I 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.