Day 688: The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of InnocenceI have certainly read The Age of Innocence before, but it was not until this rereading that I gained a full appreciation for its subtlety and complexity. I may have read it years ago, but I became really interested in it after an interview with Martin Scorsese about his movie adaptation (my favorite film ever) where he commented on “the brutality under the manners” of the upper class New Yorkers in the novel, set in the 1870’s, and likened them to gangsters.

This novel is about the tension between individual desires and the expectations of a rigid society. However, it is also about the two main characters trying to do the right thing in the face of yearning and passion.

Newland Archer is an intellectually inclined young man interested in art and travel who thinks he understands but sometimes is a little impatient of the rigid and insular customs of his time and social class. He has just become engaged to May Welland during a difficult time for the Welland family. May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, has returned to New York to her family, having left her husband, and society is shocked to see them bringing her to parties and the theatre. Archer decides to show solidarity with the Wellands and soon finds himself drawn into the Countess’ affairs in his professional capacity as a lawyer. Countess Olenska wants to divorce her husband, and the family is horrified, asking Newland to convince her not to.

Newland succeeds, but he soon realizes that he is in love with Ellen Olenska himself. Ellen is determined not to betray her cousin.  When she admits she loves Newland, she comments that by getting her to drop her divorce, he has assured that they can never be together. A disappointed Newland marries May.

Within a short time, Newland regrets his marriage and foresees a gray existence of doing the same things with the same people year after year. The innocence and purity he saw in May is actually an incuriosity and inability to grow or change. Although Newland doesn’t see Ellen, who has moved to Washington, he has begun to think of her as the only real corner of his life. All these feelings are brought to a climax when the Countess returns to New York and her family decides she should reunite with her husband.

This novel is vivid with carefully observed descriptions. Underlying it all is an understated yet savage critique of petty and provincial New York society of the time. Almost every sentence is double-edged, such as when Wharton describes a soprano’s solo in the first chapter:

She sang, of course “M’ama!” not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Nice! I understand that when this book was published, nearly 50 years after its setting, members of New York society were still able to match most of the characters in the novel with their real counterparts.

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20 thoughts on “Day 688: The Age of Innocence

  1. The Paperback Princess April 17, 2015 / 12:23 pm

    Oh I love that last little tidbit you left us with, that years later people were still able to match the characters to the real people. I read The Age of Innocence a few years ago and I was totally blown away but it. New York in the 1870s sounds so cut-throat. I’ve since read The House of Mirth which has become one of my all time favourites. Edith Wharton knew what she was doing!

    • whatmeread April 17, 2015 / 12:24 pm

      I think she left New York for a reason.

  2. Cecilia April 17, 2015 / 12:48 pm

    This is tops on my classics TR list…I’m quite fascinated with the subject matter. I hope to get to it soon! Glad you found even more on your re-read. Your new look is great, by the way. Very light and open!

    • whatmeread April 17, 2015 / 12:52 pm

      I’m glad you like it! One of my other friends called it “bland.” Not exactly tactful. I think it looks more modern and cleaner. Another friend called it “calm,” which is a nice comment.

      • Cecilia April 17, 2015 / 12:53 pm

        Bland?! It has a nice clean look, very appropriate for spring and summer!

  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings April 17, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    Edith Wharton is one of my very favorite authors, and The Age of Innocence is my favorite book by her. I love her wit and “innocent insults,” as I call them.

    • TJ @ MyBookStrings April 17, 2015 / 2:26 pm

      By “innocent insult” I don’t mean accidental insults. I mean pretending to not know better while stabbing little knives into someone. 🙂

      • whatmeread April 17, 2015 / 2:27 pm

        I’m not so sure she’s pretending not to know better.

      • TJ @ MyBookStrings April 17, 2015 / 2:48 pm

        You’re right… she knows exactly what she’s saying. My clarification of my initial statement wasn’t very clear either. 😦

      • whatmeread April 17, 2015 / 2:50 pm

        Maybe you’re talking about irony.

    • whatmeread April 17, 2015 / 2:26 pm

      Yes, she’s great! The Age of Innocence is my favorite, too, of the ones I’ve read. I don’t think I’ve read everything, though.

  4. Naomi April 17, 2015 / 2:48 pm

    I really have to read some Edith Wharton. I keep meaning to… Great review!

  5. Sarrah J. Woods April 21, 2015 / 9:32 am

    Edith Wharton is one of my absolute favorites. I admire her so much! I actually like her short stories best of all, but she had a way of just nailing everything she wrote.

    I like your new look, too! I like how it makes the text larger, so it’s easier to read. But I think you need a new subtitle. 🙂

    • whatmeread April 22, 2015 / 7:27 am

      Thanks so much! I did think my old text might be a little hard to read. I didn’t know I could control my subtitle before this. I don’t think I could in my last template. I’ll think about it.

      • Sarrah J. Woods April 22, 2015 / 8:22 am

        Oh ok. I think it’s usually under Settings –> General (in your Admin Dashboard), if that helps.

      • whatmeread April 22, 2015 / 8:26 am

        I noticed it for this template, but I don’t think it was available for my old one.

      • Sarrah J. Woods April 22, 2015 / 12:23 pm

        Oh ok. I change my subtitle like every other day. I’ve started keeping a record of them on a post I did a while ago called “In Pursuit of a New Subtitle.” Maybe someday I’ll hit on one I’m willing to stick with permanently!

      • whatmeread April 22, 2015 / 12:40 pm

        I’ll think of what I can say.

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