It seems like January has taken forever to get through this year. However, reading The Age of Innocence added great enjoyment to the first month of 2015! It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel that is traditionally considered a classic, so even though this book won’t ever top (or even make) my favorite novels list, I still appreciated the experience.
This book was suggested by my friend Tyler as a part of the book club hosted on her blog. She posted her thoughts yesterday. Though I have plenty to say about her comments, this isn’t a response to that post. Instead, it’s a compilation of my notes and personal thoughts regarding the characters of 1870s New York City!
As I am ever the opportunist, Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is more than just a book club selection. This is the first review in my Classics Club sequence, and it will slot in nicely with the reading challenges I’m doing this year (oft-promised post appearing on Tuesday!).
Enough with the lead in – here we go! (Be wary, though – spoilers appear after this point!)
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Published: serialized in four parts, 1920 (later released as a book)
Awards: 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the first woman to receive this accolade!)
Setting: 1870s, primarily in New York City, NY
Primary Characters: Newland Archer (third-person narrator), May Archer née Welland, Countess Ellen Olenska
My Edition: Project Gutenberg e-book
The Love Triangle
Though Edith Wharton was an unabashed feminist, she chose to write The Age of Innocence from the perspective of a young man in high society. I think this might have been because she related significantly to both May and Ellen, the two females in her novel’s love triangle. May reflected the life she had experienced as a young girl, growing up between homes in New York and Newport; Ellen exemplified her expatriate experiences, and perhaps the resentment Edith may have felt during and after her own divorce in 1913. Unlike Edith, Ellen cannot entirely escape the social stranglehold of her marriage, and is forced to vacillate between her societal obligations and her desire to be free.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this triangle, but I wonder if Wharton meant to represent Newland as the internal struggle she felt between two obligations: the one to her family and society, and the one to herself. Newland certainly spends most of his time waffling between the two women. His reveries were equal parts fascinating and repulsing to me, especially when he realized that all of New York society believed him Ellen’s lover. This moment, coming so close to the end of the book, shattered the illusion he had built of everyone’s ignorance. Here’s where the idea that Wharton was representing herself in the love triangle falters – May, the representation of society, wins out over Ellen, the Bohemian lifestyle Newland craved (and that Wharton got to live). Even at the end, after all obstacles have been removed from between Newland and Ellen, society still triumphs over expression when Newland is unable to bring himself to enter Ellen’s apartment in Paris. And about that moment…
Maybe it’s atypical, but I was weirdly satisfied with the ending of the novel! I think Newland’s choice to refuse his invitation to Ellen’s home came across as cowardly, but I also think it was true to his character. He had spent thirty years convincing himself that he felt satisfied with his life. To enter Ellen’s apartment would have invalidated the carefully constructed deception Newland had built for himself. It also might have felt a bit like meeting one’s hero – they’re never as thrilling or wonderful as you expect them to be. Newland spared himself the greater pain by avoiding Countess Olenska in this final scene.
Is it what I would have done? No clue. I like to think I will avoid torrid love triangles in my life. 😉 Though I can’t personally ever see myself in the shoes of any of the novel’s characters, Wharton wrote the book so beautifully that I could certainly see myself standing over their shoulders as I read.
As aforementioned, I really don’t see this novel ever appearing on any list I write about top classics I’ve read. However, Edith Wharton’s skill at imagery blows my mind. If she had constructed the previous sentence, I imagine it would have involved a prettier picture, perhaps some light candle flame allusions… anyways, instead of commenting on Wharton’s immense talent with my paltry words, I’ll just leave one of her more exquisite sentences here:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.
I’m sure priceless language like the above contributed to the general desire to include this novel in the development of many modern pieces…
Pop Culture Connection
Here’s a fun fact – “Gossip Girl” did an adaption of The Age of Innocence in an episode called “The Age of Dissonance!” I heard of this from a friend who has recently been marathoning the book-series-turned-television-show. She also informed me that the whole show sounds eerily like the plot synopsis I gave her for Wharton’s novel. There’s nothing new under the sun, am I right?
I also caught a reference to Wharton in the series I’ve been catching up with lately. In an early episode of “The Gilmore Girls,” Rory Gilmore remarks to her mother “Edith Wharton, take notes” after a particularly fancy get-together at grandmother’s house (I’m paraphrasing, but there was definitely a namedrop somewhere in season one!).
The obvious modern adaption would be the 1993 movie of The Age of Innocence. It’s now on my watchlist for the next time I have an extended stay with my parents – I’m sure my dad would love to watch it with me!
That’s all I have to say about The Age of Innocence, though I fell certain I could write pages on Wharton’s imagery. Instead of boring you with that, I’ll leave off with a quote:
“And all the while, I suppose,” he thought, “real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them…”