Thursday, December 9, 2010
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics
In 1870’s New York Newland Archer, member of the city’s social elite is wandering through life doing what is expected of a young man of his stature. He attends balls and dinners and keeping up with the rules and customs expected of those of his ilk. Naturally, he will marry a respectable girl whom everyone approves of. That girl is quiet, unassuming, well-bred May of the prominent Welland family. Newland is perfectly content with the life that lies ahead of him until he meets May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, recently separated from her husband and returned from Europe. Newland is enraptured by Ellen, her free spirit and nonconformist lifestyle. She says what she thinks, lives in neighborhoods too “bohemian” for others of her class, and associates with who she likes. While her family thinks the acceptable course of action is to return to her husband, Ellen aims to avoid returning to the monstrous man she married at all costs.
Newland marries May Welland because that is what is expected of him. He is soon settled into married life with his devoted but boring wife, mundane job and the following of the same social calendar as before but he can’t let go of the thought of Ellen Olenska and the life he may have had with her had things turned out differently. Newland is caught between the need to do what is expected of him and the desire to live the life he really wants with Ellen.
This 1921 Pulitzer Prize winning novel gives a fascinating account of how the well to do lived in 19th century New York. It is a world which resolves around having the right family connections, associating with the right people, having the right kind of job, friends, even opinions. It is a rigid social structure of which one must not fall astray as Countess Olenska has. It is only appealing to the few sitting at the top of the social pyramid that she is even acknowledged by this society after her divorce scandal.
Newland is a character I didn’t like at first. He does the right thing by marrying May Welland and yet he still entertains notions of running away with Ellen throughout the entire book. It was interesting to see his character evolve and to see whether he would remain honorable in the end or follow his heart and also to see how he handled the situation when his opinions did not coincide with that of the rest of the family. I was also surprised by the character of May Welland. At first she seemed like such a one dimensional Step ford wife like person but as the novel progresses you discover there is more to her.
The social customs and expectations of this time are so vastly different from what we have today. I sympathized with both Newland and Ellen as I think I would feel stifled by this type of environment too. Ellen’s quirkiness definitely adds flavor to the book. I really liked this look at New York Society at this time. The edition I read did have many footnotes explaining who certain composers, writers, and works were that were mentioned throughout the book. In many instances I already knew what they were talking about which made the footnotes completely unnecessary and kind of annoying. Also I will mention that Wharton goes into a lot of detail describing residences, ball gowns, scenery etc. which gave me a more complete picture but also made the story seem drawn out at times. Still, it was definitely worth the read.
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Royal Reviewer Angela Renee at 2:59 PM