by Edith Wharton
A funny thing happened to me on my way to the end of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. About a third of the way through it, after having cruelly subjected me to what I feared would be just another grating and stereotypical portrait of tradition-bound blueboods with hypocritical sticks up their asses presented with all the hollow conviction of a 1990s Whit Stillman film about superficial but annoyingly talkative yuppies, Wharton suddenly abandonded her fraudulent and irritating set-up and moved in for the emotional kill with an intensely felt and unpredictable close-up of a troubled marriage in 1870s "old New York" that basically destroyed me by the time I got to the final pages. How could something that seemed so lightweight in the beginning unexpectedly develop such gravitas later on? I'll hazard three explanations. First, as stereotypical and trite as some of the other characters can be at times, the novel's three protagonists--convention-bound newlyweds Newland Archer and May Welland and May's independent but lonely cousin Madame Olenska, a free spirit and apparent soul-mate to Archer and hence a potential threat to the "happy" marriage between husband and wife which seems cemented more by duty than by romance--stand out for the complexity, credibility, and subtlety with which they're drawn over the course of the novel. Second, Wharton is unrelenting in her questioning of the value of love and conformity as it pertains to marriage among the society people of the novel's world; communication, she writes at one point, took place by the social codes of an era in which people 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" (32), and marriage and infidelity, she suggests elsewhere, took place according to a rigid social contract not unlike slavery: "A woman's standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved" (214). Finally, this is a novel that dares to take up the question of whether or not it's OK to hurt others to find happiness for oneself in matters of love. I won't tell you how or even if Wharton answers this, but with biting lines like "she spoke with the cold-blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the graves of young hopes" (108) and "there was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free" (137), I guess the most ironic thing of all about The Age of Innocence's depiction of what at least one of its characters thinks of as a death-like marriage is the surprising amount of sympathy to be found for all three principals. In other words, a stunning turnaround in what was previously a rocky relationship with this author.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)