As with so many books I read, this had been sitting on my pile for a long time. I had even picked it up and tried to read it some months ago, but just couldn’t get into it. Finally, though, it came up again, and I plunged head first into The Age of Innocence. I don’t know what was stopping me last time, but it certainly wasn’t there this round.
Newland Archer is a new man for a new time. In New York society of the late nineteenth century, there are unspoken codes and restrictions in relation to who you converse with, who you do business with, and where you see these people. One of the rules is that you certainly do not have romantic feelings for your fiancée’s cousin. Alas, Archer has found himself in this exact situation, and everything could very quickly fall apart.
Wharton’s choice to have a male lead character allows her to give us a view of women not tinted by the thoughts of women. If that makes any sense. By having a male think that women should be independent, intelligent, and all that good stuff, we are perhaps more inclined to believe it. I hope that doesn’t sound too off. By having that distance (by not having women talking about women), readers are maybe more likely to pay attention. Or maybe I’m just talking crap. Certainly, in the 1920s, I like to think this theory stands up.
And so Archer’s disposition for intelligent and beautiful women causes him some problems. His fiancée, May, is lovely. But that’s about it. When he meets Ellen, he is drawn to her spunk, her tenacity, and her tortured background. This is what he wants in a woman – not someone who will just lay down and take whatever is coming to her, but someone who will fight for what she believes. Her impending divorce from her husband provides Wharton with enough material to provide a biting critique of New York society at the time (the 1870s), but as with any good historical novel, it seems that she is also talking about her own context.Ellen wants to be free of the history of her failed marriage, but of course, in high society, this cannot happen. And in this way, Archer is drawn to her. Not that May isn’t a lovely person – in many ways, she is more intelligent than Archer gives her credit for. Before they are married, she gives him the chance to back out of the marriage, because she thinks there is another woman. Which, technically, at this stage, there isn’t. But of course, Archer cannot back out of his obligations, and tries to stop seeing Ellen. And yet, he cannot.
New York society is perfectly evoked here, too. Granted, I don’t know much about New York in the 1870s, but Wharton shows us a society so concerned with outward appearances, with social customs and conventions, there is a sense of being stifled the entire time, as is clearly evidenced by Archer’s actions, as well as Ellen’s. Family is vitally important to relationships, and Archer’s marrying into May Welland’s family means he cannot do things he might otherwise have wanted to, and instead must pretend to be friendly with people he may not like, or even offer Ellen advice contrary to what he himself thinks.
The ending is perfect, too. Wharton has chosen to not give us the perfect love story ending, preferring to show us a more, arguably, realistic choice from Archer. He chooses to stay with May until her death, creating a family and life together. The coda at the end gives Archer the chance to rekindle his relationship with Ellen, but as a final act of strength, he decides instead to not see her again, preferring to keep his memory of her alive in his head, content with this idealised image. There is a sense of resignation in the ending, too, as though it simply isn’t possible to break with societal traditions and customs, and that if one were to break, it takes time.
Wharton’s gift is character. It’s been a long time since I’ve read about characters that are so real in their motivations and actions. And it’s not just the three young people involved in the love triangle – the supporting characters are also perfectly pitched somewhere between caricature and reality, allowing both of these to shine through in her desire to critique high society, as well as gender roles in a time of great change in America. A true classic.