She lifted her thin black eyebrows. ‘Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down — like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered!’ She seemed to guess his faint disapproval of this, and added with the rare smile that enchanted her whole face: ‘If you knew how I like it for just that — the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!”
Thus speaks Countess Ellen Olenska, a recently returned expat escaping from a terrible marriage, trying to reestablish herself among the confusing labyrinth of New York society: for it is a labyrinth, a confusing maze with dangerous obstacles on Ellen’s way to freedom and acceptance into high society. The Age of Innocence traces the circuitous path of this high New York society.
Newland Archer is a typical young man of New York society, brought up to adhere strictly to the unwritten, unspoken rules of his world but constantly questioning—not why, but what? What does adherence to these rules do to one’s freedom? Newland is newly engaged to May Welland, a beautiful and accomplished young woman full of charms and beauty, and most important, a woman who has been excellently inculcated by society to adhere. As Newland says of May, “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”
Newland does have more advanced notions of equality of men and women, but he nevertheless resents his wife for not acknowledging the ideas that she has had no exposure to. May is what she is because of society, because society has insisted upon her ignorance.
Enter Ellen Olenska, a New York-born woman who spent most of her adolescence and all of her adulthood abroad, exposed to the much more liberal—and artistic—European society. Ellen is most certainly not ignorant of the ways of the world. She escaped an unhappy, and possibly violent, marriage by allegedly carrying on an affair with her husband’s secretary. She fled her husband and her country and deposited herself among relations with dubious backgrounds in New York, and spends her time in the company of those whom high society disapproves of. And she completely enchants the bored, spoiled, restless Newland Archer.
The Age of Innocence is somewhat of a simple story. Newland and May get engaged, then Ellen and Newland fall in love and struggle with their secret love. Ellen is full of integrity, constantly telling Newland they cannot have an affair or even see each other, but Newland spends most of the novel convinced that somehow, circumstances will allow Ellen and him to end up together. Newland is infuriated with married life, the futility of his work, the machinations of society that have him trapped. Yet, he is somewhat of an unsympathetic creature, treating himself as the only victim of a society that has fettered his wife. May Welland stands by his side unflinchingly, selfless, surprisingly wise at times, and utterly incapable of making her own decisions, yet it is Newland who deplores his much easier fate. I spent most of this novel not caring about him at all and wondering why Ellen, who is such a bright, interesting woman, would possibly fall in love with him.
For my part, I really enjoyed reading about Ellen Olenska, because she represents the whole of Europe against the stodgy backdrop of New York. I suppose the other really interesting part of this novel was discovering that New York was ever considered stodgy and devoid of culture!
Wharton grew up and spent two decades of her married life moving within these social circles, and she paints them almost like a still-life. No details are omitted in the drawing rooms, the parlors, the carriages left outside houses, the faded glory of the Fifth Avenue brownstone.
Next on my Edith Wharton list is The House of Mirth, a re-read, containing the brilliant, perplexing, beautiful Lily Bart!