Society. Etiquette. Expectations. Family. Loyalty. Divorce. Honesty. Innocence. Emancipation. Love.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, marking the first time a woman won the award. The novel is set in New York upper-class society in the 1870’s, where almost every action is prescribed by etiquette and tradition. While the characters live in outer opulence, their imaginations are impoverished.
Briefly, the story opens with Newland Archer about to announce his engagement to May Welland. He has romantic ideas about what their life will be like together. His expectations are complicated by the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, a woman separated from her husband after an abusive marriage. Her presence back in New York is scandalous. Newland soon finds himself intrigued by the woman and then falling in love with her. Unlike May who is kind, innocent, and does what she is expected to do, Ellen has an honest perspective and questions life. At one point, in thinking about May, he wonders how can he emancipate a woman who isn’t even aware there is anything to be emancipated from. Newland and Ellen must deal with their loyalty to May and their attraction for one another.
I’m finding that reading a classic as a bookworm is different from reading a classic as an English major. After all, I don’t have to read the book, and I almost didn’t read the Age of Innocence because in the beginning it felt too stilted and confining. Slowly I began to be motivated by the urge to see good craftsmanship. I began to pay attention to where Wharton included a lot of detail and where there was almost none. At one point she does not even refer to May by name, helping the reader to understand how insignificant May had become. The obnoxious details that I detested in the beginning of the novel invoked in me the tediousness of all the little social rules the characters were observing. I enjoyed how Wharton paralleled and contrasted the beginning and near ending scenes of the novel. The last scene was perfect.
My mind, ever changed by reading too many time-travel books, still can’t wrap itself around the idea of sitting here in 2011, reading a book about the 1870’s that was published in1920. At the end of the novel, Archer’s adult son represents the new world to come, which is now over a century old. I realize that I look at my life differently than most people. I am aware that so many of the things that people get upset about are just passing trends, which will soon be replaced by more passing trends. Both classics and science fiction reinforce that perspective. Now, on to some good old fashioned robot novels.