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Age of Innocence (Barnes & Noble Classics Series), Page 2

Edith Wharton

  Mrs. Mingott, larger than life, breaks whatever rules she pleases. In depicting the matriarch as an original, Wharton sets her apart from the proper society she can observe from above, quite literally, by building her house uptown (uptown being above Thirty-fourth Street in those days). And it is Mrs. Mingott, in her pale stone house with frivolous foreign furniture, who, with largesse of spirit, takes in “poor Ellen Olenska,” upon her return to America with bright, somewhat girlish hopes of freedom while still entangled in the disasters of a foreign marriage. In book one of The Age of Innocence these two exotics are housed together, women who understand liberty and its limits. There is a good deal of Edith Wharton’s independence of mind in Mrs. Mingott and of her troubled memories of New York in Madame Olenska’s return to the city of her childhood. Wharton composed the first installments just after the Great War, writing each installment in France, where she had lived during the war, and where she would settle for the rest of her life. In 1913 she had been through a difficult divorce from her husband, Edward Wharton—society fellow, sportsman—whom she married in haste after her first engagement was broken, a wounding business. Her marriage to Teddy Wharton was a washout from the start, yet the tribulation and scandal of their divorce remained. Her passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton—journalist, charmer, lady’s man—was long over.

  All of this personal material can be detected in the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, but the autobiographical material is transformed. In the lives of her characters freshly imagined, the historical novel becomes immediate in its themes. Wharton had received the Legion of Honor for her work in France with refugees, and many of her close friends had died in combat. Her mentor and friend Henry James, having renounced his American citizenship in 1914, died soon after. As R. W. B. Lewis, Wharton’s biographer points out, she found this renunciation deeply disturbing. Edith Wharton was committed to her American heritage, and when her publisher informed her that the public had lost interest in war stories, she chose to look back, to rediscover the past with an historical accuracy that never admits to nostalgia. The Age of Innocence ends just before the Great War. In the novel Wharton questions if her country had already lost its innocence before this first European conflict, if American innocence was mythic, like “the fresh green breast of the new world” that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, eulogizes at the end of The Great Gatsby. In The Age of Innocence, Wharton asks who are these people I came from? Were they really so class-ridden and dismissive of those who did not belong to their insular tribe? Was Europe no more than a tourist site featuring the romantic past, a shopping mall for art and exquisite gowns, a setting in which to observe the charming, or perhaps the unsettling, morals of foreigners? Did the swank Americans in her novel travel simply to test their allegiance to all that was admired as acceptable in what was left of Society in New York? If that is all Mrs. Wharton was asking we would be reading, these many years later, a delightful novel of manners. The power of The Age of Innocence lies in her transcendence of that genre, in dramatizing more urgent questions of allegiance and national identity, questions that concern many writers today in dealing with the hyphenated themes of race and ethnicity.

  Ellen Olenska, who has lived much of her life abroad, questions old New York’s claim to America and its imitation of European class and culture. “It seems stupid to have discovered America,” she tells Newland, “only to make it into a copy of another country.... Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” (p. 196). We can read this witty complaint as Wharton‘s, yet Ellen, like the novelist, is conflicted, bridling at the fact that she is considered exotic, judged as “foreign.” She longs to be free of the past, though in one of her most telling exchanges with Newland Archer—its as close as they come to a full-blown love scene—she tells him, petulantly: “I don’t speak your language.” His language is at once too simple and too romantic—too simple in its claims for a life free of duty and honor, too romantic in presuming that love conquers all. Madame Olenska refers to deep cultural rifts, untranslatable experience that is more complex than his impassioned love-talk. If Newland was merely a young man viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, his fate would not hold our attention, but he is aware that Ellen speaks “from depths of experience beyond his reach.” His self-excoriating thoughts portray an inner man possessed of feelings that are beyond the knowing young suitor we first encountered at the performance of Faust. He is aware of this failure even as he sets up an assignation with Ellen: “It seemed to him that he had been speaking not to the woman he loved but to another, a woman he was indebted to for pleasures already wearied of: it was hateful to find himself the prisoner of this hackneyed vocabulary” (p. 251). Yet that is exactly how he speaks when proposing that they flee to a place where they will be “simply two human beings who love each other....” She replies with a laugh: “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” (p. 235).

  The depth of his attraction to Ellen is not to be doubted, but his self-doubts are a burden, particularly his knowledge that the freedom he proposes is impossible. Newland is a man trapped between two women: the Countess, who understands how cruel the world can be to those who believe they can cut loose from obligations, and May Welland, who enforces the boundaries of what her husband knows to be honor and decency. When Newland urges a short engagement, simple May, holding to custom, delivers one of Wharton’s most telling lines: “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” Which is precisely what the three principles in this love triangle do. His reply: “Why not—why not—why not?” suggests his longing for a plot more compelling than May’s conventional story line of their future marriage. May, the boyish American girl who turns their honeymoon into a sporting holiday, never gains any emotional depth, but she exacts what is her due. With sleight-of-hand deceptions, she outplays both her husband and her “foreign” cousin in the game plan that carries the novel forward. At each turn when Newland is about to declare his love for Ellen Olenska, May trumps him. Wharton echoes May’s manipulations in drawing us into the love story only to cut off the possibility of freedom. We may gasp at the end of a chapter in which Newland’s wife wins another round: more melodrama, but without the easy solution of that genre which would render May demonic: She is a realist with a healthy desire for self-preservation. Looking at May’s mother before their marriage, Newland “asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence. Ah no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” (p. 125). This cautionary thought becomes a prediction in the course of the novel. Though he may contemplate “poor May‘s” limitations, his efforts to deceive her are naive in comparison to her strategies to hold him.

  If Newland is unable to speak Ellen’s language, he is also at a disadvantage with his wife, often unable to reply to her cheery or mocking views, driven to “inarticulate despair.” The scenes of their marriage in which they talk past each other are chilling. In one painful instance, Newland opens the window in his library.

  The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses, roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and made it easier to breathe.

  After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death.”

  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” (pp. 240-241).

  The important words here are “felt like adding.” He is driven to silence, to inner thoughts, betrays himself with a gentleman’s kindness, perhaps even the niceness he deplores. At time
s Newland is a study in pent-up anger at the life he has accepted—one of “habit and honor,” to put the best light on it, but also one of irreparable loss. It is the life that Wharton turned from, but the portrayal of his fury surely recalls her pain, suffered in the stultifying atmosphere of old New York, and her inability to speak the same language, if speak at all, to her husband. As we read of Newland’s suffering and alienation, it may be appropriate to recall that he is a man without a calling. He is a great reader, like Wharton, but the novelist had the salvation of her work and her devotion to it.

  In this novel of emotional infidelity, of duty to family and to the social standards of old New York, Edith Wharton incorporates a tale of money, which at bottom is what made the whole system of that endowed society work. Money is not window dressing. It is the substance of who her characters are, or claim to be. Newland does not work with much diligence at his law office. Ellen is something of a financial hostage to her Polish husband, Count Olenski. Inherited money is more desirable than riches got by the sweat of the brow or by recent grubby acquisition. The manufacture of shoe polish provides Mrs. Struthers with her tasteless costumes and arty entertainments. As for Julius Beaufort, who would he be were it not for the power of his extraordinary wealth? Wharton makes it perfectly clear that old New York was a commercial society, whatever its pretense to aristocracy. Only the van der Luydens, generous yet stiff with moral rectitude, can trace their line to Dutch heritage. Colonial heritage, is that aristocracy? Henry van der Luyden is still patroon of their vast estate at Skuytercliff, up the Hudson. Wharton does not leave their heritage at that; with great wit she invents the van der Luydens’ connection to royalty through the patroon’s wife, who had been a Dagonet. In a highly amusing construction of a family tree, she stretches branches to English nobility and to the Duke of St. Austrey, who comes to visit in America. The Duke is less pretentious than the stuffed shirts of New York society who put on an elaborate show for him. The Duke is a charming fuddy-duddy, perfectly happy to attend Mrs. Struthers’s salon, which is scorned by the proper people.

  Throughout the novel Wharton entertains with a cast of somewhat raffish characters, including Medora Manson, a marchioness no less, who has made unfortunate foreign marriages and is a champion of Ellen’s. It’s faddish Medora who introduces Dr. An thony Carver into the novel, in a stroke of comic relief Dr. Carver’s Valley of Love in Kittasquattamy, New York, is a reference to the many nineteenth-century sects that broke with traditional religion and advocated free love. Dr. Carver’s program against marriage comes at a most distressing time in the negotiations of the Olenski divorce proceedings, a light note in Wharton’s moving examination of that honored institution that may hold, or trap, Newland Archer to the end. Carver is a curiosity, not a major disturbance. Medora passes on to the next enthusiasm, but Wharton has worked her theme of freedom and responsibility with a light touch.

  Less swift, indeed dwelt on at length, is the overabundance of delicacies served at the dinners in The Age of Innocence. They are gluttonous, costly, but price tags are seldom in evidence—Archers, Wellands, Lefferts, Chiverses, well aware of who wears last year’s gown, who lives on the incorrect street, have a convenient amnesia about the source of their money. What we might read as the Beaufort plot is integral to Wharton’s themes of false innocence and the false security of old New York. The financial system, built on credit, was fragile. In an era without market regulations, Beaufort was dealing with borrowed money. He’s a speculator, not a crook; but when he fails the whole market is sold down, bringing with it the holdings of the Mingotts and the Sillertons, all of the establishment. Their presumption—that they are above risk, not connected with the commercial interests of an outsider like Beaufort—is ill founded.

  The real outsider is Ned Winsett, a journalist—and when fi nances permit, a serious writer—whom Wharton uses to develop the theme of the value of work. Newland, always the voyeur, looks on with envy at Ned’s world of working artists and writers, a bohemian set that seems to him free of the duties that bind him. Edith Wharton, dedicated to her writing life, kept strict account of her earnings. Amazingly prolific, she was always conscious of how far she had traveled from her beginnings as a proper little girl whose mother disapproved of her storytelling. The imprint of what she was supposed to become, as a woman of her class, can be detected in May, but that was too easy. In Newland she drew the portrait of the dilettante she feared she might become. Unlike the novelist, he never buckles down, never cuts free. In a poignant scene that takes place in Newport, the summer resort of these very rich New Yorkers, he breaks away to see Ellen Olenska, who is staying in a simple cottage. When he finds her standing alone at the end of a pier, he simply looks on from a distance. He is audience to Winsett’s dedication to work and to Ellen’s fight for independence, only occasionally finding a role for himself in their stories.

  The tone of the novel has become more somber with Beaufort’s failure, with Ellen’s intricate divorce proceedings, with the Archers settling into the misfit of their marriage. Wharton goes back to the opera, to a repeat performance of Gounod’s Faust, no doubt having in mind the dramatic announcement of the heroine, Marguerite, that she is to bear a child. All references in The Age of Innocence are constructed with exacting care; all details are relevant, enriching each scene, each progress of the story. Reading it today we need not know that Faust will run off when given the news that he is about to become a father, but many of Wharton’s readers in 1920 would have seen the cruel wit of May announcing she was about to have their first child just as her husband was to declare his love for her rival. Newland Archer is no Faust. His romantic nature, crippled by honor, dictates that he cannot spend one illicit night with Ellen, never mind sell his soul to the devil. As the curtain comes down on his prospect of freedom, May’s eyes are “wet with victory.”

  The story is not over: In a masterful final chapter the tone modulates once again, from the drama of entrapment to sympathetic reverie, from then to now. Many years later, Newland Archer reviews his life. Here Wharton’s voice works in close to Newland‘s, becomes one with a self-assessment that is both personal and historical. In an age-old storyteller’s device, she reveals the afterlife, what happened to her characters. Do they live on in the present? In a sympathetic portrait, May, dead after many years of marriage, is memorialized by her husband as energetic mother and devoted wife. Newland has found work as a useful minor player in public life, accepting his nature as “a contemplative and a dilettante.” Now Wharton asks her readers to consider Newland as a survivor, suggesting that there is something near heroic in his accommodation to the inescapable facts of his life, to living out the duties and pleasures. He treasures his love of Countess Olenska, knowing she is most fully realized in memory. The false rhetoric of freedom, the hackneyed phrases of that romance no longer come to mind. He speaks to himself as he always has when he is most truthful, most self-revealing. The show is not quite over; there is one more scene, elegiac and surprisingly dramatic. Newland Archer frames his view as he has from that first night at the opera. He stands apart as he did that day in Newport when Ellen appeared at a distance on the pier. He is fifty-seven years old as he looks up at her window in Paris, treasuring the past, possessing their love in imagination. His perspective is no longer innocent. He remains a dreamer, but a dreamer self-aware.

  Edith Wharton amused her readers with the portrait of a society that was self-indulgent, ignorant of the coming end of its reign. She wrote of loss and heartbreak, staged thwarted passion, and went beyond to tell of Newland Archer’s accommodation to an honorable life. In her memoir A Backward Glance, which for the most part is far less revealing, less personal than The Age of Innocence, Edith Newbold Jones Wharton wrote: “Habit is necessary, it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive ... one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosi
ty, interested in the big things, and happy in small ways.” This is not an accurate description of the novelist who led an adventurous life of the mind, who forged her life with difficulty, who found her salvation in work; but it might be a description of Newland Archer, a man of necessary habit, who steered clear of the rut, was happy in small ways.

  Moving beyond her readers’ expectations of a romance, Edith Wharton portioned herself out to realize Newland’s coming of age in his assessment of the past, Ellen’s depth of emotional experience, and the unimaginative May, the woman she refused to become. Her publisher advised against a war novel, but looking back to discover the flawed innocence of an era, she informed the present days of her writing in 1919. The Age of Innocence can be considered with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (both 1925) as novels that deal with the aftermath of war, of inquiry into the passage of time and dramatic change in the social order. From her distance in Paris, Wharton upset the idea of American innocence and insularity. Moving from satire to sympathy, this novel, perhaps her greatest, makes us contemplate false security and the nature of national identity while witnessing the mysterious transformation of her experience into art.