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.