lunes, 4 de marzo de 2013

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
by Edith Wharton
USA, 1920

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)

23 comentarios:

  1. I'm so glad to hear of your conversion.
    She isn't a lightweigth but so many film adaptations damage our perceptions if we come to these books later, don't you think? At least it happened to me before. Wharton, James and even E.M. Forster are reduced to the more easily digestible on screen.
    Your review is a coincidence as I almost ordered her book on Morocco yesterday. I was actually surprised to find out she'd travelled there and wrote about it.

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    1. I don't know that I've ever seen any of the Wharton film adaptations, Caroline, but I imagine that you're right about the disservice they probably due to her novels based on what a turnoff I remember a couple of the Henry James and E.M. Forster film adaptations being. In any event, I now very much look forward to sitting down with another Wharton title sometime next year.

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  2. The few lines you've quoted reminds me of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

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    1. I haven't read any Hardy in decades, Nana, but it seems to me that, unlike Hardy, Wharton's major interest in people and class is primarily limited to the upper strata of society and artistic-minded bohemians. She's a much better writer on the sentence level than I remember Hardy being, though; for example, it pained me to have to leave this wonderful description of a beautiful but somewhat vacuous young woman out of my post: "As she walked beside Archer with her long swinging gait her face wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete" (100). In context, there's both a lovely image and a hint of an insult skillfullly mingled in that single line. Cheers!

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  3. Caroline, do you enjoy generalizations about the "all things Oriental"? I hope so, because they are on their way to you now.

    Richard, was the beginning really "fraudulent," or did you just fall for the magician's sleight-of-hand?

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    1. Tom, excellent question! Barring a potential reread at some point, I'll have to stand by my "fraudulent" remark for now because many of the characters--including Newland Archer, who thankfully becomes more and more complex as the novel progresses--came off as heavyhanded, uninteresting caricatures to me early on. I remember thinking it was hard for me to relate to them because the narrator was laying it on so thick. Of course, "fraudulent" may be just a bit of, ahem, artistic license on my part, and readers who are OK with caricatures and/or more patient with wealthy characters whining about "what society has come to" and the like over and over again may lobby for the "magician's sleight-of-hand" explanation more persuasively. I don't entirely discount that possibility myself, but the important thing is that the payoff in the final two thirds of the novel is well worth any false starts I might complain about in the beginning of the novel.

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    2. Tom, no I don't, that would probably even annoy me. I've been to Morocco a few times and am going there again in April, that's how I stumbled upon her book. I saw meanwhile it's available as a free download and I'll have a look and will compare her notes with mine.

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  4. I seem to remember giving up on this book quite early on, and I refuse to believe I was wrong. I enjoyed The House of Mirth a lot, however. But not that other one, that short one that everyone reads - what's it called? - oh yes, Ethan Frome.

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    1. Obooki, The House of Mirth will almost certainly be the next Wharton in my queue. However, I think your comment about The Age of Innocence supports my claim that the first part of that novel has some less than sparkling moments compared to the rest of the novel. Still, I'm glad I didn't give up on it early on because it turned out I was in for a great surprise (and not Tom's magician one, either, he he).

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    2. Yes, especially when you consider I failed at The Age of Innocence after being very impressed by The House of Mirth, coming into it with a very pro-Wharton mindset.

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  5. "...moved in for the emotional kill with an intensely felt and unpredictable close-up of a troubled marriage."

    You romantic, you. You come off all edge but you're a softy at heart. Knew it.

    Time for Sweet Home Alabama.

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    1. Kevin, Sweet Home Alabama? Ouch! I actually like Reese Witherspoon OK, but I try to make it a point never to see any movies named after Lynyrd Skynyrd songs or southern rock in general. As for your romantic/softy allegations, I should probably rewrite my post to make it clear that Mr. Edge was busily chopping onions during all Wharton's emotional kill scenes--it wasn't the writing that got to me, it was the onion fumes, trust me!

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  6. Can't resist hazarding one last comment.

    Think I know you mean about the fraudulence, but I forgive Wharton for it because I see it as part of her opening gambit, as she portrays players performing for, observing and judging others on a very large and unforgiving stage.

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    1. "Hazarding." Touché, I probably deserved that. And I know exactly what you mean about the need to establish the opening gambit. I guess to the extent we disagree about the quality of the early stages of the novel, I just found the latter part of The Age of Innocence so much more sophisticated and subtle an affair in terms of Wharton's handling of her characters. Still, love what you say here about "players performing for, observing and judging others on a very large and unforgiving stage." An excellent and perfectly-worded observation. P.S. I need to go back and revisit some of your Wharton posts again. They were at least partly responsible for motivating me to give her a try last year and this year. Thank you!

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  7. I love it when you end up loving a novel. Even if it is not until the bitter end.

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    1. Better late than never, eh, Bellezza? This was an especially gratifying read for me because I liked Wharton's wordsmith tendencies in the early novella I read by her last year but couldn't stand much anything else in it. Thought The Age of Innocence was very soulful, though.

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  8. I very nearly bought this the other day, but my non-existent book budget stayed my hand. Must look for it at the library though. It's high time for some Wharton. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. I hope you end up enjoying this as much as I did when you eventually get around to it, Sarah. I liked it so much that I was inspired to pick up my first Henry James novel in decades afterward just to keep the Wharton connection/thread going for at least one more novel. Cheers!

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  9. Your description concerning your expectations of this really made me laugh.

    I have not read this but I have read House of Mirth. I thought that novel also began with what I would describe with a stilted plot but that also developed into a story of emotional substance and complex characters.

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    1. Brian, glad to hear another vote of confidence in The House of Mirth (esp. since it's one that preps me for another potential slow beginning as well). As far as that description of my expectations goes/went, I hope I have successfully exorcised the need for any future linking of Edith Wharton, NYC bluebloods, and sham Whit Stillman yuppie film characters from future posts of mine--in other words, I'll have to find something new about her to pick on if she lets me down again!

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  10. I loved the two Whartons I've read, for different reasons.

    I've never read about such a monstrous female character as Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country. Wharton criticizes the American society but for different reasons than the ones in the Age of Innocence. I really recommend this one; I'd love to read your thoughts about this one.

    The Age of Innocence is different, it has a touch of universality. (For other readers, beware of spoilers in this comment)
    I loved Newland Archer. As a teenager, I would have despised him for doing nothing, for letting his happiness slip through his fingers. Now that I'm older, I find him wise and realistic about himself. He knows his weaknesses and he knows he couldn't have been happy outside of his family circle, outside of his world. He would have been miserable and what would have been left of their love? He knows his relationship with Helen wouldn't have bloomed or even survived if they had had to live as social pariahs. Something they would have become, for sure. I respect this character for knowing his limitations and being brave enough to act accordingly. Sometimes, giving up is the brave thing to do.

    Yes "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."

    Its counterpart is The Moon and Sixpence by Maugham: is it OK to hurt others for the sake of Art?

    Or more generally speaking, is it OK to hurt others to pursue you own happiness at any cost?

    I don't have the answer but I sure wondered when I read and reviewed Maugham and Wharton's novels.

    Emma

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    1. Emma, thank you for leaving such a juicy comment! "Such a monstrous female character," eh? Will probably position The Custom of the Country next in line in the Wharton queue right after I get to The House of Mirth. Interesting. As far as The Age of Innocence goes, I have to say that it took me a while to warm up to Archer (i.e. the portrayal and the character but especially W's portrayal of him). I think he became a great character by the end of the novel but that Wharton was pretty heavyhanded in her descriptions of him early on. I, too, like you, might have judged the character's decisions differently as a youngster, but I think Wharton ultimately did a sensational job of showing us how he was boxed in by circumstances and convention and maybe, as you say, his knowledge of his own limitations. I guess I'm not as convinced as you that he wouldn't have been as happy with Madame Olenska; however, I like how Wharton showed him coming to peace with the decision in his mind after so many years of wondering "what if?" at the end. Very touching work. Maugham is uncharted territory to me, but if The Moon and Sixpence is as thought-provoking as you say it is, I guess I owe it to myself to read it one of these days. Thanks for the tip. Cheers!

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  11. The Custom of the Country is a page turner and great literature, what's not to love? The House of Mirth will be my next Wharton.

    How would they have lived without their families' support? He doesn't have a job outside of his circle, he's not an adventurous businessman able to start afresh. Their relationship would have suffered. Do you imagine them living without the comfort they are used to? I don't.
    In a way, The Age of Innnocence also echoes La Princesse de Clèves. If the love remains outside of day-to-day contingencies, it stays pure and intact.

    On the "is it OK to hurt others...", I also recommend La Virevolte by Nancy Huston. Same quest.

    Maugham is a great writer, able to be profound and light in the same sentence.

    In my opinion, Cakes and Ale is better than The Moon and Sixpence and it's interesting to read at about the same time as Exit Ghost by Roth. Different style, different time but same questioning about the immortality of an author, the interpretation of their work by others and the impact of a writer's biography on the opinion we have about their work.

    PS: don't have time to read Dead Souls along with, alas. This one is on my mental TBR.

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