The below commentary contains spoilers.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is set in upper class New York City during the 1870s. It is an exploration of society, morals, character, conventionality and conformity.
Newland Archer is a young man who is a free thinker and a member of New York’s elite. He is a lover of art and literature. He questions society’s conventions and is even critical of oppressive gender-based expectations. He has a dynamic mind and personality, and he yearns for more than what New York society is offering him.
At one point he ponders the society that he lives in,
"In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought”
The book opens with his engagement to May Welland. Coinciding with the engagement is the return of Countess Ellen Olenska to New York society. Ellen is a woman fleeing Europe where she was involved in an emotionally abusive marriage. The Countess is a person of depth and substance. As the narrative progresses the attraction between her and Newland becomes increasingly apparent. Ellen is a complex and brilliantly drawn character. She is a nonconformist who is ethical and who displays an almost passive stoicism towards things that she cannot change.
The pair’s esteem for one another grows and grows until finally, before his marriage to May, Newland reveals his love to Ellen. Though it becomes apparent that she also loves Newland, Ellen rebuffs his offer for complex reasons, but partially because it would be unfair and detrimental to May.
Newland goes on to marry May but continues to be obsessed with Ellen. He eventually becomes bored and angry with May’s conventionality and becomes depressed at the prospect of a long life with her. He continues to attempt to connect with Ellen and eventually begins planning to run away with her. However, he is ultimately rebuffed by Ellen for ethical reasons. In the end, his efforts at freeing himself from society by running off with Ellen prove to be fruitless.
The tragedy here is that due to social obligations, Ellen and Newland can never be together. This book is essentially a protest against the conventionality and dishonesty inherent in society as well as the smothering restrictions that these things place upon people.
If this was all that there was to it, this book would be a brilliant character study as well as a critique about the confining nature of society and conventionality.
I think that there is something else that is at least of moderate importance going on in this novel. There is a counterpoint playing alongside Ellen and Newland’s relationship.
It would have been easy and natural if Wharton had portrayed May as completely vacuous or malicious, but she is not. I get the sense that Newland is underestimating her in some ways. Though she is no rebel or free thinker and possesses multiple flaws, May shows some surprising emotional intelligence. Before their marriage, suspecting that Newland is infatuated with someone else, she offers to free him. This is an offer that Newland does not take.
Later, she shows much tenderness toward Newland. After her death, he finds out that she understood a surprising amount of things about him in ways that he never suspected. It turns out that she empathized with some of his pain.
Though she does scheme to keep Newland and Ellen apart, can a wife, especially one living within the society depicted in this book, be blamed for such actions? A perceptive reader cannot help but sympathize with her just a little.
In the following passage, Wharton both illustrates the problems that the couple are having while highlighting some of May’s virtues,’
“May had shown a tendency to ask him to read aloud whenever she saw him with a volume of poetry: not that he disliked the sound of his own voice, but because he could always foresee her comments on what he read. In the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now perceived) echoed what he told her; but since he had ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented on.”
I also do not think that Newland’s behavior can be viewed as completely virtuous. May gives him an escape before marriage, but he goes ahead and marries her anyway. After the marriage, he continues his obsession and pursuit of Ellen. At one point, he is prepared to abandon May and run off with Ellen.
May and Newland represent a mini tragedy within this novel. Near the book’s end, decades after the main events of the narrative take place, it is revealed that May has died. The couple’s son, Dallas, comments to Newland what his perception of his parents’ relationship was,
“You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact!”
Looking at May with some empathy and at Newland’s behavior with a critical eye adds new dimensions to this work. I am not claiming that this novel is not a cry against conventionality and the shallowness of society, but perhaps Wharton is saying that such rebellion imposes a cost to the rebels as well as to innocents.
A lesser writer would have made May less sympathetic. Newland’s actions would have seemed a little more justified. By endowing her with virtues, Wharton is adding levels of complexities to this book. All this might muddle the theme a bit, but it raises the aesthetic quality of this book by several notches.
This is a fantastic novel. The characters are complex and a joy to read about. The plot is engaging. The writing is superb. Had the plot and characters been more simplistic, this still would have been a very worthy read, but by adding additional nuance, Wharton has fashioned a brilliant novel. I highly recommend this work to anyone who generally likes novels of this type.
As evidence that readers read different novels even when they read the same novel, consider this: my reading of Wharton's novel four or five decades ago left with a renewed resentment of wealthy people (all of them being vacuous and self-absorbed) and a nagging concern about the limited range of Wharton's life-experiences which then affected the range of her characters' worlds. Damn, I sound like an insufferable Marxist critic, don't I? I shock myself when I put my past resentment into words. Well, in any case, I enjoyed reading your review/commentary/perspective. Perhaps I need to give Wharton's novel another chance.
Nice review. Yeah the nuance seems to add to the story. I have not read this classic but I recall long ago seeing the Scorsese film. Who can forget Daniel Day Lewis as Newland? Oh my!
Hi R.T - You comment made me smile. This book was indeed restricted to a small world of elites. When I was younger this would have bothered me more. However, there was still a lot of Universal wisdom to be found here.
I am ashamed to admit that I have not seen the film version. I must correct that oversight soon.
Hi Brian! I must confess that I agree with R.T.
Based on my own knowledge of Wharton, I think she belonged to that elite class that really didn't care for marriage or commitment or anything that required altruism. Therefore, she vilified such things (like marriage). She set the scene and produced the outcome that proved her point. That's not the same thing as offering any penetrating insight into society.
It almost seems a predictable exercise, now. So many stories seem bent on proving that if a person is married to one person, naturally they're going to "really love" someone else.
No doubt, in the context of "conventional society" there was an abuse of certain institutions such as marriage, but was it true for everyone? Surely there were happy marriages inside of any context, even the arranged marriages of some cultures were capable of producing happy marriages.
I think it has more to do with taking control of your happiness, even if you're not in control of your circumstances.
Hi Sharon - That is an interesting view. I am thinking about it.
I also read House of Mirth. In both of these books the main character could have and should have married the person that they loved. Had they done so, they would presumably have been happy. Both protagonists acted irresponsibly and payed the price. Thus I am not sure about an anti - commitment or anti responsibility theme. With that, I may be missing something that you are seeing here.
I've just skimmed your review for now, Brian, as this novel is on my Classics Club list and I hope to read it later this year. I'll drop back once I've had the opportunity to experience it for myself. :)
Thanks for stopping by Jacqui. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this book after you have read it.
As you know, Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers and this novel is one of the reasons. Your commentary is excellent especially in highlighting the complexity of the novel.
My own take on Newland's relationship with May has a somewhat different emphasis in that I see his shortsightedness as stemming primarily from his inability to understand his own inner self. This leads both to his difficulties with May and his inability to follow his heart. One scene in particular impressed me: when Newland was in his library examining some newly-arrived books with their pages still uncut. It seems that at the end of the novel Newland regretted the uncut pages in his own life.
There are many different ways to look at this novel and that is one of the reasons it is still worth rereading today.
"with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented on" - ha ha ha ha! That's outstanding. May is the greatest. She was doing him a favor.
The Age of Innocence is another classic I have wanted to read for some time now. The Ellen/Newland/May triangle sounds like an interesting one. I like the sound of Ellen's character especially.
Great post as always.
Loving the cover which I feel works wonderfully given the book.
The fact that you describe it as a 'critique about the confining nature of society and conventionality' really appeals to me as does the complexity of the characters.
Finally, a book we've both read. :) I'm glad to see you found so much meaning in the story. I remember liking it a lot years ago, and thinking, poor silly Newland, he had a chance at happiness and he blew it.
The movie was great too, Michelle Pfeiffer was good as Countess Olenska.
The commentary and comments are very interesting, Brian Joseph. This is a brilliant novel by Edith Wharton. I read it ages ago, and need to reread it one of these days.
Hi James - I think that parallel interpretations of their relationship does make sense. As you mention, the characters and and their interactions are so complex in this book.
I did not think too deeply of the scene that you mention when I read it. Your interpretation makes sense. In retrospect, it is very well written.
Hi Tom - That really was well written.
Hi Naida - Ellen's charister is brillent. I wanted to write about something different here so I chose to concentrate on May.
Hi Tracy - That is a great cover.
The themes and characters f this book make it well worth the read.
Hi Delia - Newland really had his chance. In House of Mirth , Lily Bart misses a similar opportunity. In her case the consequences were much more dire.
Thanks Suko - I wish books would stay forever fresh in our minds.
I've not read this one yet. I've read a number of other books by Wharton including House of Mirth but have not gotten around to this one yet. Perhaps I am holding something really good in reserve? :)
Hi Stefanie - This was very good. I think that House of Mirth was just a little better however.
AWESOME commentary as always, Brian!!
I know I have this book somewhere in my library, but I fear it might have gone into storage during our move in March of last year....If so, I will certainly order another copy online! (Yes, I've already 'replaced' some of the books I know are in storage....Lol.)
It seems that Wharton had as keen an eye for social mores as Austen. It would be interesting to compare the two! I have yet to read Wharton's work, though.
One plot element of this novel that immediately struck me was how some people seem to unconsciously sabotage themselves, and thus, ruin their chances for happiness, for whatever silly reason. Newland was obviously in love with Ellen. And May offered to release him. Why, then, did he insist on marrying May? This reminds me of another character who did the very same thing, although the circumstances were somewhat different: Catherine Earnshaw, in "Wuthering Heights". (This is a book I loathe, by the way. It gave me such an OPPRESSIVE, DEPRESSING feeling when I read it....)
Earnshaw was madly in love with Heathcliff, and he with her. Why, then, did she choose to marry Linton? Well, she did so because Linton had money, and Heathcliff didn't. But WHY would she choose money over love, when she was so CRAZY about Heathliff?!
You mention that, because of "social obligations", Ellen and Newland are destined to never be together. Well, I wonder if these so-called "social obligations" might not be a convenient excuse. I think that some people -- in real life as well as in books -- simply believe they don't deserve happiness, so they unconsciously thwart their own efforts to find it. But maybe I'm reading something into the book that isn't there.....and I haven't even read it yet! Hehe.
Well, anyway.....I have never been able to figure out real-life people, so of course I'll never have any success with fictional ones. Lol.
I will attempt to read this novel, but I'm afraid I won't be able to finish it. I will probably just get too impatient with Newland, and leave him to stew in his own, self-made misery!
Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! : )
The issue of self sabotage is indeed a big one in this book. I think that you are on to something with your observation. There is an additional complication here however in that Ellen is reluctant to accept Newland because she believes that it would be unfair to May.
I really do need to read "Wuthering Heights". I think that I would also be really frustrated with the characters too. That is the sense that I also get with some books. As I like to talk and communicate the only solace that I have in real life is that I can talk to people. I can try to talk to fictional characters but they never answer me :)
I have lost track of a few books due to moves and storage issues. I really regret this.
Grea review, Brian.
I loved this novel (there's a billet on my blog)
Yes May has qualities and this is why neither Ellen nor Newland wanted to hurt her.
What I see in this novel is clearly the weight of society on individuals but also a choice to keep love at poetical level.
Imagine a moment that Newland and Ellen run away. What becomes of them? They are banned from society, they have no income and will their love survive? Ellen is practical and knows that it won't. She's been burnt before and Newland would be like a fish out of water outside of his familiar circle. He's not the type to suffer hardship and she knows it. And I think that deep down, he knows it as well.
Newland, with his love of poetry, wants to keep this love pure and untouched by practicalities. It's his safe place, his ideal love. May is for real. Ellen must stay his perfect love, and that's why the book ends that way.
I'm looking forward to reading Jacqui's take on it.
I think that you are correct in your analysis about what is going on this book. There is such complex interactions between society and the individual here.
As you point out, there were many nuanced reasons that the pair did not end together.
On the other hand at one point he seemed to be ready to run off with Ellen had circumstances not intervened. This is a very complex book.
Good review! This is another book I haven't read, but it's been sitting on my shelf for years.
Thanks Rachel. based on many people's comments, it seems that it is common to have a copy of this book around the house.
I always find the comments your followers leave interesting. I haven't read this book or anything by Edith Wharton, but I'm familiar with some of the themes.
Hi Brian, I love your reviews; they are extensive, and I am in awe of the way you analyse every important character. I haven't read Wharton, although I have 'Ethan Frome' on my Kindle. This book sounds great too. Thank you for this lovely review.
I appreciate your focus on May; I agree, the book is much more interesting than if she'd been portrayed as a shrew. Wharton is a master of these nuances and also the little gestures that can seem to wreck or expose people to truths they've avoided thinking about - I've been reading some of her short stories on divorce, and whole relationships can be thrown into question by some words left unsaid, or by a small slip in how someone prepares tea (or something like that).
Hi C.J. - The comments that I have gotten on this book and other posts are wonderful, thoughtful and insightful. Folks who come here to comment are great.
I would also recommend House of Mirth. It was probably a stronger book then this one but much more tragic.
Hi Hila - I really want to read some of Wharton's short stories. She was so good with relationships. I can imagine hoe well she handled divorce.
This one is one my list of "must read" classics. I can feel your passion for this novel throughout your review. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Diane - This one is so well deserving of its reputation. I did enjoy it.
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