It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.
This the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.
Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.
The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.
It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.
His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.
At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.
As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?
He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”
Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.
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.
Wharton pulls no punches here.
Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.
“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”
“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”
“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.
In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.
It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of the status quo and the values they hold dear.
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Full plot summary
Challenges: Classics Club