Monday, January 3, 2011

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's most famous novel, is a love story, written immediately after the end of the First World War. Its brilliant anatomization of the snobbery and hypocrisy of the wealthy elite of New York society in the 1870s made it an instant classic, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

It was a glittering, sumptuous time when hypocrisy was expected, discreet infidelity tolerated, and unconventionality ostracized.

That is the Gilded Age, and nobody knew its hypocrises better than Edith Wharton.... and nobody portrayed them as well. "The Age of Innocence" is a trip back in time to the stuffy upper crust of "old New York," taking us through one respectable man's hopeless love affair with a beautiful woman -- and the life he isn't brave enough to have.

Newland Archer, of a wealthy old New York family, has become engaged to pretty, naive May Welland. But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned home after dumping her cheating husband. At first, the two are just friends, but Newland becomes more and more entranced by the Countess' easy, free-spirited European charm.

After Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger. He starts to rebel in little ways, but he's still mired in a 100% conventional marriage, job and life. Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and the safe, dull life that he has condemned in others?

There's nothing too scandalous about "Age of Innocence" in a time when starlets acquire and discard boyfriends and husbands like old pantyhose -- it probably wasn't in the 1920s when it was first published. But then, this isn't a book about sexiness and steam -- it's part bittersweet romance, part social satire, and a look at what happens when human beings lose all spontaneity and passion.

Part of this is due to Wharton's portrayal of New York in the 1870s -- opulent, cultured, pleasant, yet so tied up in tradition that few people in it are able to really open up and live. It's a haze of ballrooms, gardens, engagements, and careful social rituals that absolutely MUST be followed, even if they have no meaning. It's a place "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought."

And Wharton writes distant, slightly mocking prose that outlines this sheltered little society. Her writing opens as slowly and beautifully as a rosebud, letting subtle subplots, poetic prose and powerful, hidden emotions drive the story. So don't be discouraged by the endless conversations about flowers, ballrooms, gloves and old family scandals that don't really matter anymore -- they are trappings to the story, and convey the stuffy life that Newland is struggling to escape.

In the middle of all this, Newland is a rather dull, intelligent young man who thinks he's unconventional. But he becomes more interesting as he struggles between his conscience and his longing for the Countess. And as "Age of Innocence" winds on, you gradually see that he doesn't truly love the Countess, but what she represents -- freedom from society and convention.

The other two angles of this love triangle are May and Ellen. May is (suitably) pallid and rather dull, though she shows some different sides in the last few chapters. And Ellen is a magnificent character -- alluring, mysterious, but also bewildered by New York's hostility to her ways. And she's even more interesting when you realize that she isn't trying to rebel, but simply being herself.

"Age of Innocence" is a subtle look at life in Gilded Age New York, telling the story of a man desperately in love with a way of life he hasn't got the courage to pursue. Exquisite in its details, painful in its beauty.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...