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the age of innocence
18 september 2022
First let me say that the cover of my edition of The Age of Innocence is the goofiest-looking thing I have seen on a book in a long time. It cost me a couple of bucks at Half Price; it promised to be "complete and unabridged"; and although the imprint is the otherwise unknown "Cherish," it seems to be no worse editorially than any other mass-market public-domain paperback. But the image is disconcerting. It's hard to explain exactly how. In fact, in terms of period accuracy, it's possibly pretty good. A couple sits in plausibly 1870s high fashion, in a barouche being driven down a sunlit street by a vacant-looking coachman. The background looks nothing like New York today, but is plausibly Old-New-Yorky, with a venerable tree and a cream-colored mansion that recalls Mrs Manson Mingott's. The real problem is in the tone of the illustration. The couple sport cheerful, druggy expressions. The young man resembles a leering Ray Bolger about to leap from the vehicle to do a buck and wing. The woman holds her parasol so that she is shielded from his attentions, while she perches on a single buttock and gazes off miles away. I have never seen anything less in the spirit of The Age of Innocence.
Anyway, better talk about the book. If you can tear your eyes away from that image.
The Age of Innocence has long been one of my favorite novels. This is at least the third time I've read it, and it holds up, but I had more reservations about it than I did several of my other great favorites that I re-read in the past year.
The whole novel transpires from the perspective of Newland Archer, though it is told in the third person; it is a "limited" or "reflected" third-person narrative. Archer is one of the leading men of the Old New York social elite in "the early seventies," betrothed to May Welland, of analogous pedigree (3). As they are about to announce their engagement, May's cousin Ellen arrives from out of town. She and Archer used to play together as children, before Ellen moved to Europe and married the exotic Count Olenski. And long before she left Olenski, to abscond in the arms of a private secretary and wander the watering holes of the world on her way back home.
Old New York circles its social wagons around the Countess Olenska, largely in deference to her inimitable grandmother Mrs Manson Mingott. Archer, of course, falls in love with Ellen, but is thwarted at every turn from trying to get together with her, by this event or that accident, by the dead pressure of conformity, by his duty to his uninteresting and exasperatingly conventional fiancée and later, when she becomes his even more tiresome wife. Then pressure reverses, and Ellen seems doomed to rejoin her captor-husband.
The final chapter of The Age of Innocence still sets me weeping – even thinking about certain paragraphs, turned better than anything in American prose, can bring on the tears. But how deeply you're moved by the final chapter is a function of how romantically you take the whole book that goes before.
This time through, I wasn't as convinced by the love story. Great passages still peeked out here and there. Archer's absent-mindedness at his own wedding, when his best man whispers "She's here" and it's clear that Archer thinks of the Countess and not his own bride (162); the memory of the distant Ellen becoming "the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities" (230); their climactic meeting in the Metropolitan Museum, among
little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled "Use unknown." (272)But note that all three of those passages are oblique to the direct connection between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer. This time, I thought the connection was undermotivated, tending to come out of nowhere. I found it harder to believe in the affair as a great love on her part (but of course the reader never has access to her consciousness). And for Archer's part – I think that Wharton, quite deliberately, sets his infatuation with Ellen up as a possessiveness that is triggered by thinking of the other men who have possessed or could possess her. The banker Julius Beaufort, the secretary Riviere, her own husband – Archer lives in his imagination, as we've seen, and he can't stop imagining Ellen going off with one of them instead of with him.
And I used to think each was the love of the other's life. The impact of the final chapter depends on that dynamic. Or does it? At the end of the book we are no closer to Ellen's inner life, and what we mainly know of Archer is that she was "the thing you most wanted" (313). The impersonality of phrasing Ellen as an object cannot be accidental.
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. 1920. n.p.: Cherish, n.d.