An elegant portrait of desire and betrayal in Old New York. In the highest circle of New York social life during the 1870's, Newland Archer, a young lawyer, prepares to marry the docile May Welland. Before their engagement is announced, he meets May's cousin, the mysterious, nonconformist Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned to New York after a long absence. Archer's world is always changing.
Life of New York's idle rich in the 1870s, written by one of their own after WWI, when she has put that society in perspective. Young Newland Archer is engaged to marry the perfectly perfect--but boring--May Welland, when her cousin Ellen returns in semi-disgrace from Europe. Newland finds himself smitten, and oh, what to do? None of the characters are particularly likeable--but they sure live in an interesting world. Old New York is a foreign world to me, and I loved this peek behind it's heavy mahogany doors and layers of velvet drapery.
Recommended for: The language and psychology isn't as tortuous as Henry James, and it's not quite as sharp as Jane Austen (and also not British), but if you like those authors, you'll like this too. It also reminded me a little of Anna Karenina, except much shorter. Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer in 1921, so I'm not the only one to love it.
“The young man, as he followed his wife into the hall, was conscious of a certain reversal of mood. There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious. But now it was the Welland house, and the life he was expected to lead in it, that had become unreal and irrelevant, and the brief scene on the shore, when he had stood irresolute, halfway down the bank, was as close to him as the blood in his vein.” (Ch 21)
Wharton’s prose is exquisite; I can’t remember when I’ve read such a gorgeous book. The Age of Innocence has become a favourite. Highly recommended!
It is impossible to read this book with anything other than modern eyes. From a female perspective in the 21st century, Newland comes across throughout as weak and patronising with his desire to tenaciously cling to the ideal of a "woman's innoncence" and his position as the worldly man who can educate them. May, his young wife, appears both irritating and frustrating. She is manipulative via her innocent assumptions and unbending will on matters of social conformation. By rights, the reader's sympathy should lie with her, but instead one finds that it is Newland Archer for whom you are rooting, willing him to break free. To a modern reader, Countess Olenska is the character with whom sympathy lies. Her independent mind and spirit fights against constraint by the society that she has returned to as a refuge. It is not until Newland forces her to be aware of it, that she adapts her behaviour at all. Ironic that it should be the case when the rest of the story unfolds.
I loved this book when I read it a decade ago and on this re-read I was waiting to understand why I had remembered it as such a classic. As I reached the final third, I realised that this is where it shines. The subtext behind the actions of Newland, May and Ellen and the words unspoken carry such weight that it is suffused with tension and sensuality. Throughout there is the idea that to this society, women were almost sacrificial in the face of scandal. The ultimate irony is that despite Newland's consideration of himself as worldly, his need to educate May, in fact he is as innocent as she in his desire to "get away" with Ellen "into a world where ..... categories do not exist". It is Ellen that is realistic. The idea that May had "spent her poetry and romance on their short courting" whilst Newland remains blameless in his eyes and cannot see that he is as responsible and changed as she. The culmination of the farewell meal for Ellen when Archer finally loses his innocence, his moment of realisation of what has been thought of him by society, what has been observed and supposed, is as painful a description of disillusionment as any I have read. Throughout this book there are moments when you dislike May intensely as she seems controlling and manipulative (irrationally, as she is the victim and has done nothing wrong). However, there are moments, such as after the leaving party for Ellen, when she deserves, and Wharton moves us to give her, sympathy.
The book is finally resolved by a poignant and brilliant ending where Newland is shown for what he really is: a man as devoted to convention in his way as any other of his time, a man who cherishes his ideals more than the reality of life when it comes to the final reckoning.
A brilliant and restrained book, a real classic!
Ultimately, within the rich comforts of the smug Social Register set there is no indulgence for an independently operating female, especially a "foreign" one, even if she's family.
Newland Archer, engaged then married to the embodiment of NYC perfection in young women, May Wellend, is the starch stiff representative of the best young man NYC can produce until Ellen Olenska, his bride's cousin and herself a woman married but separated from her European husband, arrives.
What ensues is a sustained waltz of suppressed emotions within and between Newland and Ellen that are buried under the weight of their conventionality, in his case; moral compunctions, in hers; and the manipulative pressures of their kin and friends determined to maintain the glass smooth surface of appearances against their ambitions to upset the status quo. Everyone's efforts to protect others from the truth and probably harm, to preserve their individual and collective innocence, devolves ironically into an age of conspiracy.
Faithful in his body to his wife, Newland divorces himself from her emotionally and spends his "real" life sequestered among his books and memories inside his library. Faithful to her principles, Ellen eventually divorces herself from Newland's presence when she returns to Europe, unable to sustain an existence among those who initially embrace her then subtly push her out of the "tribe." "The Age of Innocence" is a novel about marriage and society that tells us they both are devoted to traditions bent on restricting individuality and killing love.
The action is entirely domestic, consisting of meetings in homes, at dinner parties, balls, operas, and stolen moments in carriages and aboard steamers. It is largely internal action that raises tension when the pair break small societal rules, yet are never quite able to sever the restraints that tie them to earlier commitments. The tension spirals upward only to collapse on itself as Newland is incapable of decision and Ellen is disinclined to make him choose.
Wharton's novel is atmospheric, period perfect, and damning in the most polite and socially acceptable way. Put it on your Must Read List.
What I’m describing is a classic love triangle immemorial, and The Age of Innocence is truly an old-fashioned romance story. In fact, a story so old-fashioned even in Wharton’s time that she set it in the 1870s. It’s also the kind of story my brother is always bemoaning I like all the time, where nothing much happens in terms of external action, only people meeting and speaking up the silence of not saying what they’re really thinking, and eventually actually manage to say what they think—at which point the gulf between their thoughts and reality becomes the next looming silence. Basically, it’s what he’d call “boring” (and in lesser hands, I’d dismiss as “rich people problems”).
He’s wrong, at least in this case. We might know how this old rag of a love triangle plays out—how it always plays out—but what elevates the formula is the well-observed detail Edith Wharton suffuses into every step of the way.
Wharton clearly knows the high-society New York she’s describing, down to every single dinner menu (and doesn’t she not shy from showing it!). But more importantly, she knows every gesture it yields in the upholding of its every specific more and dishes it out with insights frequently satiric and even subtlely funny. And its ultimate hypocrisy, which she dishes out frequently chilling or even heart-breaking. See here after Newland proposes eloping to May:
"Newland! You’re so original!” she exulted.
His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make—even to the point of calling him original.
Her attention to detail extends to the characters as well, including the many supporting characters whose idiosyncrasies (Sillerton Jackson’s rumor-mongering, Catherine Mingott’s stinginess with serving food, Lawrence Leffert’s fake moral outrage) lend that biggest of Wharton characters, “Society”, a richer presence than merely being a monstrous looming antagonist. But most profoundly, Wharton turns her eye to the two fascinating cousins at the heart of it, May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, whose complexities are only glimpsed at (and often misunderstood) by the Newland, hampered he is by his feelings and his pride.
All this characterization is so important because behind the veil of gentility, The Age of Innocence is at its heart, an intense battle of wills between the main characters. There’s none of that flashy ‘external action’ here—not silly misunderstandings or missed letters or last-minute chases that seem so endemic to romances. But you can’t mistake that for ‘boring’ because when the characters clash it’s with the force of society fighting itself, in so much that Wharton’s characters are individuals, yes, but also so much where they come from (and how they come from it). And though at time I think Wharton leans too heavily on the constrast between stodgy New York and artistic Europe as her theory of everything, the result is a novel constructed out of remarkable unity between character, theme, and plot. Everything that happens is so much out of what the characters do and everything that the characters do is so much out of who they are and everything who they are is where they come from…
(And that ending!) So now, I can feel exasperated with Newland; I can feel sad at his losses and happy at his gains. But I can’t pity him because pity, pity is dismissal, pity is putting something in the past—and the world of The Age of Innocence, so specifically rendered in its pages, is not.
We first meet our protagonist, young Newland Archer, on the night of his betrothal, admiring his fiancée across a crowded opera house. He strikes us as a rather silly young man, so earnest is he in his effort to appear “correct” in the eyes of his peers, his betters and their betters, all equally silly in our eyes as they pose and prance and take one another’s upturned noses very seriously. But very soon the author abandons the attempt to poke fun at these people, and draws us into Newland’s fascination with his old childhood friend, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has recently separated from her husband the Count. She is also at the opera that night, dressed inappropriately and steeped in scandal as a result of her failed marriage.
Ellen – raised abroad and married there -- is everything that the very American Newland, and his innocent young fiancée May, are not: strangely foreign, creative, flamboyant, intellectual, passionate, but also loyal, sensitive and ultimately ethical. Worst of all, she is apparently oblivious to the constricting rules that society expects her to observe, and in the most endearing way she goes about trying to live her life honestly. Newland is both drawn to her and terrified of her, comfortable with May and repelled by May. Thus he will find his way through a conflicted life, and the reader is likely to find his personal struggle and the life he leads not terribly unlike his or her own. This novel is at its core timeless. Society will always demand that we act one way when in fact we might prefer to act another way entirely, and there will always be choices and regrets on the path we choose among those options.
Symbolically, Newland represents an America on the cusp of modernization, the awkward period of transition between the Victorian era and World War I. At first a devout member of New York aristocracy, Newland is awakened as one from a trance with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen decides to separate from her abusive husband, Count Olenski, and is rumored to have escaped the Count by having an affair with his secretary--a scandalous circumstance that brings her back home to her native New York. Vibrant, intellectual, and free-spirited when compared with the dowdy and restrained women he's known, Ellen's predicament is a revelation to Newland. As he himself has just ended an affair with a married woman and seen the ease with which society forgave his indiscretion when contrasted with Ellen, Newland begins to acknowledge the inequality amongst the sexes. However, there's a serious roadblock to Newland ever being with the captivating Ellen: Ellen is the cousin of May Welland, Newland's fiancee.
Wharton writes with cutting wit about the hypocritical and ludicrous customs of blue blood society and cunningly plots events to work against Newland, the archer whose target is a "new land" in which he and Ellen can be together. The pity is that, ultimately, May proves to be the more cunning huntress who cleverly hunts and traps her quarry in the labyrinth of society.
Wharton's descriptions are well done; I had an easy time visualizing each situation, and I could even hear the conversations - even the stifled ones. Certain characterizations were really funny - Catherine Mingott cut a really legendary figure. Newland is almost an idealist, but comes out like a deflated balloon after a while. The story is romantic without really being passionate. I ended up enjoying the story as well as how it turned out, though not feeling at the edge of the seat as I'd thought I'd be by the end. I could see rereading this one, as it's fun to be taken into the glamorous yet constipated society that I could never be a part of.
The early Pulitzer Prize winners were concerned with documenting and commenting on the effects that rapid social and technological changes had on “society”, whether that of a Midwestern town evolving into a large industrial city or of “old” New York. The most sharply observant, critical, and personal is The Age of Innocence, in which Wharton describes a set of mores governing behavior for the wealthiest families so stultifying that even reading it 85 years later produces claustrophobia and a sense of being unable to breathe.
The protagonist of the book, Newland Archer, is one of the more conscious of his set. At the beginning of the book, as a young man in the early 1870’s, Archer is quite taken up with his own class and wholeheartedly subscribes to “form”, that unwritten code of what is allowed and far more important, NOT allowed in Old New York society. He realizes that these constitute constraints on his actions but accepts them as de rigueur and necessary to the survival of his way of life.
However, he meets an alien who has suddenly appeared in the midst of this hierarchical, rigid society—the beautiful Countess Olenska, a member of one of the most prominent families whom Archer knew as a child, who married a Polish count, and moved to Europe. After an unspecified number of years, she has left her husband and moved back to New York under mysterious and even scandalous circumstances. Being a member of a distinguished family and somehow “foreign”, the Countess Olenska’s behavior baffles society; they alternately rally around and shy away from her depending on which by-law of the social code she has most recently “transgressed”—usually unwittingly.
Archer, engaged and then married to May Welland, one of the most beautiful as well as most unimaginative and uncreative daughters of an Old New York family, falls under the Countess’ spell. She evokes within him a vaguely intuited, dormant but not yet fully suppressed streak of independence and rebellion, a dread of living out the rest of his life in the sterile, iron-clad environment of High Society.
The story centers around Archer’s feeble and ineffectual attempts to transcend the rules and mores of his class and strike out for a life in which he can grow. In one of the more telling quotes:
“His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever going to happen.”
At each critical moment, in which he seems poised to break out, Fate, in the person of May, presents him with a choice between personal freedom and a shot at happiness and duty. Duty, in the form of his refusal to grasp at his own happiness at the expense of others’ pain—and May—win each time. Archer spends the rest of his life conforming to the code of behavior expected of a man of his class; the Countess Olenska moves to Paris. The scenes are underwritten, but in the most chilling prose.
The end of the book is poignant, even heart-rending.
The prose style is quite sharp, even unforgiving, as Wharton, at times in great detail, presents a way of life that worships Form and correct behavior; it is clear that she despises this life. It is a life that is inconceivable to us today, but through near-perfect writing, she makes it real for us, a staggering achievement.
Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence and once you start reading, you can see why. Like Haruki Marukami, she paints in intricate picture in your mind of the characters and how they relate together.
Newland Archer (see where Candace Bushnell gets her character names from?) is about to marry May Welland when her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe in disgrace- she’s left her husband (this is the 1870s). Ellen is mysterious, bohemian and independent- all the things that Newland is looking for. He falls in love with Ellen, but still marries May. He is torn between duty and finding the passion that is so elusive in the restrained New York society. Will Archer find happiness if he throws everything he’s known away? More importantly, does he dare to?
I found Archer a little like Toru Okada in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (the book I had read previously)- he’s happy for things to move him along rather than make things happen. This was frustrating- I wanted him to make a definite choice but he seemed unable to. I think he was a product of his time and class. Ellen, in contrast, seemed ahead of her time- she was decidedly independent in contrast to May, who needed approval from others (as well as opinions).
I think the best way to read this book is in large blocks- it didn’t work as well for me reading it in small bites after work. The prose deserved more than this! I found I enjoyed it most on lazy weekend afternoons.
He pulled the sash down and turned back. “Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding: “But I’ve caught it already. I am dead—I’ve been dead for months and months.”
Edith Wharton is a masterful writer, wielding a pen she sharpens to a scalpel-sharp point on 1870s New York society. The book is framed by performances of the opera Faust. At the first, Newland Archer is happily and somewhat smugly anticipating his marriage to the young, innocent May Welland, whose every thought and opinion he is looking forward to shaping, if not outright providing. He is somewhat scandalized when May's family hosts the Countess Ellen Olenska in their box -- this cousin is separated from her husband, a Polish count, and is seeking refuge in New York.
The countess's European sensibilities and unconventionality make her an uncomfortable puzzle for her family: she treats a servant familiarly, visits and befriends social climbers and outcasts, and does not care to live in the "right" neighborhoods. Newland is attracted like a moth. As Newland falls in love with the countess, he comes to perceive the smallness and rigidity of their New York world, and is powerless in the face of it. Ellen is determined to preserve her independence, to live life as she chooses, and as Newland realizes this, he understands that his future with May is one of convention, propriety, and suffocation. May in her turn is smooth and pleasant on the surface, and deftly manipulative underneath. Near the book's end, Newland attends another performance of Faust, reflecting how he has utterly changed, yet sentenced to a life of stifling sameness. This book made me deeply uncomfortable -- it is pervasively sad, and utterly fascinating.
The tale is beautifully told, with lots of sly glances at the ills and illogicality of society. You do think that Newland is going to set the world afire, but he kind of backs off and it becomes clear he hasn't, but it seems his offspring might.
Newland's feelings are masterfully described, often by implication. The conventional values of high society in Victorian New York are exposed in the illusion drawn about "choice" when feelings are involved. We follow the lives of this triangle toward death and the infirmities of old age. Even after outliving the dear mother of his children, Newland remains intensely caught up in passions--desire, longing, envy, betrayal.
Winner of the first Pulitzer awarded to a female author, in 1921, This work highlights Wharton's themes of duty and desire, convention and betrayal. Drawn with elegant and tasteful expression, her subjects were privileged Society people. Ironically, they seem to "dread scandal more than disease" although the only real scandal is Ellen's desire for a divorce, after an unhappy marriage to a European Count. Here, Wharton exposes the complexity of marriage, which both empowers and cripples its partners. Wharton interrogates the subordination of women who are possessions of males. The character of Ellen, contrasted with the charm, innocence and convention of May, both of whom embody and split the love of Newland, light up the New York social milieu with the naked threat of scandal. Newland himself, in the anguish of loving, seems to gain insight into the Society's disparate treatment of women.
Newland Archer chooses to marry the conventional May, and the marriage produces surprisingly devoted children, until May predeceases Newland. His son, Dallas, plays an unlikely and even bizarre role as both withholder and expositor at the end of the story. Newland is left struggling with decisions he knows were already made by a life defined by Society. We are all but waiting for that "signal" from the window of convention.
My recurrent problem with these books - that I can't see why anyone would fall in love with a Countess Olenska when they're already in love with May - makes it difficult for me to really love this one. I guess that's kind of the point. May hasn't done anything wrong, and hence Newland leads a happy life with her, it's just not the peak-of-the-mountain romantic craziness that we all seem to crave. On the other hand, I think 'The Reef' was better, and my wife assures me that 'House of Mirth' is better than both of them. It's interesting to read this so soon after Elizabeth Bowen's 'Heat of the Day,' to see how the type of thing Wharton did (close social observation of impossible situations) was better served by more modernist techniques. Anyone who likes Wharton, particularly her more Jamesian moments, should go check out Bowen's novels.
The reason I like this less than Bowen and James, I think, aside from my attraction to the cute girls next door rather than the stormy seductresses, is that Wharton's irony is a little too obvious. I get the feeling that she doesn't really know why any of her characters do what they do. That's not a technical failing. She isn't just making it up, I'm sure that New York society really was as she describes it in the 1870's. But she sympathises too little with that society, in this novel at least, to be fair. On the upside, that means she's much funnier.
Newland Archer was set in the conventions that dictated and moulded his everyday life. He was so set in it that for a time, his actions and thoughts were aligned with it accordingly. His beliefs was jarred at the arrival of the Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of his then-betrothed, the docile May Welland. He was, at first, a typical representation of masculine vanity and he chose May as his bride, often taking note of her purity and girlish charm, for what he sees as his "manly privilege".
Ellen was a mystery, a breath of fresh air, and a spark of color amidst a black and white crowd and Archer was captivated by her, although, he didn't want to be and has tried to fight it time and again but loses whenever he sees her. Without intending to, she made Archer examine his beliefs, his surroundings, and even his own thoughts and actions. And Archer fell in love, the kind of love accompanied by a deep yearning for something that will never be; a longing to reach someone a mere breadth's away from him but still beyond his reach; an agony of being close to each other but not together.
Each characters has very distinct personalities-- Archer, idealistic and romantic; Ellen, "bohemian" and very realistic to the point that she has given up on her and Archer being together; Mrs. Manson Mingott, formidable and astute to the workings, dealings, and feelings of those around her. Some are even more complex, as in the case of May Welland who seemed pure, unassuming, and noble but was actually quite shrewd and cunning and knows a lot more than she lets on, much to the surprise of his husband.
I have seldom been this invested to a love triangle than I did in this novel. It wasn't over dramatized and was treated delicately, effectively presenting Archer and Ellen's feelings and heavy emotions in the way they act whenever they're alone together-- the space that separates the two of them alone in a room, their stares and gestures, the desire to touch each other but still hesitating to cross the final boundary-- spoke volumes of the depth of what they felt for each other; although, to be quite honest, I'm still not certain if Ellen's feelings is as deep as Archer's.
The crisp and straight prose managed to convey to the readers the pain and frustration of being under the constraints set by the people around them and the helplessness of being stealthily manipulated in accordance to those unspoken but rigid rules. The characters very much operated in almost ritualistic behaviors so ingrained in their upbringing that it even accomplished to stifle their personalities and desires, and heavily influenced their actions and conduct. It was depressing to read about people who would've flourished and lived fuller lives if they only had the courage to break from their restraints, some of which are even self-imposed.
One cannot help but be enraptured by the novel's atmosphere of subtle melancholia hiding deeply under guise of twinkling lights and the sparkle of the rich. It amazed me how Edith Wharton worked her prose beautifully to present humorous and ridiculous details, and gradually transform them to something dark and malevolent. Her writing itself can be mistakenly described as seemingly innocent if one will not care to examine it closely.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I aim to reread it before the year ends, just so I can see whether I missed a few more details that weren't directly stated. I hope to get my hands on a copy of Edith Wharton's other prominent works as I'm really a fan of her writing style.
The Book Report: Society marriages and mores of 1870s New York. Very beautifully constructed. Pusillanimous young lawyer marries frail, fainting flower with a rod of steel up her backside, falls in love with her cousin, and no one gets away happy.
My Review: I've always said mixed marriages don't work. Expecting someone not like you in fundamental, crucial ways to "get" you, to support you, to really be there for you, is not a good bet. Men do not need to be marrying women. Throughout human history, the basic dumbness of the idea has kept all societies of hunter-gatherers from engaging in this horrible, painful, and absurd custom.
We abandon the wisdom of our elders at our peril. Wharton reminds us of why this is so.
Wharton does an excellent job of depicting ~1880s New York society, a construct so brittle that the mere expression of individuality, ambition or temperament threatens to shatter it. Then she creates two fairly empathetic characters, the "restless young man" Newland Archer and the simultaneously worldly/naive Ellen Olenska, sets them against the system and explores - with a brutal honesty that allows for no hope of literary intervention (fate, coincidence or anachronism) - the hypocrisy forced upon them ... and, to be fair, the hypocrisy they force upon themselves.
Had Jane Austen undertaken this tale, she might have told it with more humor but with less honesty. What both authors share, however, is an ability to satirize the often arbitrary, often absurd constraits of "propriety" while simultaneously acknowledging their force and enduring power.
Archer finds himself being drawn more and more into Ellen's orbit and also finds himself questioning the self-satisfied life of his family and friends. He is torn between wanting to follow his grand passion and his feelings of obligation towards his finance (and then wife) who more and more appears to be vapid and conventional when compared to his heart's desire.
Wharton's writing draws the reader into the closed society of New York in the 1870's -and deftly shows how society closes around May and her family and makes sure that Archer does the right thing.This is a classic story that is told magnificently.
I liked the style of writing and since this is a classic it’s been reviewed by far better than me. Suffice it to say I enjoyed it and will be reading more from Wharton.