Thursday, May 19, 2011
just read :: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
I can't believe no one told me to read Wharton before my dear friend Shelby recommended The Age of Innocence a month ago. Not only is it a moving portrait of unspoken and thus unrequited love, as well as a troubling impression of an entire era, but it is superbly readable. Of course, it's a little slow in the way all character-driven novels are; however, for me, this was not an issue in readability. I'll acknowledge that not very much actually happens, which is of course part of the point of the novel. Its protagonist mourns over the lack of happenings in his life. He aches for adventure and interest but cannot let go of the mores of his time and social standing.
Newland Archer is at times sympathetic (how he aches for Ellen!) and at times impossible to stand (why does he not break with convention?). We never know the full story from any character, but we get the most information from him. I wonder how the dynamic of the novel would change if May's or Ellen's perspective--or even Catherine Mingott's--was given to us instead. However, since the story is told primarily from the perspective of a man discontented with his life, it lends an interesting perspective on the female role in late 1800s New York society (society meaning the upper-upper-upper crust). Early in the novel, Newland claims, in a heady rush of emotion, that women should have the same freedoms of men. However, he discovers quickly that the society he lives in not only prevents women from gaining freedom, but actually (and disturbingly) trains them out of desiring it, as seen in the case of his wife, May. He is deeply in love with Ellen Olenska, I think, because she has the desire for freedom, and sees the sham that society really is. Because we see the plight of women through his eyes, rather than through the eyes of any of the female characters, I feel that we see the great interplay of various individual roles in any formal society, not just those of gender. Of course, I have no idea if this was the reason Wharton chose to narrate through the male perspective, or if there were other factors at play, but this is what strikes me as a strength of the point of view.
This novel is both stirring and thought-provoking in the way all classics are, taking what could be only a period piece and connecting it to a general human experience--the difficulty we trod through when our role amongst and connection to others conflicts with our hearts' desires.
If you're looking for a novel that you can feel intellectual reading (it is a classic!) and still find the reading enjoyable, rather than tough work, this is an excellent choice, but be forewarned: you won't find a happy ending. It's not a tragedy, but it's not happy. Still, Wharton writes with beguiling eloquence and some occasional poetic turns of prose, and you will find the novel beautiful, and I haven't even told you about the splendid descriptions of the scenery.
available for purchase here