Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
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.
Set in high society New York in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence is a subtly sarcastic look at the conventions and attitudes of the upper crust in the late 19th Century. The family connections, the focus on public image, and the whole process of high society is laid out in almost pain-staking detail. Which makes it all the more relieving when Countess Olenska comes to town and turns it all on its head.
Our narrator for the novel is Newland Archer, soon to be engaged to Olenska’s cousin May Welland, and someone who has followed all the conventions and obeyed all the unwritten rules until now. But when the Countess returns from Europe, escaping a marriage that ended clouded in rumor and controversy, Archer is faced with an option he has never before realized existed: to laugh at the absurdity of all the posturing that exemplifies the society he lives in. Fueled in part by this new found freedom, and in part by his childhood friendship with the Countess, Archer is torn between his impending marriage to May, which would mean a life lived within the bounds of society, and his growing love for the Countess, which would mean disgrace in the eyes of his friends and family.
The Age of Innocence is a look at a time and people that I struggle to understand. The importance of family name, public appearance, and all the rigid structures of that society are difficult for me to understand, which is perhaps why I found the Countess a more relatable figure. She has been brought back into this society that she doesn’t understand, and gives a fresh perspective of it. At the same time, it’s fascinating to see what the ideals of that time period were. The importance of being seen at the opera, the feats of archery by the young women, and even the tradition of pranking while at Highbank (Archer, in one evening there, places a goldfish in someone’s bed, dresses as a burglar to frighten a “nervous aunt” in her bathroom, and participates in a pillow fight). It is perhaps the brief mention of the pranks, which seem to be put in as an afterthought, that was the most interesting to me, because it is so distant from the rigid standards of personal appearance and manner that populate the rest of the novel, and yet, according to the characters, is expected behavior nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Wharton seems to pull her punches at the end, and some of the sarcasm and criticism of New York high society seem to disappear in the denouement. Instead of continuing to rebel in his little ways against society, Newland Archer submits to it, only to find that, decades later, society has become drastically different without him, and all the things he felt he could never do within the bounds of society before, are done without a second thought by the younger generation. But Archer himself never completely abandons the ideals that he spends much of the novel criticizing and making fun of. I found the conclusion of the book to be less satisfying than the rest of the novel had led me to expect, but still found it quite interesting.
In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.
Why you should read it:
Edith Wharton has a very dry sort of sarcasm, and her critique of 1870s New York is wonderful, humorous, and well worth the read, especially to see what society and New York looked like 150 years ago.
Currently reading: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis