Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton has yet to disappoint me!  I loved Ethan Frome, a beautiful tragedy about snowy New England that made quite an impression on me.  So I was eager to read a full-length novel by Wharton, since Ethan Frome is really more of a novella.  The Age of Innocence is rich with layers of relationships, social critique, and class divisions, as well as an abundance of character development.

The protagonist of the story is Newland Archer, who lives on the Upper East Side of New York City in the late 1800s.  At the beginning of the novel, he is the embodiment of upper class society, making all of his life decisions to reflect the image of a beautiful, successful man.  He has proposed to May Welland, often described as being the "Helen of Troy" in the room with her magnetic beauty.  He is employed as a lawyer, though he exerts minimal effort in his position, as is proper in his circumstances.  He is fluent in all the hidden codes and meanings within his society and has perfected them.  Naturally, the plot must thicken, and so he falls in love with a woman who is deemed socially inappropriate in his society.

In all honesty, if I were reading this plot summary, I would crinkle my nose and avoid the book.  I mean, we've heard this story line a thousand times, haven't we?  Star-crossed lovers from different social classes fall in love despite the disapproval of their families.  Hell, that's even the plot of Titanic.  However, Wharton brilliantly undercuts her novel with a subtle but throbbing critique.  She uses her language brilliantly, with descriptions both humorous and tragic.  Without stating it directly, she shows us the foolishness of their chatter, their clothing, their events, and their lives.  Eventually, Newland's eyes are opened to the inane hypocrisy that we have been able to see all along, but he cannot escape it.

While immersing themselves in Wharton's New York City, readers might be inclined to wonder about the frivolity in their own lives.  How do we spend our time?  How do we spend our money?  What do we worry about?  Why do we worry so much?  I did not like this novel because I was captivated by the romantic relationship.  In fact, their relationship is erratic at best, with few swells of joy and connection.  Instead, I liked the social commentary and rich descriptions.  I enjoyed watching each of the characters change, because several of them did experience drastic transitions in their attitudes, actions, and self-awareness. And the ending had all of the ambiguity of a good Henry James novel.  Left in a climax of emotion, I stared at the book in my hands, willing it to give me a few more pages, with a sound of dismay escaping my lips.  Yet for this reason, I couldn't imagine a better ending.

I always do a bit of research before I write about the books I've read, so I have only just discovered that Edith Wharton earned a Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  Moreover, this was the first time a woman had ever won a Pulitzer.  I can't help but pause and appreciate this accomplishment, as well as the example she set for future female authors.  This novel has all the wit and gossip of a Jane Austen novel, and yet it is stuffed with an undercurrent of irony and embedded social critique.  I'm sure Wharton wanted to entertain her readers with this story, but I think she had more desire to pull the wool from before their eyes.  By design, she didn't write it so that young girls could hold the romance in their hearts and dream of their own Newland Archer.  On the other hand, she makes us aware of the decisions we make in our lives that set our path in motion and affect those around us.  And she does it beautifully.

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