We moved last month and I had to shuffle books around and needed to pull one of a certain size off my shelf and this one was it so I figured might as well read it and I’m glad I did! I honestly thought this was on my Classics Club list, but apparently it wasn’t when I went to document it on my lists.
Apparently, I picked it up as part of my re-read books from high school that you didn’t like to see how they/I have changed after attending a panel at the 2012 Boston Book Festival. Although I didn’t read this one in high school, I read Ethan Frome, which of course I was disgruntled about because it wasn’t Star Wars or fantasy. Now I am again interested in the retelling that I mention, so who knows I might revisit this sooner than I think.
I’m not sure what it is about American classics that put me off, but something does. I’ve never been a fan of them from Twain and Alcott to a lot of the modern classics like Steinbeck or Fitzgerald. I don’t know if it’s a rejection of America or a fascination/idolatry of Europe, either way I’m always reticent to pick them up, but that may have changed with The Age of Innocence.
Although it was slow to begin, this book grabbed me like many of the European classics and sucked me in. At some point I actually thought, this is the same thing as an Austen or a Brontë novel, just in America. The drama, the intrigue, the fancy houses and country visits. I’m not sure what’s kept me from making that leap before, but making it while reading this was important for my future American reading (especially when I revisit The Great Gatsby).
The Age of Innocence is the tale of Newland Archer, his wife May (Welland) Archer and the Countess Ellen Olenska, one of May’s cousins. It’s a story of unrequited love, psychological maneuvering and high society. Newland is devoted to May and on the eve of their engagement, Ellen appears in New York in a swirl of rumors of her leaving her husband and seeking a divorce. We then spend the next 200ish pages trolling the depths of Newland’s mind and his wavering devotion to May and his increasing passion for Ellen with some of the most eloquently written passages I have ever read.
“He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure as he had watched the real one in the summer-house. The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. he could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot on earth she walked on, and the way the sky and se enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.” (223)
Passages like this sprung into Newland’s thoughts at sporadic intervals and every time they did my heart ached for him. And the ending was one of the most powerful and heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Even after 30+ years, after May’s death and the growth of their children, Newland carries his burden of his passion and when offered the opportunity to see Ellen one last time, they both know that’s not how things should end. [For the real details you’ll have to go read it!]
The other piece of writing/character building that Wharton mastered was her psychological fiction and flagged the turning point of the novel, for me at least, even though Newland doesn’t realize it until nearly the end of the novel. This passage of what happens in the glance of an eye sold me on it.
“It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: ‘Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathize with my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree is n approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you, this evening, the hint that has made you so irritable… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval—and to take the opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged in is likely to lead to.'” (266)
Seriously, I spent too much of this book thinking May was just a speck on the wall to be blindsided with the fact that May was not only not a speck, but had mastered the art of high society so much better than Newland ever could. From exiling Countess Olenska back to Europe to ensuring Newland would never leave her with the perfect revelation of her pregnancy, the next 100 pages after this quote showed May’s mastery of high society through manipulation of not only Newland, but all of her resources and planning things out through slow revelations that blind sided Newland.
If there is a draw back to the novel it’s the slowness with which it begins. I struggled for the first 40-50 pages until the action, if it can be called that, picked up. Once Newland fled to Florida to push May to agree to an earlier marriage, I became invested in the story.
Recommendation: This is probably one of the best novels/classics I have ever read and I don’t say that lightly. Wharton’s mastery of her characters and their society pulled me in and invested me to a level I didn’t expect. It’s no wonder she won the Pulitzer Prize for this, she was also the first woman to win, and I’m not at all surprised when I now look at lists like the “1001 Books to Read Before You Die,” “100 Greatest Novels Written in English,” or the “Modern American Library: 100 Best Novels.” I’m now actually looking forward to re-reading Ethan Frome (even though I have no recollection of it) and will maybe even check out some of her other 23 novels and novellas.
Opening Line: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”
Closing Line: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from The Age of Innocence
“The Age of Innocence is a novel of considerable moral complexity, and nothing is more impressive than the way in which the moral problems shift and evolve, difficult as it may be in our day to grasp the hard, firm, unescapable reality of those problems. Yet there is nothing abstract in Edith Wharton’s treatment of the struggle. It is splendidly fleshed out in the contrast and tension between the rituals engaged in by the tightly knit yet strangely precarious hierarchy on the one hand—the opera-going, the great balls, the athletic contests, and dinner parties— and on the other the gestures and impulses that bespeak personal identity and desire, individuality, what Rivière, the French tutor, calls the ‘quant à soi.’ For Newland Archer, the alternatives of social entrapment and individual freedom become embodied in the two young women: May Welland, his fiancée and then his wife, and Ellen Olenska, whom at one stage he would like desperately to make his mistress. As the book progresses, Madame Olenkska begins to assume for Newland the whole of reality—the really real, so to say, as against the sterile conformities of his ‘actual life.’ (x, Introduction)
“There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe. There was nothing on earth that the Wellands and Mingotts would not have done to proclaim their unalterable affection for the Countess Olenska now that her passage for Europe was engaged; and Archer, at the head of the table, sat marveling at the silent untiring activity with which her popularity had been retrieved, grievances against her silenced, her past countenanced, and her present irradiated by the family approval.” (334)