Book review: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

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Book review: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

wharton - innocenceWhy does Newland Archer leave?

Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years?

She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him.

He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away.


“Our kind”

A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.”

I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does.

Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than personal.

Both are works about the clan, the tribe — about being one of “our kind.”

As such, they could just as well be about an Irish Catholic family on Chicago’s Southwest Side, or the members of a Tibetan monastery, or an army platoon, or an Italian mob family (as portrayed in 1996 in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation Romeo + Juliet).

From group to group, values will be different, and ways of expression will be different, but, at heart, they all share the same tension between the needs of individuals and the needs of the community. (This is a stress that is daily addressed in a democratic society: How much freedom can I have to do whatever I want? And how much control should the body politic exert to protect its own health and well-being?)

“That terrifying product”

Young lovers, especially thwarted young lovers, are irresistible characters in a work of fiction. We can’t help — as individuals who, in many ways, have been hemmed in by our own communities — but relate to them and their hopes and their struggles.

In telling the story of how Archer and Olenska, against all the strictures and taboos of their society, fall in love, Wharton seems to be siding with the individual in this universal tug-of-war. But I don’t think it’s that simple.

Certainly, New York society in the 1870s, as it is described in Archer’s thoughts and Wharton’s observations, comes across as a prison of golden cellblocks.

There are “inexorable conventions” and customs and rules. Carriages roll “from one tribal doorstep to another.” There are traditions and duties. And “good form” and “bad faith.”

May Welland, the young woman who, at the opening of the book, is about to become Archer’s fiancé, is twice characterized early on as a “product of the system.” In fact, in the second reference, there is an element of dread:

That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features…..

“Cunningly manufactured”

He ruminates that he has been permitted to sow his “wild oats,” particularly with an unhappy married woman, while this girl is seemingly frank but suitably innocent:

But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defenses of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Archer is different from other young men of New York society in considering such thoughts. The others appear to accept things for what they are. He’s also unusual in his interest in art, anthropology, science and novels and for having friends among writers and other “clever people,” as his circle disparagingly describes them. He even tentatively expresses a mild form of feminism.

The problem is that he hasn’t found a way to share these interests and speculations with anyone of his class, not even May who seems innocently deaf to such things.

In fact, in his hesitant efforts to communicate some of his excitement about the wider world, Archer is beginning to sound like a bit of a crank to his relatives and skating close to the edge of heresy.

“Their code”

All tribes are insular, but New York society in The Age of Innocence is particularly so. It core value is stability, and its primary weapon in the effort to keep everything on an even keel is a refusal to see, hear or contemplate “unpleasantness,” whatever its guise.

For instance, at one point, Archer can tell from his mother’s actions that he and she are evaluating an issue differently but “it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts…”

Later, when Archer is thinking about the hypocrisy of his group for knowing about but refusing to acknowledge a constantly womanizing husband and his constantly clueless wife, he realizes:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter’s engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do
no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.


“How to rough it”

In that “hieroglyphic world,” daily life is heavily ritualized. Change is unacceptable. Habit — the orderly, regular, settled routine — is raised to a kind of dogma. Consider May’s father:

In obedience to a long-established habit, the Wellands had left the previous week for St. Augustine, where, out of regard for the supposed susceptibility of Mr. Welland’s bronchial tubes, they always spent the latter part of the winter. Mr. Welland was a mild and silent man, with no opinions but with many habits. With these habits none might interfere; and one of them demanded that his wife and daughter should always go with him on his annual journey to the south. To preserve an unbroken domesticity was essential to his peace of mind; he would not have known where his hair-brushes were, or how to provide stamps for his letters, if Mrs. Welland had not been there to tell him.

In his self-created (well, maybe better, family-created) personality of delicate finickiness, Mr. Welland is a Dickensian character who appears every once in a while as almost a tocsin of warning to Archer of what a caricature he could become.

On a visit by Archer to the family in St. Augustine, he sits with his fiancé and her parents in the temporary home where the family re-establishes its routines every summer.

“The doctors want my husband to feel that he is in his own home; otherwise he would be so wretched that the climate would not do him any good,” [May’s mother] explained, winter after winter, to the sympathizing Philadelphians and Baltimoreans; and Mr. Welland, beaming across a breakfast table miraculously supplied with the most varied delicacies, was presently saying to Archer: “You see, my dear fellow, we camp, we literally camp. I tell my wife and May that I want to teach them how to rough it.”

Drawn to each other

The hothouse of New York society is built on wealth. Life is easy and comfortable and cushioned, if a bit dull.

Archer and Olenska are drawn to each other because, unlike other clan members, they glimpse the wider world with curious eyes. In the tribe, they are oddballs. Indeed, several times through the novel, one or another of the characters says to Archer — in what can be read as a joking manner although it also most likely contains some element of insight — that he really should be marrying or have married Olenska.

Alas, Olenska is already married to a brutal Polish count from whose home in Europe she has fled (with the help, and perhaps succor, of a male secretary) to the safety and acceptance of her family and friends in New York. Any attempt to divorce him could bring scandal to her name.

Archer, of course, is about to marry May.

They fall in love. Unlike other members of their circle, they don’t want a backstairs arrangement, skulking around in private while pretending virtue in public.

They could chuck it all, run off together to wherever. And, ultimately, that’s what Archer wants to do.

But they don’t.

“The glitter of victory”

For one thing, May and her family, in their unspoken, indirect way, conspire to make sure they can’t.

Archer and Olenska have played it straight, never crossing the line to a sexual affair. The expression of their passion for each other is limited to a couple kisses. Yet, Archer comes to realize that everyone in his circle believes them lovers and is working to keep them apart.

[I]t became clear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of rehabilitation: and obliteration was going on. The silent organization which held his little world together was determined to put itself on record as never for a moment having questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska’s conduct, or the completeness of Archer’s domestic felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were resolutely engaged in pretending to each other that they had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible, the least hint to the contrary; and from this tissue of elaborate mutual dissimulation Archer once more disengaged the fact that New, York believed him to be Madame Olenska’s lover. He caught the glitter of victory in his wife’s eyes, and for the first time understood that she shared the belief.

“His second nature”

May and her family are the reason that Olenska gives for refusing to run away with Archer. It would, she says, “destroy their lives.”

What she means is that it would unsettle all the habits and expectations of the tribe. Illusions would be dashed. May would be left husband-less. Deeply held rules would be broken. “Unpleasantness” would be impossible to avoid. All of which is true, and is the impetus for May and her family to exert such powerful pressure and carry out such sly machinations to block the couple.

Yet, here’s the thing, and I think it goes back to my original question about why Archer walks away at the end of the novel.

More directly and more completely, the lives that would have been destroyed if Archer and Olenska had gone off together would have been their own.

They would have been shunned by society, not only by the rich and high-born in New York but everywhere else in the world. They would have been slicing away the sinews and tissues that intimately integrated them into the body of their clan.

They would have been totally, absolutely and frighteningly alone.

Olenska seems to have a greater awareness than Archer himself of what such social surgery would do to him. Wharton writes:

Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It was deeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous….

“All a man ought to ask”

So Olenska goes back to Europe, and Archer stays with May whose first child is on the way.

And, then, suddenly, in the final pages of the novel, it is a quarter of a century later, near the turn of the century.

Archer is the father of three adult or near-adult children, and a widower. Two years earlier, May died of pneumonia after nursing their youngest through the same illness.
He is a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and active in the public life of his city and state.

His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty…

As dusk comes on

Archer’s son, as his own wedding approaches, drags Archer to Paris and arranges for the two of them to meet Olenska. But outside her apartment building, Archer sends the young man up alone, saying he may follow in a bit.

But he doesn’t, and, as dusk comes on, he stands and leaves.

His leaving, I think, is a statement that, in his own mind, he has decided that he and Olenska made the right decision — or were forced to make the right decision.

He lived a life of “dull duty” instead of experiencing “the flower of life.” But that was okay, even good.

In the end, the clan was more important for him than the woman.

And, so, he walked away.

Patrick T. Reardon
2.26.14

6 Comments

  1. Brona says:

    I have struggled with the ending of this book at different times too.

    The romantic in me wants the wild passionate affair to mean something more, but I wonder if it’s also more than Archer deciding that the clan is more important than the woman.

    I wonder if there isn’t also an awareness of the fleeting nature of the grand passion.

    Yes the grand passion is exciting and heady stuff at the time, but we can’t live at that level of drama all our lives. Day to day life – that lasts a lifetime – requires a more considered and balanced approach.
    The grand passion, when it fades, often leaves nothing but strangers with little in common.

    I’m hosting a Wharton readalong in May if you have any more Wharton’s on your TBR pile!
    http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/the-wharton-review-2014.html

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Brona —

      My daughter is the big Edie fan in the family, and her interest got me to read several.

      Wharton writes with such insight into the human psyche, and her ending of Age of Innocence is finely nuanced and multi-layered. I think you’re right that it includes that sense of an awareness or fear of the end of grand passion. I think the clan thing is in there, too, and I stressed that in my review because my book club — of guys 63-75 — were seeing the book (positively and negatively) as a love story. It’s a love story and a clan story and much else.

      A couple weeks before I posted the Age of Innocence review, I put up a review of The Mother’s Recompense. Reading that, I noticed how early in the book I identified with the central character even though her life was so much different from mine — her life choices and her perspective on life. That’s a sign, I think, of great literature.

      I’ve looked at your link, but I’m not sure how to participate. Are you looking only for new postings in May? Would you want links to these two Wharton reviews and some earlier ones?

      Pat

  2. jane says:

    I think Archer just gets cold feet! The epilog is replete with the many ways the old social code has crumbled and makes quite clear that Archer knows it. Further, the orevious generation of enforcers are now dead. Finally there is Archer’s cry within, I AmOnly Fifty-Seven! He is fighting his own fear of rejection, and he loses. He wounds not only himself, but also Ellen.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Jane — Your observation that the previous generation of enforcers is dead is spot-on. The irony is that Archer has now become one of the enforcers, at least toward himself. He has chosen the clan over the individual (over himself and over the Countess). He may be a bit rueful but he’s made and lived a deep commitment to his clan. Pat

  3. Amina Ahmed says:

    I neither think that Newland has become an enforcer over the years, nor do I believe that the clan is more important to him, than the woman. At his core, Newland Archer is still an outsider. What he learns, as time passes and Ellen Olenska has departed from his life, is to keep pure within himself his love for her and their grand passion. He is determined that NO ONE shall sully this core any more, as they did once upon a time.

    Newland Archer remains a complete gentleman – true to his wife and deep inside, true to his great love Ellen Olenska. Perhaps the greatest love is the one that remains unconsummated, like the lovers painted on the Grecian urn (in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’), who touch, but not quite, and are frozen in this limbo on the urn.

    What would be the use of meeting Ellen when the flower of his life has passed? ‘The Age of Innocence’ crystallizes that flower, his love, that grand passion during the prime of their lives, now gone. Newland would prefer to remember this love at its height, and continue to maintain his word that he would be true to his wife and children.

    He stands by the choice he once made, but that doesn’t mean he loves Ellen Olenska any less. The fire still rages, but deep deep inside where no one can touch it any more.

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