Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of Innocence

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I reviewed this novel, one of my favorites, back in 2015, and I find I still agree with my original review. So, I will not re-review it, but instead am providing the link to the original review. Then I will go on to consider our usual question for this club.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” So thinks Newland Archer in contemplating May Welland, his fiancée. But of course, that’s the kind of innocence May has, as he is too slow to discover, just as he is too slow to discover he is actually in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Newland has fastened on May’s shining purity, so that even as he hopes never to live a life of sameness, to teach May to appreciate the arts and travel, he hasn’t seemed to notice the sameness that the Wellands pursue as they cater to their hypochondriacal patriarch, spending the late winters in St. Augustine and the summers in Newport, carefully following the dictates of society.

In this novel, we don’t so much see what it’s like to be Newland’s wife as to be May’s husband. On their honeymoon, after May has dismissed the tutor Newland wishes to invite for dinner as “common,” with her limited, provincial thinking, Newland “perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but . . . he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. ‘After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other’s angles,’ he reflected; but the worst of it was that May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.”

Two years into the marriage, he makes plans to take flight with Ellen Olenska, thinking he can talk her into it when she is resolved not to betray her family. Wharton has just explained that Newland has given up reading poetry in the evenings because May “had begun to hazard her own [opinions], with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented upon.” In that scene, where he finds himself literally stifling, “As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

The other important marriage in this novel is only hinted at, but it underlies all of the action. That is Ellen’s marriage to Count Olenski. We are told the man is a brute, that he is a womanizer. When the Count’s secretary comes to make Ellen an offer to return to her husband, he tells Newland he has seen a change in her—that she must not go back.

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Ellen herself is reticent about her marriage, and I am actually not sure what Olenski’s brutishness is supposed to consist of, but I think we are to understand that she has found, despite its faults, New York society possesses a fineness and honesty that is not present in her former milieu. She wants to become a better person, so she will not go back and she does not wish to betray May and the rest of the family despite her love for Newland. And May, despite her false assumption that the two are having an affair, finds the best way to thwart Newland’s plans.

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12 thoughts on “Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

  1. The Paperback Princess December 7, 2020 / 10:47 am

    We really do learn what it’s like to be May’s husband don’t we? I love this way of looking at it!

    Ultimately I think Countess Olenska comes off rather well, refusing to scandalize her family after all they’ve tried to do for her. They’re also very hemmed in by the constructs of the society they live in.

    I think May goes into the marriage prepared for what it can offer, ready to be satisfied with that. But Newland has all these other ideas and he never really gets to know her, as you say he’s fixated on her purity, on what he thinks she is, so he’s doomed to be unhappy.

    • whatmeread December 7, 2020 / 10:55 am

      That’s absolutely true. He doesn’t really see her but a construct of her that he has invented in his own brain. And of course, it turns out he’s been fooling himself.

  2. Naomi December 7, 2020 / 11:58 am

    Everyone’s situation here is lose-lose. As long as you care at all about doing the “right” thing and your family’s reputation, it seems like it would be very hard to live the kind of life that you want and to be honest about it.

  3. ilovedays December 7, 2020 / 4:35 pm

    As you have hinted at, Wharton’s references to the Count’s brutish behavior are kind of obtuse. Maybe in her time the allusions would have been understood more clearly. I think that does make Ellen’s position a little more confusing; it’s hard to tell just how bad he is.

    It’s interesting that Newland believes he knows May’s thoughts so well, and yet she surprises him in the way she manages to cement him to her…and he didn’t seem to suspect her hand in Ellen’s departure. So she wasn’t as simple as he thought, though perhaps as rigid.

    • whatmeread December 7, 2020 / 6:19 pm

      Well, that’s true. A lot of talk was going on behind his back.

    • whatmeread December 7, 2020 / 6:30 pm

      I think the entire problem is that Newland thinks he knows May when he doesn’t.

  4. Izabel Brekilien December 8, 2020 / 2:26 am

    I read it and watched the film so many years ago that I will have to refresh my memory, but I’ll certainly read it again 🙂

  5. FictionFan December 8, 2020 / 2:28 am

    From the sounds of it, if Newland were my husband I’d help him move his stuff round to Countess Oleska’s house… 😉

    • whatmeread December 8, 2020 / 11:04 am

      I don’t know. I am more sympathetic to him than that.

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