BOOK: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton


SYNOPSIS (goodreads):  This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.


The Age of Innocence is so obviously full of irony, it's extremely surprising to me that people didn't see it for what Edith Wharton wanted it to represent until much later. When the novel first came out, people failed to the see the irony of the title itself and the criticism of 1870s New York society that it presents. I read somewhere that Newland's decision to go through with his Marriage to May was supported, May's lie about her pregnancy to Ellen probably thought the appropriate thing to do, and Ellen afforded no sympathy whatsoever. And I guess that makes sense. I suppose irony was not that easily suspected in places where tradition seemingly triumphed. But the irony *is* there, and without it I wouldn't have loved this novel.

In more ways than one, Newland always remained a dilettante. The freedom that he thought women deserved and the freedom that he thought he deserved from the prevailing strictures of society at every point remained in contrast with his unwavering alignment with the conventionalities that he admitted smothered him and that he sought to free himself from and yet never could. Perhaps without even knowing it himself, underneath the conflict he seems to be grappling with, there was no conflict at all. The moment he was on the verge of doing something unconventional, something always held him back. He never failed from conforming, and that is why I think, regardless of May's manipulations, he could have never been happy with Ellen. 

Ellen only fulfilled Newland's longing for something different. As unorthodox, unconventional, and unduly passionate in her ways as she was, Newland could have only loved her from far away. That is the reason I say he remained a dilettante. It's as if his interest in her was amateur. I'm not saying that he didn't love her; I'm pretty sure he did. But he didn't see the reality like Ellen did. As naive as Ellen was in the beginning - not knowing a thing about the hypocrisies of the society she thought had welcomed her - she was the one who saw it for what it really was. And it made sense that she never encouraged Newland to come any closer to her than he did because she knew that while he might in the end adjust with living a lie, she never would. Even if May hadn't lied to her about her pregnancy I don't think anything more would have developed between Newland and her than what was already there. And if it had (as I read somewhere Wharton had thought of doing) I don't think it could have lasted. Why? Because I don't think Newland could have given up the comforts and safety of the hypocritical but familiar habits that had become a part of him. Newland, I think, wanted both May and Ellen and the things that they represented, and that, of course, was not a possibility. 

As much as Ellen made the feminist in me rejoice, May made her cry a little in pity. Innocent at first (as women were supposed to be) she turns into a "wise" woman. A product of social structures, she is her mother's daughter in every way. And that is how patriarchy perpetuates its agendas, doesn't it? Through the mothers who become the agents of patriarchy in the domestic world. No matter how her strategic actions and manipulations throughout the novel repulsed me, they made me pity her much more than that. While it was condoned to be married to a despicable man who treated his wife badly and/or had several affairs, divorcing such a man was not. While it was Newland’s duty to stay with his wife, which if he hadn't he wouldn't have been criticized more than Lefferts was, but it was May’s duty to make sure Newland stayed with her. And she did not have any other prospect either, did she? Ignoring his unhappiness as long as he stayed with her, and making sure that he did by manipulating him and Ellen, was all she could do to remain in the good graces of the society. May was exactly what she was trained to be, and that makes me pity her more than I can say. But her character was so very important; it made me appreciate Ellen’s independent ways even more. 

I really loved this novel, and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading more from Edith Wharton.

Published by Mahima Kapoor