Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, while not British herself, is usually placed firmly in the camp of Victorian novelists like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, but her books twist the genre in one crucial way: Wharton doesn’t like happy endings. No joyful proposal announcements or wedding parties to wrap everything up and vindicate all those long years of female suffering. All the Victorian novelists attacked convention, but Wharton really took it out on her characters. The Age of Innocence was, by Wharton’s own contention, meant to serve as an apologia of sorts for The House of Mirth, in which the beautiful Lily Bart is ruined, and killed, by ultimately meaningless social pressures. In Innocence—and I suppose I should include a spoiler alert, though the story is likely old hat to most readers—protagonist Newland Archer chooses his responsibility to his pregnant wife, May Welland, over his ardor for May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left Europe and her philandering husband to return in ignominy to New York. After an almost completely chaste courtship, Newland hurriedly plans to leave May for Ellen and follow his true love to France, until he is stymied by the news of his unborn son. It is Ellen, really, who makes the “responsible” choice, permitting Newland to “act” through inaction. Newland doesn’t stay; he simply doesn’t go.  

This is one of many reasons we know Innocence was written by a woman. Ellen (and, in a smaller, less obvious way, May) is the real hero, while Newland plays the Hamlet role: He hems and haws and remains far less aware than he should be of the fact that, simply because of her gender, Ellen has the most to lose. And so Ellen is the one to step up and make the decision for her torn lover.

It struck me, after finishing the book, that Innocence stands in stark contrast not just to the Victorian classics but also to the tragic romantic epics like Anna Karenina (which is one of my all-time favorite novels). AK points to much the same message about passionate love as does Innocence—that what may have at first seemed an unquenchable devotion will inevitably give way to tedium at best and misery at worst, and that the woman will bear the steepest consequences (in Anna’s case, the loss of her child, friendships, reputation, social standing and life). But Wharton’s characters avoid the fate that befell Anna and Vronsky by foreseeing the impossibility of a truly happy, lasting and consequence-free union, given the couple’s social circumstances. Ellen is more powerful a figure than Anna, the latter hurling herself in front of a train to make a point to her now-apathetic partner, the former genuinely in love but ultimately level-headed.

Wharton’s point in her last chapter, set twenty-six years after Newland and Ellen part ways, is that everyone’s concerns about propriety and acceptability may have been unwarranted, but that living in a different era wouldn’t have ensured the couple’s happiness. “What was left of the little world he had grown up in,” Newland muses, “and whose standards had bent and bound him? He remembered a sneering prophecy of poor Lawrence Lefferts’s, uttered years ago in that very room: ‘If things go on at this rate, our children will be marrying Beaufort’s bastards.’ . . . It was just what Archer’s eldest son, the pride of his life, was doing; and nobody wondered or reproved.” But after May’s death from pneumonia (a death that Newland had wished for in the early stages of their marriage), Newland travels to Paris and accompanies his now-adult son to Ellen’s home near Invalides and . . . sits on a bench outside. Granted the very scenario he once longed for, Newland can’t muster the nerve to face his long-lost love. “‘It’s more real to me here than if I went up,’ he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.” Indecision defined Newland’s and Ellen’s entire relationship—to meet or not to meet, to consummate or not to consummate, to make the sacrifices to be together or to file the affair away as a sweet, fragrant memory, unspoiled by reality?

To be honest, the novel annoyed me at times. For all the agonizing over Newland and Ellen’s fraught courtship, there didn’t quite seem to be a there there. They saw each other a handful of times. They never had sex. May’s triumphant announcement of her pregnancy put the kibosh, immediately, on any continuation of the affair. I also couldn’t help but find Newland—at least in the beginning of the novel as shallow a romantic lead as I’ve perhaps ever encountered—unworthy of the woman he loved. Ellen provided him with the kind of drama and existential what-does-all-this-really-mean crises that usually settle on their own and have more to do with the man himself than with the woman who precipitates them. Ellen was not the indelible presence in Newland’s mind as, say, Anna was in Vronsky’s; Newland’s attempts to force Ellen out of his life and mind (most notably, by curtailing the traditionally lengthy engagement period and marrying May) actually work. After a year and a half, and a honeymoon in Europe, “the idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying the Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts.”

But the more I let the novel percolate, the more I realized that the weaknesses of the Newland-Ellen romance were exactly Wharton’s point: Newland liked the idea of the affair more than he did the relationship itself, as his response to the prospect of finally reencountering Ellen proves conclusively. “When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed.” The ending is sad and poignant, but it also seems right—right in the sense that the reader knows, as do Ellen and Newland, that it couldn’t really have finished any other way.

See also: The article that inspired me to finally read Innocence, Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece on what he calls “the problem of sympathy” in three Wharton novels.

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