“and so the evening swept on, running and running like a senseless river that did not know how to stop.”
Newland Archer, a young man whose grown up amongst the socialist attitudes of New York in 1870, is eager to marry his sweetheart, society’s standard of a suitable young lady, May Welland. Shortly after pressuring May to announce their engagement and marry quickly, Newland becomes infatuated with May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen, estranged from her philandering husband, is viewed as the outcast of the family because she’s chosen to leave her husband.
I believe Newland could have saved himself, Ellen and May, a lot of unnecessary heartache had he taken the time to read one of the books he receives later, George Eliot’s, Middlemarch (the book is outstanding by the way but more on that later).
“That evening he unpacked his books from London. The box was full of things he had been waiting for impatiently;
…a novel called “Middlemarch,” as to which there had lately been interesting things said in the reviews. He had declined three dinner invitations in favour of this feast; but though he turned the pages with the sensuous joy of the book-lover, he did not know what he was reading, and one book after another dropped from his hand.
Lesson learned from Newland: NEVER let a good book drop from your hand without examining for some practical life lessons. For someone as bookish and “learned” as Newland, he wasn’t very smart at all. Finishing Middlemarch just before starting The Age of Innocence, I had a bad feeling of what was coming for Newland and May. I was upset with Newland because had he read Middlemarch, perhaps he would have made some different decisions based on the experiences and marriages of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon, Rosamond and Lydgate, central characters in Middlemarch.
Here’s an example in a quote from Middlemarch:
“…for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew it’s material from the endless minutiae by which her [Dorothea] view of Mr. Casaubon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch-and from what had been in her maiden dream.”
“Those words of Lydgate’s were like a sad milestone marking how far he travelled from his old dreamland, in which Rosamond Vincy appeared to be that perfect piece of womanhood…
He had begun to distinguish between that imagined adoration and the attraction…”
Dorothea’s “maiden dream” of what she expected in marriage was vastly different than the reality of what her marriage actually turned out to be. While her motives for marrying Mr. Casaubon were based on her idealistic expectations of how she could make a difference in helping Mr. Casaubon achieve greatness in his work, Mr. Casaubon had different ideas.
Newland would have seen, as an objective reader, the folly of what one imagines things to be versus the reality of how things, and people, really are. Such insight could have allowed Newland to examine his own perception of a “proper wife” (marrying for appearances and suitable matches) in contrast with his “infatuation” with the forbidden Ellen. Newland had the same “dreamlike” drama unfolding in his imagination, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure if he really knew what or who he wanted. Like Lydgate, imaged adoration versus the reality of marriage, really coming to know a person and not an imagined “dream” of who you want them to be (especially after marriage) is not a realization you should make AFTER you’ve said I do. Newland could have accepted a longer engagement and really gotten to know May to determine if he truly loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. His longing for Ellen, he imagined as true love, but again, I think some time with Middlemarch could have helped him examine his motivations more honestly.
I have several more marks against Archer but after reflecting on Wharton’s approach in crafting this book, I’ve decided to share what I’ve taken away from reading The Age of Innocence.
Wharton shines light on the common attitudes of the time period while at the same time showing us the effects of those attitudes. Societal norms and unspoken rules; for instance, the behavior of men knowningly being involved with a few women before they settle down with a respectable girl like May. Of course a respectable woman would NEVER engage in such behavior; she is expected to accept her betrothed was involved in other relationships before marriage (and in some cases would continue to do so). This behavior was not frowned upon in the least, dogs will be dogs as some people say, but what respectable woman wants to settle for someone else’s soiled leftovers?
Because we read from Newland’s perspective, it occurred to me after finishing the book, we see the despicable behavior (and unfaithfulness) men are allowed to engage in, while women are supposed to look the other way. This behavior was really not an issue for Newland, until he sees the effect its had on Ellen. I cheered for Newland when he expresses his vehement disgust at Ellen’s husband’s behavior and the hurtful effects on poor Ellen. However, that excitement was short-lived. Newland was still hiding behind the general male behavior and attitudes of the time.
On the other hand, we see the courage Ellen has by choosing to flee from society’s idea of how a respectable woman should respond. Ellen acted and left her cheating husband, but the stigma attached to ‘poor Ellen’ is viewed as shameful. Ellen’s been treated so poorly by her husband. How sad that this immoral attitude and lack of loyalty still exist in relationships today.
Newland was viewed by others as a progressive thinker but he was never courageous enough to make a decision outside of what was expected, even when given the opportunity to do so. May, on the other hand, was willing to do so and encouraged Newland to do the same.
Newland also underestimated May for quite some time. She may have appeared to be naive but I don’t believe her naive at all. We see the strength of her character when she offers Newland the opportunity to break their engagement because she knows he loves someone else.
“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time. I’ve wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged … pledged to the person we’ve spoken of … and if there is any way … any way in which you can fulfill your pledge … even by her getting a divorce … Newland, don’t give her up because of me!”
Later in the novel, after their marriage, May expresses her opinions, which annoys and frustrates Newland. Does May not show us that she’s not “like a pattern stenciled on the wall”? Newland seemed happier when May conformed (during their engagement) to society’s expectations of a wife.
If May had spoken out her grievances (he suspected her of many) he might have laughed them away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds under a Spartan smile.
Overall, I think I enjoyed the writing by Wharton, it doesn’t disappoint in the least, but Newland disappoints me. Ellen and May are the women of this story that deserve to be remembered instead.
“it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed.”