It is no wonder that Edith Wharton won the Nobel Prize for The Age of Innocence. It is a rare feat when a writer can effortlessly capture the specific essence of a time and place. In fact, I can only think of Sinclair Lewis as a rival to Wharton in this sense. The Age of Innocence is set in 1870s New York City–a time Wharton was very familiar with as this was the period in which she experienced her own tumultuous coming-of-age. However, while there are many parallels between the events of Wharton’s life and the lives of her characters, The Age of Innocence is at its core the remembrance of a time in history, told via the love triangle of Newland Archer, May Welland and the Countess Ellen Olenska.
The overarching theme of The Age of Innocence is the conflict one must resolve between “what one wants” and “what one is expected to want”. For the affluent denizens of Wharton’s New York the script is unyieldingly rigid: “good form” and probity of behavior (notice I didn’t say character!) triumph all. However, as we learn from Newland Archer, this is not always a simple request. Archer and the angelic May Welland are enjoying a pleasant, if not unforeseen, courtship when May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, returns from a long residence in Europe. Ellen is immediately the topic of society conversation, with rumors of her philandering husband and her own illicit romance permeating New York’s preeminent drawing rooms. Archer, however, finds himself hopelessly attracted to her, able to relate to her more genuinely than with anyone else in their shared circle. With his discovery of Ellen, however, Archer finds himself conflicted for the first time between what is in his heart and what is expected of him. While he attempts to maneuver a life in which both states can coexist it becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses that he can only choose one.
The theme of “what one wants” versus “what one is expected to want” is manifest no more vividly than in the novel’s dialogue. Wharton employs an effective tactic in her characters’ dialogue, often detailing what a character is thinking first and following it what he/she actually says. Because these words are never actually said the characters are constantly left to guess what each other is thinking and feeling. In fact, it is Dallas Archer, the firstborn son of Newland and May Archer that says it best in the novel’s final, emotional chapter:
“You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath.” (371)
Possibly it is this flaw of not actually saying what one truly feels that Wharton most regrets about the society she writes about in the ironically titled The Age of Innocence. However, with the epilogue-like final chapter, Wharton offers her readers a glimpse of what future generations are capable of achieving in this regard.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is considered a classic for good reason. While I did find its pace somewhat slow at times, I never failed to get into a rhythm and become completely absorbed in the lives of the characters. Can’t wait to move on to The House of Mirth!