Ellen not to divorce her European husband and tries to rush his marriage to May.

One of the most memorable scenes, and a turning point in the book, occurs when Newland Archer takes a walk down to the oceanfront and makes the decision to let fate, rather than his conscious actions decide the course of his life.

Another important turning point, and one that shows us the novel's theme in dialogue, occurs when Newland says to Ellen:

I want to get away with you into a world where words and categories don't exist, Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other, and nothing else on earth will matter.

Ellen replies:

Oh, my dear, where is that country? Have you ever been there? I know so many who've tried to find it, and believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.

Clearly, Ellen is the more realistic of the two, though Newland has also come to question the value of “romance” in his life.

The Age of Innocence is exquisitely detailed with lavish descriptions of the homes, the meals, the clothes, the flowers, the customs. I think this book is rather unusual in that many of the scenes are written as tableaux, i.e., described in such vivid and precise detail one might almost think Wharton were describing a beautiful oil painting. Several of the scenes in which Newland sees Ellen are written in the manner of tableaux, and Martin Scorsese, in his gorgeous film adaptation, has actually utilized real oil paintings in the filming of some of the scenes.

The book, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, is told from the perspective of two people: Wharton, as she observes and satirizes the society in which she, herself, grew up, and Newland Archer, as he slowly comes to realize its foibles.

If you’ve only read Ethan Frome, Wharton’s more popular book, you might be shocked at how different The Age of Innocence is, or you might feel Wharton simply recycled the plot of Ethan Frome into The Age of Innocence, and there are similarities. To begin with, both books revolve around men who fall in love with the cousin of their wife. But Ethan Frome was hen-pecked and far weaker than Newland Archer. He was a child-in-the-guise-of-an-adult, who falls in love with a child, and both of them inhabit a child’s world. And May is no Zeena. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, in contrast to Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver, are both adults. They are flawed adults, to be sure, but adults nonetheless. While we can observe the story of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie, we can truly identify with Newland, May, and Ellen. For that reason, I greatly prefer this novel.

For me, The Age of Innocence is one of the most beautiful, most subtle, and saddest books I've ever read. While I won't tell you how it all works out, it really doesn't spoil anything to say that by the book's end, society and its many rules and conventions can't be blamed for anything at all. By the book's end, no one has anyone to blame for anything but himself.


Recommended: Yes. This is one of the great classics of American literature and showcases the death of “old” New York society and class distinction perfectly.

Note: Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 into a family so wealthy it actually inspired the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” She married an equally wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton, but despite their similar background and shared passion for travel, the marriage simply didn't work. Henry James was Wharton's close friend, and the two of them were often in the company of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andre Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London. After her divorce in 1913, Wharton moved to France where she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her humanitarian efforts during the war. She wrote in bed every morning of her life. She died in 1937 and is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles.