A Pulitzer winner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
*Review contains spoilers
While I have labeled this novel as a Romance, I must warn readers that it definitely isn’t the type of story with a pleasant, happy ending. Be forewarned that this novel does not follow the traditional, “all’s well that ends well” trope of a Romance, but rather it explores the dark and twisty side of unrequited love. Personally, I find this aspect of a good love story equally fulfilling, but only if I’m in a darker mood. Wharton certainly manages to pull on the reader’s heartstrings by centering the plot on a universally relatable experience–the one that got away.
Wharton’s characters are the wealthy elite aristocracy of New York in the late 1800s. This story focuses upon the younger generation that has just reached marriageable age. In particular, the plot focuses upon one such young man, Newland Archer. Archer is a rich, intelligent, debonair youth with his future and the world at his feet. What makes Archer unique, and thus worthy of our attention, is that unlike many of his cronies, he seems to have the rare capacity for seeing the absurdity of wealthy social customs. What I mean by that is, while the customs of his class force him to behave in a certain manner, he realizes how foolish and restrictive these customs are, yet he cannot do much to rebel against them.
This is important as the main thrust of the plot centers upon his tragic love for the beautiful Countess Ellen Olenska, a young woman estranged from her cruel husband, and Archer’s inability to be with her due to the restrictive customs of his class. While they are both in love with one another, a divorce from her husband would ruin her, and then they would both be outcasts. Archer is engaged to marry Ellen’s sweet cousin May, but when he meets Ellen, he is ready to throw it all away and run away with her. The course of the novel is the resulting delicate dance between doing what one wants and doing what is expected of one. For Archer and Ellen, unfortunately, the latter takes precedence. At one point, after Archer has married May, he is still ready to divorce her and leave with Ellen to “escape to some land” where their union will be acceptable, but Ellen discovers May is pregnant and refuses to break up their family. Instead, Archer and Ellen lead separate lives until both of their respective spouses have died and they are now both finally free to be together. Archer works up the nerve after all of those years to see Ellen and resume the courtship, but at the last moment, he waits outside her door and then leaves after deciding he wants to live his remaining years with the memory of how they were rather than tainting it with how they are after a lifetime spent apart. It’s a sad but poignant look at the life not lived. Both had happy lives on their own path, but could have been happier if they had spent it together.
Edith Wharton obviously has intimate knowledge of the upper class as evidenced by her methodical documentation of their intricate social customs throughout the novel. However, the true genius of her work rests upon her ability to leverage the intimate knowledge of this culture with the capacity for simultaneously jesting at its absurdity. Wharton is able to expose the customs taken for granted—invisible, really, to those within this class—and hold them up for display. When parsed out individually, these behaviors start to become somewhat ridiculous and over-the-top in the grand scheme of life. One would assume that wealthy people have total freedom, but Wharton reveals this not to be the case. In many ways, their own class behavioral expectations restrict them more than their middle class peers. They may have all the material wealth in the world, but when it comes to follow the matters of their hearts, they are poor men and women indeed.