The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith has been, quite rightly, popular around the literature-loving blogosphere this year. The Classics Circuit featured the works of Wharton in January. While not technically part of the Wharton Classics Circuit, Kevin from Canada re-read Custom of the County that same month and loved it all over again. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it made his “10 Best” for 2010. In May, The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed Wharton’s Ethan Frome which turned out to be one of his Ten Twelve Best. A Rat in the Book Pile also read Ethan Frome and drew out in her post interesting observations and quotes regarding the narrator. Where KfC opened the year with Wharton, Kevin from Interpolations (KfI? K2D2?) closed it out (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Who doesn’t want to read what all the cool kids are reading? And, yes, if these bloggers jumped off a literary bridge, I would follow. But I have my own reasons for reading Wharton. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite novellas of all time. I first read it at university roughly twenty years ago. I have re-read it since, but, frankly, have been a little frightened to pick up another Wharton for fear another of her works would not live up to the genius of Ethan Frome. I cannot say I will have the same love for Age of Innocence, but it is an outstanding work of literature and a pleasure to read.

I highly recommend A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Meyers has posted a “reconsideration” of the novel which is a more insightful and thorough review than I could manage, so I direct you there in lieu of an attempted review here. This year, (2010, the year of Wharton), he also used The Age of Innocence to illustrate his hypothesis regarding the function of plotting in novels. I highly recommend that post too.

Spoilers ahead.

Wharton is brilliant as any of the above reviews/posts will confirm. She has incredible insight into human motivations and the sorts of psychological foibles that so often tether her characters to tragedy. D. G. Meyers does a great job of discussing how The Age of Innocence is a response to and refutation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I have not actually read The Portrait of a Lady, so cannot comment on the comparison other than to say Meyers makes a convincing case. In Meyers’ capsule summary of that work, he says:

“Isabel Archer consciously decides against rising above her daily level and agrees to be buried alive in marriage to a moral monster, sacrificing the long windings of her own destiny to the duty of protecting her stepdaughter.”

This interplay of concern for others and feminine strength is also present in The Age of Innocence, though Newland Archer does not see it until the end. Like James’ Isabel Archer, Newland believes that he is the one calling the shots, making the moral choices. Whether Isabel is correct, and it seems perhaps not, Newland definitely is mistaken. He is condescendingly concerned with women’s lack of freedom:

[Newland Archer’s] exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of argument – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

This superiority of attitude extends, of course, to his fiancee May who has “been carefully trained not to possess” “freedom of judgment”. He is pleased that he is not so clueless as May because, if he were, “they would have been no more fit to find their way about than Babes in the Wood”. And, yet, by the end, it becomes obvious that May and Ellen have been playing the game of life at a level so much deeper that his own that he managed not to be much more than a pawn in their game. They are the ones who contrived to allow Newland his freedom, but he was too arrogantly thick-headed to see the choices he was given. One of the beauties of this early Twentieth Century novel is how devastatingly it undermines the masculine notions of superiority of intellect and wordly understanding.

Newland is too hemmed in by convention and unwilling to deviate from custom to realize when May offers him freedom. He laments Ellen’s lack of freedom even though, history proves, she is the one that ultimately achieved it and lived it. For Newland, women are weak and imprisoned by societal rules while good men are wise and protective. Wharton brilliantly subverts these prejudices by demonstrating the depths of delusion upon which they depend. The reader is sucked into Newland’s mindset which makes the final revelations so devastatingly pleasurable.

If I read another Wharton, I will expect a twist in the tail of the story that turns everything that has gone before on its head. Just as Ethan Frome was about the tragedy of romance, rather than the seeming conflict between true love and marital duty, The Age of Innocence is about the power of women and the cluelessness of men rather than the tragedy of women’s subjugation.

Wharton is delightful. 2011 should be the year of Wharton too.

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10 Responses to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. I hate to say this, but your links (which I do appreciate) don’t seem to be working.

    Excellent review of another Wharton novel that I like very, very much. It is probably her best known — and for good reason. I would add to your thoughts that a very important component of the book is to locate the Newland/Ellen/May struggle within the suffocating confines of New York society of the day.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Kevin. Somehow, in cutting-and-pasting between a wordprocessor and the wordpress page, the computer hacked off the “http:” portion of every link and added an extra quotation mark at the end, rendering the links dead. I have fixed the problem. The links should work now.

    You are absolutely correct about the interplay of a romantic triangle and the constrictions of New York society. I found particularly interesting the revelation that Ellen and (more so) May had actually managed more “freedom”, or at least had achieved their ends, more effectively than Newland. While Newland laments the lack of “freedom” of May and Ellen (in different ways), it is Newland who is rendered impotent in the dungeon of custom and polite society. May and Ellen have more control over their respective fates, and Newland’s too, than Newland himself.

    Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel (credit to Tony of Tony’s Book World) is an excellent follow-up which also and as incisively (and with some debt to Wharton) dissects New York high society. Powell was about 30 years Wharton’s junior and her book was written 16 years later, so New York had changed and the generational perspective had changed. Great stuff.

  3. Hi Kerry, I can’t wait to read Age!

  4. Great review Kerry. Ethan Frome was my intro to Wharton too – back in the early 80s. I read a couple more novellas before reading this one as my first longer novel of hers.

    KfC added the thing I would have added and that is the social milieu of New York (and the eastern seaboard). The themes are universal but the setting is very specific. I think the best novelists – like Jane Austen – manage to locate the universal human dramas within very specific settings and make them both compelling. (Oops did I mention Jane Austen again?)

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Whispering.

      You worked Austen into the conversation admirably. The point is a good one. The ability to place universal human dramas within very specific settings is one of the things that separates the great from the merely good. Great point.

      I did say “if”. You are right, as so often. “If” should be “will”.

  5. Oh, and did you say “if I read another Wharton”? Surely after this, it should be “when…”!

  6. anokatony says:

    I agree, Edith Wharton is a great writer. So is Willa Cather. Of Cather’s books, I would recommend “Obscure Destinies”, “The Professor’s House’, and A Lost Lady”, although most of her other books are excellent too.

    • Kerry says:

      I am working my way, slowly, through Willa Cather. She is another outstanding author. I am going through her works in order and have only made it through her first four. One of Our Own will be next, followed by A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House. You have whetted my appetite for more Cather (to go with more Wharton).

      My choice for favorite Cather (so far) is the obvious: My Antonia.

  7. […] The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton […]

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