The Age of Innocence

age of innocenceLooking back on my reading history, I last read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ten years ago, just pre-blog. I barely remember it. As I turned the pages, everything seemed new and fresh. I couldn’t anticipate the plot, and I had the strong sense that I was seeing these characters differently than I’d seen them before, or maybe that I’d never seen them at all. The magic of re-reading with a bad memory: I tell you, it’s a palace of delights.

This book is told from Newland Archer’s point of view. He is a wealthy young dilettante, the cream of the crop of New York society families in the 1870s. Everything revolves around this small group of clans: the Mingotts, the Dallases, the Archers, the Wellands, the van Luydens. If you behave the way everyone expects (job, marriage, brownstone house, big parties for the clan, children) you’re one of Us. If you behave with less than spotless propriety — especially if you’re a less-than-spotless woman — you’re one of Them, cast into outer darkness. Newland is well on track to remaining one of Us for all time, and quite smugly contented to be so.

Until Countess Olenska comes, literally, on the scene (he sees her first at the Opera.) The Countess used to be little Ellen Mingott, but married an abusive Russian count and escaped, some say with a lover. Shocking! to leave a husband — more shocking still to have another man involved — the most shocking thing yet, to appear brazenly in public afterward. How can she not know that she should hide away? But she doesn’t, and Newland is unaccountably drawn to her, perhaps because she is so different from his innocent, untouchable fiancée May Welland.

This is a wonderful novel. The writing is absolutely outstanding: elegant, wry, fascinating. (One of my favorite statements: “Until a few months ago he had never known a ‘nice’ woman who looked at life differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be among the nice.”) The characters absolutely leap off the page. This time through, the most interesting thing to me by far was the difference between Newland’s assessment of May and the Countess, and my own ideas about them.

Newland spends a lot of time thinking about May as pure and beautiful, but not very bright. There are a lot of descriptors for May like clear, transparent, bright, shining, graceful, “a young Diana,” and so forth. Her intellect, however, is described as distinctly sub-Newland. He mourns several times that he will always know what she is thinking; that she will never surprise him; that she will never understand the poetry or art that he likes. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe. But since she does spring a huge surprise on him in at least one place in the book, and smaller surprises elsewhere, maybe she’s smarter than you think. And it’s possible that she understands the art and poetry just fine, and is tired of you mansplaining it.

Newland also plays what I consider a pretty dirty trick on Countess Olenska, supposedly out of his rising passion for her. (I would actually put it down to his pig ignorance of the realities of the world, none of which he has ever personally had to face.) He obeys his family’s pressure to convince her not to get a divorce from the abusive count (because divorce would be a scandal for the family), but then doesn’t ever ask himself what’s become of her. The family cuts off her allowance, and the count won’t send her money either. She has no way to live, and Newland is blithely ignorant. Once he finds out, he’s briefly angry that the family left him out of this decision to pressure the Countess to return to her husband, but takes no responsibility for the part he played, or for… forgetting, I guess, that everyone needs money. He has power, so he doesn’t ask himself what becomes of those who don’t. She doesn’t seem angry with him, either. I would be.

I would be very interested to read a modern novel based on this one, a version written either from May’s point of view or from the Countess’s (or both, maybe in alternating sections or chapters.) There is so much going on behind the scenes here, and Newland, to my mind, doesn’t come off well. This is a novel rich in irony and subtlety. It’s splendid.

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13 Responses to The Age of Innocence

  1. LOL to the mansplaining comment!
    I, too, barely remember this although I’ve read it, probably 10-12 years ago. I’m due for a reread! Wonderful review!

  2. Roof Beam Reader says:

    Oh, yes, I absolutely love this novel. Olenska is one of my favorite characters in literature.

    This is spot on: “This is a wonderful novel. The writing is absolutely outstanding: elegant, wry, fascinating. (One of my favorite statements: “Until a few months ago he had never known a ‘nice’ woman who looked at life differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be among the nice.”) The characters absolutely leap off the page. This time through, the most interesting thing to me by far was the difference between Newland’s assessment of May and the Countess, and my own ideas about them.” !

    • Jenny says:

      It’s interesting that she’s so perfectly drawn even though she’s painted exclusively through competing views of others, and described repeatedly as mysterious.

  3. I loved it too but maybe the third time around, I thought, Why on earth don’t Newland and the Countess simply run away to Wyoming and buy a ranch together? I found myself a little impatient with Newland, in particular. He has elegant manners and an observant eye but oh boy he misses a lot and doesn’t ask himself the key questions that might allow him to break free from the velvet ropes of New York expectations and do something bold and generous for himself and for the Countess. I wonder what the period term for “wuss” would be?

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, but look what happens to people who do “bold” things! Beaufort and his wife, Olenska herself, the secretary, etc. We aren’t given any examples of people living on the margins of society who do well. It’s a cautionary tale at the very least. Not that I necessarily disagree, but Newland is not really fish or fowl here.

      • lbloxham says:

        Wharton herself lived more on the margins than she allowed (or old New York allowed) her characters to live.

      • Annie says:

        I think that’s sort of the point. Neither the bold nor the characters who play it safe really “win.” With this book and The House of Mirth, I thought that Wharton was condemning the whole charade of society.

      • Jenny says:

        Annie, I agree that there’s no winning in this book. But maybe not that much condemnation either, just a lot of extremely astute and wry observation?

  4. lbloxham says:

    The comment just before mine reminds me of the previous plots Wharton rejected—including having Newland and the Countess run away—before settling on the final one. I used to read those early options to students for them to see the refinements Wharton made in her choices.

    May is cunning. She traps Newland by telling him something (I won’t reveal it) and then calling in the tribe, the old New York society, to close ranks around them and cast the Countess out.

    The novel has to be told from Newland’s point of view because of the final scene in the book and what it says about him and the society Wharton looks back on when she writes the novel.

    • Jenny says:

      I have a different perspective on May. I know we are supposed to think she is “cunning” and “traps” Newland (certainly think is what Newland thinks) but I believe she is using her intelligence and social mastery to call Newland back to faithfulness to vows he willingly took. How much time has he actually spent with the Countess, face to face? It can probably be counted in hours. Set that against his actual marriage to May (who has evidence it’s still a living marriage), and his passion for the Countess begins to look like unfounded infatuation with his idea of her. Trap? What trap? This is Newland’s act and responsibility, too.

      I agree that *this* novel has to be told from Newland’s point of view. But I think this set of events would be interestingly told from someone else’s point of view, to see the conversations, manipulations, money necessities, and society stringencies from another side.

  5. Thanks for your insightful post, Jenny. I too was very irate with Newland, and I wondered if maybe Wharton meant us to be; you know, cunningly inviting us to see him as the hero while making it impossible for us to really like him. She lived among people like this herself, after all. I find myself echoing a lot of the things you have to say about the book, and wonder if you have also read her “The Custom of the Country.” It is another “problem-sympathy” book.

    • Jenny says:

      I have read Custom of the Country! Teresa and I both adored it. Undine Spragg is one of the very best love-to-hate-her anti-heroines in literature (along with Lizzie Eustace in The Eustace Diamonds and a few others.)

      After this reading, I don’t feel invited to see Newland as the hero. I feel that he sees himself as the hero, and we read it through his eyes, but I feel we are invited to see through him, and see events a different way. A book of absolute genius.

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