Imagine an American Jane Austen writing about 19th century America, but more tragic than comic, and with a strangely helpless man at its center – and there you have Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Like Ms. Austen’s novels, Ms. Wharton’s work is focused on the mores and manners of the aristocracy.
Ms. Austen’s novels, however, often demonstrate how women can navigate the rigid rules of a society not of their making – her heroines, like Emma Wodehouse, find ways to exert their power and influence in a world that grants them neither, and Ms. Austen herself, who wrote her novels in free moments stolen through the day, uses subtle humor to poke fun at all the seriousness of the patriarchal society of her day.
Wharton, an American writing in the early 20th century, had more power in her daily world than Jane Austen did a century before. This may be why her novel does not use the subtle subversive power of humor to make its points. In the end, The Age of Innocence is a tragic novel, if quietly so. With all its stillness, the novel has a compelling power and is written in a carefully modulated prose that fits the subjects on which the author writes.
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The novel centers on Newland Archer, a young attorney with a prominent place in a New York law firm and in the upper middle class circles that make up his world. When the novel begins, Archer drops in on his fiancée (not yet announced), May Welland, and her cousin, newly arrived from Europe, the Countess Ellen Olenska. The countess disturbs the comfortable world of 1870s New York society, because she has come home hoping to attain a divorce from her husband, a Polish count. To Archer, the countess represents a breath of fresh air in the stale and stifling conformity of New York society; in a sense, she is what Archer would like to be.
Like the rich man in the gospel who cannot give up his possessions to follow Jesus, Archer cannot give up the comforts that New York society affords; and so, when he gets the sense of just how much a threat the countess (or his feelings for her) poses, he rushes into marriage with May.
Of course, the speedy marriage (well, speedy by the standards of his society) does not quell his desire, nor solve his problem. He is still smitten with the countess, but cannot act on his feelings. He cannot achieve satisfaction because the tribe of upper class New York society conspires against it, and because the countess refuses the option of living the lie as Archer’s mistress, and hates the idea of causing the hurt a divorce between Archer and May would cause.
Ultimately, the comfortable life that seemed to be Archer’s dream when the novel opened swallows him up. And so, his life becomes a tragedy, albeit a comfortably outfitted tragedy.
Though written in the third person, the POV of the novel is that of Archer himself. Wharton does an amazing job of creating the illusory hope of freedom that Archer feels when he thinks that he is breaking free of society’s rules to see Ellen, and an equally amazing job of Archer’s gradual realization that the guardians of the right are pulling his life back on course. Along with him, we can feel the boundaries of this comfortable prison.
Though Archer is the central character of the work, and its focus, it is Ellen Olenska who is the heroic figure of the novel. She remains in control of herself when confronted by the small minds of New York society, and refuses to accede to Archer’s request that they run away, because of the collateral damage such action would cause. She alone retains some independence and autonomy and an awareness of the conflicting needs of herself and society. And she alone understands the tightrope that she and Archer must walk if they are to maintain a connection:
(T)here’s no us in that sense! We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel in 1921, and was the first Pulitzer won by a female author.
In addition to reading the book, I’d recommend Martin Scorsese’s stunning film adaptation, which accurately presents the look of the society discussed in the novel.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.