We read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in my tenth grade English class, and I hated it. I didn’t yet possess the critical analysis skills to enjoy it on a technical level, and I found the novella to be dry, dull, and depressing. I’ve steered clear of Edith Wharton ever since, convinced that she was awful and that I’d always dislike her writing. How wrong I was! Enough book bloggers with similar tastes to my newfound love of Victorian classics and literature by British women have mentioned Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) that I ended up purchasing a Modern Library Classics edition at a used bookstore in St. Louis. Still skeptical, I cracked it open a few weeks ago and was immediately in love, instantly delighted by the book. Within the first few pages, I was already marking favorite quotes. At once musical humor and wry evaluation of social conventions and expectations, these quotes are completely fantastic:
“Conservatives cherished it [the Academy of Music, New York’s opera house] for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music” (3).
“She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and 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” (4).
Wharton’s tale of an upper-society man struggling against his love for a woman who is not his wife is one of the great American novels, an enduring classic for its sharp wit, deft characterization, and beautiful prose. I enjoyed it immensely, intrigued by its depiction of the conflict between strict etiquette and independent thought. For example: “It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes” (48). The tragic love between Newland Archer and the Countess Ellen Olenska is doomed from the start by the passivity required by social convention. Newland is engaged; Newland is married; just as he decides to flout everything he has been taught to hold dear, he is fully entrapped.
Newland is not very self-reflective. An unquestioning reader (read: inexperienced or unanalytical) may not even notice that he has fallen in love with Ellen until he announces it verbally, because there is so little internal monologue examining his feelings and actions. It’s a strange contrast – Newland spends so much time analyzing his society, puzzling out its paradoxes and inconsistencies, comparing it to what little he knows about European society, trying to unpack its complex web of gendered expectations. The most interesting chapter, to me, is Wharton’s depiction of Newland and May’s wedding. At the end of the previous chapter, Newland had finally declared his love to Ellen. Wharton brilliantly goes on to describe all of the details of the wedding – who is in attendance, where they sit, what they wear, how the church looks and sounds – without revealing any of Newland’s thoughts. Readers are left to fill in the gaps between the array of sound and color with the anguish Newland must be feeling, as he marries a woman he is no longer in love with. I liked being given responsibility as a reader, and the chapter somehow seemed even more miserable because the despair was only implied, never stated.
The book is called The Age of Innocence and throughout, I tried to determine exactly what Wharton meant by this title. What is this innocence, the lens through which readers are intended to frame their experience of the novel? It is not true inexperience, but the turning of a blind eye, the demand to be, if I may quote another favorite novel, “consciously naïve” (I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith). What sets the Countess Olenska and, increasingly, Newland Archer, apart from their society is the worldly experience that has opened their eyes, so that they can no longer choose the blindness that society demands. Ellen speaks of the Gorgon, a creature from Greek mythology whose gaze turns the onlooker to stone. Contrary to the familiar myth, Ellen’s Gorgon, symbolic of traumatic experience, causes involuntary sight: “Well, she opened my eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people. What she does is just the contrary – she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in blessed darkness. Isn’t there a Chinese torture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believe me, it’s a miserable little country!” (216). May Welland, her family, and all of their acquaintances remain purposefully innocent, unwilling to become publicly aware of the adultery common among the men of their set or of the growing love between Newland and Ellen. It’s a strange contrast to their demand for honesty in business affairs. When Beaufort is publicly ruined, his wife appeals to the Mrs. Manson Mingott, of the Welland family to which they both belong. Mrs. Mingott refuses to cover up Beaufort’s business indiscretions, for “unblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige of old financial New York” (204). And yet, Beaufort has been cheating on his wife with a string of mistresses, and while everybody is aware of it, society covers up these indiscretions in order to preserve their comfortable façade of proper appearances. Why these varied responses to Beaufort’s romantic affairs versus his dishonest business dealings? Why is society willfully innocent to adultery but not to financial dealings? Wharton starkly criticizes this purposeful innocence, but at the same time, feels a certain nostalgia for it as the next generation moves on to a new, more liberated set of social customs.
When reading this book, there are many symbols on which one could focus. In my tenth-grade English class, when we watched the film of The Age of Innocence as a part of our unit on Ethan Frome, my teacher pointed out each instance of director Martin Scorcese’s symbolic use of hands, until the whole class would shout out “hands!” whenever a character’s appeared on screen. In this, my first reading of the novel, I found myself drawn not to hands, but to symbols of time: clocks and pocket watches, the turning of the seasons, and conversations about how days and afternoons should be spent. When the life of the idle rich isn’t governed by the advancing of the work year, it must be given shape by the changing of the seasons, be they seasons of climate or seasons of fashion. For much of the first portion of the book, Newland wants to hurry up the wedding, begging May and her family to advance the date. At Newland’s first meeting with Ellen at her house, a clock is stopped, as if to imply that their conversation takes place outside of time, outside of their New York society life. When they later discuss her divorce, the traveling-clock ticks, reminding readers of the inexorability of time and the fact that time, for Newland and Ellen, is limited. In the Welland villa, time passes but the surroundings always remain the same: “There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious” (162). When Newland travels with the Welland family, there is much discussion of daily schedules – Mrs. Welland cannot bear to have hours “unprovided for,” hating the idea of merely “killing time” (164). In response, Newland jokes that he plans to “save” time rather than “spend” it, but his kidding is met with palpable distress. Together with Ellen, however, Newland is able to open himself up to spontaneity and impulsiveness, to unplanned hours and unexpected joys. “Oh, don’t calculate,” he begs of Ellen when she draws out her watch. “Give me the day!” (174). And she does.
I’d love to read this lovely novel again, paying attention to something different, reveling again in Wharton’s sumptuous language, witty conversation, and beautiful descriptions. Perhaps one day, I’ll even revisit Ethan Frome! In the meantime, however, I’ve grown old enough and analytically adept enough to finally appreciate this amazing author. I’m grateful for that – anyone who hasn’t read The Age of Innocence is definitely missing out!