I went through a long journey with this novel. The opening wasn’t promising, and I wondered if I was going to be able to complete it. By the end I was captivated.
Set in 1870’s New York, although written in 1919, Wharton portrays in miniaturist detail the lives and relationships of a tightly-knit, closely-related upper middle class community. This community has a rigid code of conduct, from which any deviation is met with rejection. Sexual conduct between men and women in particular is the most closely monitored of all behaviours. Men and women operate under different codes, nevertheless – some male characters conduct affairs quite blatantly, whereas women have significantly less freedom.
The novel focusses on a newly engaged character, Archer Newland. Wharton packs a lot of significance into that name – Archer, the hunter, Newland, echoing New York and indicating that the character is an archetype for the country itself, which in the 1870’s was still very much a new land. His fiancé, May, represents a virginal innocence – she is even described as looking virginal after their marriage – although that innocence is shown to be a façade, and one which cracks near the end of the novel.
Archer, during the course of his engagement to May, falls under the spell of his fiancé’s exotic cousin, Ellen Olenska, newly returned to New York to escape the deprivations of her beastly husband. There is a whispered insinuation that in order to escape her husband she may have conducted an affair herself. Archer has a history of similar infatuations, previously with another married woman, and at first the reader is led to believe that this relationship will go the same way, particularly when his fiancé’s family agree to a short engagement, and he marries.
“He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an unescapable duty.”
But given the close nature of New York society his path constantly crosses Ellen’s, and the relationship deepens into something much more, to the extent that he dreams of his wife’s death as a means of escape:
“She (May) bent over to lower the wick, and as the light struck up on her white shoulders and the clear curves of her face he thought: “How young she is! For what endless years this life will have to go on!”
He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youth and the bounding blood in his veins.” (269)
The subject that Wharton constantly refers to, but never quite confronts, is sex. Sex is everywhere in this novel. Even in the quote above, as his wife symbolically “lowers the wick”, we are left to wonder which particular vein in his body feels “bounding blood”. We are told, obliquely, that Archer and May do not share a bedroom, despite his urgency for their marriage to be brought forward, and pregnancy is not mentioned as a possibility until it is required as a means of finally persuading him not to pursue his intention to leave her. Other men in the novel undoubtedly do maintain mistresses, some quite openly, so this is not a sexless world. Equally, the nature of Ellen’s problems with her middle-European husband revolves around some unspoken beastliness which is never made explicit, but surely is more than simple infidelity.
There are two primary ways of reading this novel. On one level it is a pretty scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of New York society of the time, obsessed with the minutiae of an unreal code of conduct, but ignoring the important relationships in life. Ellen refreshingly ignores many of these conventions, and the closing chapter of the novel confirms that looking back they seem unreal and fantastical to Archer as well:
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”
There is, it is suggested, a high price to pay for this hypocrisy in terms of human unhappiness, but the compensations – in terms of material comforts – are high. As satire however, the novel skewers some easy targets, and the points is well made not far into the second chapter – after this the repetition is unnecessary –we know these people are shallow and unhappy.
Another reading focusses on the love story which emerges between Archer and Ellen, which I found surprisingly touching. They struggle with their feelings for one another throughout the novel, and there are many moments of unexpressed longing. Towards the end of the novel Archer is eventually ready to abandon his struggle to suppress his feelings, leave his wife and follow Ellen to Europe, to live out their lives in disgrace and social exclusion. At that point May, which we are led to believe has been aware of her husband’s feelings for Ellen all along, announces she is pregnant, effectively checkmating her rival. The closing “flash-forward” chapter sees Archer as a widower some thirty years later, surrounded by his affectionate family, but still with fond memories of Ellen. He has a chance to rekindle the affair, but probably wisely decides against it at the last minute.
Archer and Ellen’s romance is not a sudden “bolt of thunder” affair, but a slow, unavoidable compulsion, best summarised by Ellen’s wonderful phrase when they meet after a long separation:
“Each time you happen to me all over again”. (289).
I am going to end this review with one quote which stood out for me as an outstanding example of Wharton’s power as a portraitist. Archer is visiting a house where he hopes to find Ellen, accidentally to the outside world. The house’s garden has been neglected:
The patch of lawn before it had relapsed into a hayfield; but to the left an overgrown box-garden full of dahlias and rusty rose-bushes encircled a ghostly summer-house of trellis work that had once been white, surmounted by a wooden Cupid who had lost his bow and arrow, but continued to take ineffectual aim.” (225)
In this novel Cupid is not a chubby baby, but made of wood, and his aim is ineffectual. Eden is overgrown, rusty, and ghostly. Wharton gently mocks the concept of romantic love here, warning the reader that there will be no happily ever after for her characters, but that there are other lives to be led.
P.S. An afterthought. It is interesting what is notin “Age of Innocence”. Wharton makes some relatively playful references to telephones not yet being available in the 1870’s, but there is no mention of the sweeping changes that had just crossed America, with the Civil War barely over. Black people remain shadowy background figures in this novel, only occasionally referenced as “mulatto” servants. Equally, despite being written in 1919 after the end of the Great War, this is never hinted at as a shadow about to fall over the world. The New Yorkers of the novel exist in a blissful bubble where the only thing to worry about is someone wearing this season’s fashions, or the wrong colour ball gown. The only exception to this rule is the banking scandal which engulfs one of their number, but this is really little more than a ripple on an otherwise smooth surface.