Ironically, Wharton penned this classic while an expatriate in Paris where she’d been providing war relief for soldiers. Perhaps this perspective allowed for some personal reflection on her own privileged upbringing. The result; a gem that depicts the stranglehold upon the wealthy that preventes their intellectual growth and aspirations being realized.
Set in “Old New York”, we meet the affluent and the outcast and quickly see who is truly living and who merely going through its motions. The wealthy are bored with their boxes at the Opera, tired of their freshly imported fare and the mundane parties at their country homes. Ennui at its extreme for the pampered while the outcast bohemians do seem to enjoy their lives, even while struggling financially and socially.
Wharton’s central character, Newland Archer, struggles with his desires and his duties. Born into wealth and privilege, he follows the path of least resistance, becomes a lawyer, marries a young beauty from a “good” family and realizes his decisions were not truly his, but rather those expected by the society he has come to resent. Unfortunately, he lacks the courage to change and instead lives a predestined life of indifference.
May Welland, the young debutante is Newland’s wife. She has what every young well to do man should desire; youth, good looks, athletic ability, etc. Soon after marrying, however, she comes to be a clone of her mother’s, placating her husband and looking down her nose upon those who do not fall in line with what is expected. Giving opinions that clearly mimic her husbands soon reveal that she is not the unique and courageous wife Newland thought her to be.
Countess Ellen Olenska, the cousin of May’s returns to New York to be “reintroduced” to society amid rumors of her infidelities. In fact, the Count was reported to be the unfaithful spouse and possibly, abusive toward Ellen. She is not readily accepted yet seems to rather enjoy spending her time with artists and other nonconformists. She rebuffs the many amorous overtures that come her way and while evidently in love with Newland, purposely avoids their being alone. She is a woman of courage who chooses ethics over self.
Newland meets Monsieur Riviere, a French tutor, while honeymooning and is stimulated by their conversations. He is apparently poor, yet seems content even with an ailing wife and young child to care for. He hints at possible employment opportunities in New York to which Newland is taken aback and agrees with May that he is not a man to spend time with. He plays a pivotal role, that I will not reveal, however, more development of this character was in order and fell short.
It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.
His heart sank for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make–even to the point of calling him original.
On the subject of “Hearth-fires” (as the paper was called) he was inexhaustibly entertaining; but beneath his fun lurked the sterile bitterness of the still young man who has tried and given up.
The curtains were drawn, and the warm friendly aspect of the room smote him like that of a familiar face met during an unavowable errand.
It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.
I am quite sure I’d enjoy a chat with Ms. Wharton as I sense the rebel within. Perhaps I’d convince her to reveal some of her personal dissensions.
My rating for The Age of Innocence is a 9 out of 10.
To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
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