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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton — book review

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“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

A few months ago I read Edith Wharton’s novella, Summer. Although I thought its obliqueness to be rather fascinating, I was frustrated by its relatively short length, and thought that the characters would have benefitted from having some more depth. The Age of Innocence, by comparison, is a much more detailed story, one that focused on a cast of interesting characters, who regardless of their likability, struck me as incredibly realistic. Through their words, mannerism, and motivations, Wharton makes her characters into fully formed individuals.

Newland Archer is one of the novel’s central figures. Archer is a gentleman lawyer who will soon announce his favourable marriage to the young May Welland. All is seemingly well until May’s cousin returns to America to escape from an inauspicious marriage to a Polish Count. Rumours and gossip abound, and to begin with Archer is merely vexed by the attention that his social circle seems to paying to her. Yet, he soon becomes intrigued by the way in which Countess Ellen Olenska seems either oblivious or uncaring of the rules of civility that dictated New York during the 1870s.

For the majority of the narrative Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska exhibit great restraint over their attraction and romantic feelings for one another. Their relationship is one that is punctuated by periods of tenderness, broodiness, fascination, and abnegation. There are stretches of time in which they hardly see one another, and yet they remain quietly devoted to the other.
Archer, through the tumultuous passion he harbours towards Countess Olenska, seeks to escape, if not transcend, from the artificiality and limitations he perceives within his society. Countess Olenska becomes his objet petit a, that is an unattainable object of desire, who he desperately longs for perhaps because he knows that a future with her would be impossible. It is the very act of longing for her that allows him to envision a future free of all that he finds wanting in May Welland his actual fiancee.

It is the very forbidden nature of his feelings for Countess Olenska that seems to inflame his passion for her. He assigns to her the role of ‘beloved other’, regarding their ‘affair’ as an inescapable outcome of their ‘true love’.
Alienated by the majority of her relatives, regarded as ‘other’, Countess Olenska is lonely and unhappy. I admired both her strengths and her weaknesses, and found her to be on of the few characters to actually have dignity. Even in America, in other continent from the Count, she seems unable to escape from the shadow of their unhappy marriage. In Archer she finds an ally of sorts, yet, her experiences prevent her from falling into old patterns.
Archer, on the other hand, attempts to escape from the strictures imposed on him by his family, acquaintances, and New York’spolitesociety, by engaging in an illicit affair which if made public would likely ruin his reputation and career. In his feelings for Countess Olenska, Archer experiences a romantic love untethered by concepts of duty and tradition; while his engagement with May is dictated by notions of propriety and decorum, Archer believes that his relationship with Countess Olenska is unaffected by the social constraints and rituals that otherwise mar his existence.
Archer’s interactions with Countess Olenska provide him with a taste of freedom: while his conversations with the naive and sheltered May are interspersed with platitudes and empty phrases, Archer’s exchanges with Countess Olenska—even when consisting of a couple of words—seem to carry depths of meaning. Her language, as well as her very glances and expressions, are loaded with ‘real’ emotions, emotions which Archer believes to be absent in May. His fiancee’s personality seems to him a blank slate, one that he ought to fill.

In spite of his dishonesty readers will find it difficult to condemn or judge Archer. Tired of the formulaic dynamics of his world, burdened by ennui and disenchantment, Archer feels truly awake and alive when he is in the proximity of Countess Olenska. He grows jealous of men such as Julius Beaufort and often makes unfavourable comparison between Countess and May.
The difficulties Archer and the Countess experience are often a result of their own preoccupation with one another. They always perceive something or someone to be in the way of a possible future together (May, Count Olenski, the Mingotts, the scandal itself).
As the narrative progresses we begin to see that Archer’s impression of the falsehoods within his society and of other people’s character may not be as clear-cut as he thinks. For example, Archer believes that May’s ‘ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination’. Her later actions however suggests that her ‘intuitions’ may be more deliberate than accidental.
The novel examines the way in which desire and happiness are obstructed and influenced by social conventions and notions of duty (what Archer wants for himself vs. what society wants for Archer). Yet, Wharton doesn’t suggest that a union between Archer and Countess Olenska would have a harmonious outcome.
It is the very fact that their romance is ‘doomed’, weighed down by denial, guilt, and regret, that makes it all the more ‘sublime’, it is the pain that accompanies their unfulfilled love makes it all the more vivid.
While Archer’s relationship to May seems to consist of perfunctory speeches (ones which, much to Archer’s displeasure, echo those between May’s own parents), his interactions with Countess Olenska are often ‘clandestine’, which is why they leave such a lasting impression on him. If urgency and secrecy no longer enveloped their meetings, would Archer feel the same passion for the Countess?
In one of the very first pages we are told that Archer was “at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”. Paradoxically, Archer draws more pleasure from the act of yearning, for something or someone, than from having or experiencing that which he yearns for. In other words, the idea of a future union with the Countess seems to Archer better than an actual union with her. This deferral of his own satisfaction brings about a painful sort of happiness—what could be described as jouissance, that is a ‘backhanded enjoyment’—as it it the very act of longing for the Countess that enables him to entertain the idea that a true and meaningful union can be possible. However, later on in the narrative, Archer seems to want to break free from this self-sabotaging (that is of finding fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment).
The narrative, and the characters themselves, seems to have a certain foreknowledge regarding the outcome of this affair. Still, even if we know what their romance will lead to, we still feel invested in their relationship and it is up to the reader to decided whether Archer and the Countess are victims of their time and circumstances or whether they are the ones responsible for their own misfortune.

Wharton’s rendition of 1870s New York is a strikingly nostalgic one. Yet, in spite of the wistful tone the narrative has towards this Gilded Age, Archer’s story critiques the way in which the customs of his time perpetuated this ideal of a ‘pure’ bride, one whose innocence was, if not performed, carefully fabricated by those around her.

“Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Wharton’s commentary on class and gender emphasised the way in which individuals were restricted by the time’s social norms. The story also presents us with a compelling interplay of duty and desire, of hope and dissatisfaction, and of passion and indifference. The contrast between American and European values seems to be embodied by the two women in Archer’s life: May (as the American ideal) and Countess Olenska (as the worldly, if not ‘exotic’, European).

While there are countless of literary works featuring alienated heroes and ill-fated lovers, The Age of Innocence can offer its readers with a particularly piercing narrative that is written in Wharton’s carefully elaborated prose. Her elegant writing style perfectly lends itself to the ironic and serious tones of her story. The very words Wharton chooses seem to possess a contemplative quality that capture with painful clarity Archer’s feelings for the Countess.
This was an incredibly poignant novel that I will definitely be revisiting again (my heart has to recover first).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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