Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Graduate life is proving to be both scary and exhilarating. Just when I finally thought I’d have more time to write and blog, I find myself the busiest ever. It is one of those times when there are so many things I want to do, that I do not know where to even start. But I’m getting better at managing my time, which means I’ll blog more regularly. It also means I have found enough time to go over my past readings, revisit old novels and watch some of my favourite movies, which is why I’m writing about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I believe this is one of those cases in which the movie is just as delightful as the book. But I being no film critic, I’ll content myself with writing about the book.

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The 1920s were for American literature a time of renovation in many ways. It is hard for me to imagine the first decades of the twentieth century without thinking of Gatsby, Art Deco and WWI. Yet amidst the chaos, the glitter and chic haircuts, the rapid changes, there is also the curious, nostalgic figure of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in New York in 1862, to a wealthy family. She wrote more than 20 novels and many more short stories between 1899 and 1937, when she passed away. Thanks to her family’s immense library, Wharton was always an avid reader. She was also interested in architecture and interior design—an obsession her writing does reflect—and was an intimate friend of Henry James. Although Wharton entered the spotlight as a writer thanks to her novels Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905), it was her 13th novel, The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920.

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The novel follows the life of Newland Archer, a young man whose life in New York’s elite of the 1870s is seemingly perfect. He’s engaged to May Welland, who is not only one of the most popular and respected heiresses of his social circle, but the very image of innocence and purity. However Newland admires her, he can’t help but feel that there are so many things he can’t discuss with her, such as the new and strange artistic movements making their way from Europe to America, to which Newland feels drawn to and which he would like to explore.

Unlike his friends, Newland finds it amazing that there can be a life so different to his: la vie bohéme, the life of the cafés and the studios, of small apartments and sordid parties. Such acquaintance makes him question his social duties and his relationship with May. His doubts are aggravated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen has spent the last decades in Europe among artists and is now separated from her husband, a situation the New Yorkers find shocking. The way Ellen behaves, disregarding every social rule, represents everything Newland has always wanted, but has been too afraid to try.

In a way, Newland’s dilemma is the dilemma of his times. He is torn between the familiar, a neoclassical word full of beautiful shapes and light, and the unstoppable future, the innovations in art and architecture that can only precede a new conception of the world. While the world he knows is beautiful, he knows the price to pay for it is ignorance, a blissful ignorance every one of his acquaintances seems to get on with by calling it innocence.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

New York in the last decades of the XIX century, the city in which Wharton grew up, is recreated with detail, both in its buildings and streets, as in the hypocrisy of its society. The irony of such conventions is subtly exposed by Wharton through the descriptions of her character’s, specially the lack of communication between them:

 

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

The most wonderful thing about Wharton’s novel is how she exposes the crash  between the old and the new, the classical and the extravagant, mostly through the descriptions of spaces and clothes. Wharton displays a narrative skill that manages to incorporate every detail, every piece of furniture, every door, window or garden of the houses belonging to the upper classes of New York, in her critique of their outdated moral standards. Her descriptions are so precise and exact that they border on the baroque. The spaces in which the novel takes place are a crucial element of the novel, and their configuration through a prolific use of nouns and adverbs manages to establish a sense of saturation and oppression, which helps us understand Newland’s suffocation:

 

“The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to the big bright sea. The turf was hemmed with an edge of carlet geranium and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate color, standing at intervals along the winding path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.” (Wharton, 129)

Newland’s doubts come from his belonging to a rigid social structure from which he can see no way out, which implies certain, strictly defined roles for women, for art, culture and civilization itself.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

Wharton also explores the cultural differences between America and Europe. In a time which proved crucial for all arts in the Old Continent, Wharton’s New York seems outdated and decadent. It is a New York isolated by social conventions in which the protagonist’s sufferings come from realising this, a realization which implies a loss of innocence, “that kind of innocence, the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Much of the charm of The Age of Innocence comes from the use Wharton makes of language: a precise, abundant, a bit snobby yet delightful choice of words awaits in every page—Henry James used to say of Wharton’s personality that it was like a “brilliant hyperbole”—. The book is also a personal testimony, a nostalgic remembrance of a time that was long gone by the time Wharton wrote about it. By the 1920s a rapid wave of change and industrialization had erased the remains of the society in which Wharton grew up. The new century would prove to be, as Newland Archer suspected, thoroughly different.

Have you read any of Wharton’s works? If so, how did you like them?

I am currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I can honestly say I hadn’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while.


 
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