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!
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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.
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.