Friday, March 18, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edition: The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics)

The Age of Innocence was first serialized in the Pictorial Review from July to October, 1920. The Pictorial Review was begun in 1899, originally intended as primarily a fashion magazine to showcase dress patterns, and henceforth a popular women's magazine. Interestingly, Wharton's proposal to New York editors for the novel was much more sensationalistic than the novel ended up being, promising lovers that "go off secretly...and meet in Florida where they spend a few mad weeks." The editors paid her $1800 for the serial rights--this episode illustrates the changing times of the literary press and the kinds of demands expected of literature that would sell.

The novel begins with an old New York opera house production of Faust in the 1870s. The families involved in this novel are the "old money" New Yorkers for whom meticulous and mincing distinctions of pedigree and taste were the primary determiners of life. Several respected men of society notice the improprieties of Ellen Olenska, a cousin to the Welland's and Mingott families who had made a bad marriage to a Polishman and had come from Europe to live with her relatives. It was inappropriate that she should be out at all. Newland Archer, the young man engaged to the beautiful May Welland, observes the men observing, and goes over to his betrothed's box in an effort to support their introduction of Ellen into "nice" society. After the opera, they attend a ball at the Beaufort's (Mr. Beaufort is a banker who has a dubious reputation with women and Mrs. Beaufort turns a blind eye). Ellen is not at the ball, and society is thankful that she has had the tact to refrain from appearing there. There, Newland and May announce their engagement.

Newland finds himself increasingly drawn to Ellen, and defensive of what people perceive as her eccentric and foreign actions. Things come to a head when the Lovell-Mingotts plan a dinner to introduce Ellen to polite society: everyone declines the invite. Newland appeals to his relatives, the respected van der Luydens, who help Newland out by giving a dinner in honor of an illustrious visiting relative, a Duke, and inviting Ellen. Society acquiesces, and because the van der Luydens entertain so rarely, everyone comes. In the meantime, Ellen's "eccentricities" include a frankness with men which the polite old New Yorkers deemed scandalous. She tells Newland to call on her, and he finds himself doing so. Beaufort and the Duke also become her regular consorts. In an impulsive gesture, Newland sense Ellen a bunch of yellow roses, anonymously.

Newland doesn't have a profession, because as a gentleman, he need not work. Nevertheless, he does some work as a lawyer purely as a luxurious occupation. When Ellen reveals to her relatives that she wishes to get a divorce from the Count her husband, Newland's future in-laws charge him with handling the case and getting Ellen to reject such notions. Newland is successful, revealing to Ellen the delicacies of avoiding scandal in New York society. Newland doesn't realize this at the time, but Ellen really agrees out of kindness to Newland and not out of fear for her own name. Later, at the theater, Newland's feelings for Ellen come to the surface as he watches a scene of parting between an actor and an actress in the play "The Shaugraun." He imagines Ellen and himself in their position. When he talks to her at their box, he is shocked when Ellen says to him: "I wonder if Harry [the character in the play] will send yellow roses the next morning."

After this episode, Newland feels the need to hasten his marriage to May, and impulsively follows her to St. Augustine, Florida where she vacationing with her family. May seems to understand more than Newland thinks she does, asking him if his rush had anything to do with another woman (May apparently connects this not to Ellen Olenska, at this point, but a previous indiscretion of "sowing his oats" prior to his engagement with a married woman). Newland reassures her that this is not the case, and continues to think of May, even in her apparent generosity, as only acting out a part taught to her by the restrictive society which made her. Inevitably, Newland and Ellen admit their love for each other in a touching scene in which Ellen admits that her decision not to pursue the divorce was because she was trying to prevent scandal for his sake.

Some time passes, and May and Newland are married. Newland sort of goes on autopilot, fulfilling his duties as husband and member of polite New York society. The couple goes to England after marrying, and there, they meet some acquaintances of the Welland's, Mrs. Carfry and Miss Harle. There, Newland also makes the acquaintance of a Frenchman named M. Riviere, whose engagement in what Newland considered to be "real ideas" through the encounter of literature and learned conversation attracts Newland. M. Riviere is poor though, picking up odd jobs as a tutor here and there in order to retain his independence (he once tried to be a journalist, but found the profession to restraining on his intellectual independence). For a time, Newland and Ellen lead separate lives, Ellen engaging in other circles (literary and artistic circles that Newland's old money society doesn't really have contact with) and then subsequently moving to Washington. Newland doesn't see Ellen until he and May's family vacation in Newport: Ellen has been invited as well, and in a strange episode, Newland is sent to fetch Ellen but instead decides to watch her from afar because she hasn't turned around to look at him.

Newland's interest in Ellen has been re-kindled, and he seeks her at a party thrown by the Professor Sillerton and his wife. He hallucinates that a pink parasol, which belong actually to a Miss Blenker, is Ellen's. From Miss Blenker though, he learns that Ellen is actually in Boston. On an impulse, Newland lies to May that he is going to Boston on business in order to see Ellen. In Boston, the two meet, and he learns of a situation in which the Count has promised Ellen money if she were to go back to live with him in Europe. Ellen refuses, desiring her freedom and independence. but the Mingott's and the Welland's expect her to do the "nice" thing, which is to accept. Newland agrees with Ellen (as does M. Riviere, who turns out to be the messenger bearing the message from the count), and so he is subsequently left out of family conversations about Ellen's situation. Though Newland is generally oblivious, the narrative hints more and more that May and her family know more than they let on about Newland. May, for one, seems to keep testing Newland, by dispatching him on errands to fetch Ellen. For example, when the old Catherine Mingott (Ellen's grandmother) has a stroke, May agrees to Newland fetching her Ellen from New Jersey. People speculate that Catherine's stroke has been brought on by Regina Beaufort's plea to Catherine to help her out (since they are related) after Julius Beaufort's recent financial demise. Catherine has requested Ellen's presence to serve as her nurse, ostensibly to help Ellen to avoid the fate of going back to Europe (Catherine too is "unconventional").

For the time being, Ellen is to stay, but Newland doesn't want to consign to their love to such ugly, hackneyed categories as "having an affair" or subject her to "being his mistress." They are at an impasse where they are together but not: Newland says, "I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--categories like that--won't exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter." Finally Newland, desperate, asks Ellen to come to him once, but it turns out that May has had a conversation with Ellen, telling her that she was pregnant, so Ellen decided, in the end, to go to Europe (though she made sure to secure an allowance from Catherine so that she did not need to depend on her husband). Newland finds out about this conversation later, and soon begins to realize that many others probably knew about his feelings for Ellen, and have only been pretending to enable everyone to save face. May throws a farewell party for Ellen, and for thirty years, Newland lives his life as a dutiful husband. The very end of the novel, Dallas, Newland and May's eldest son, summons Newland to go on a trip with him, and arranges for him to meet with Ellen. The novel quickly tells about how different this new generation of New Yorkers are from the old--things are more in the open, and Dallas is free to marry his "Ellen Olenska," a bastard child of Julius Beaufort without anyone batting an eye. Newland goes with Dallas to Paris, but at the last minute, watches as his son goes into visit with Ellen, and refrains himself, preferring to keep intact the ideal reality of what has happened in the past.    

One of the most interesting aspects of Wharton's text is the inaccessibility of "the real" in the text. Though the narration is omniscient, it is primarily focalized through Newland, whose limited perspective disallows access to the "hieroglyphs" of New York society and its characters. Although the omniscient narration ironizes Newland's limited perspective, the reader never gets inside of Ellen or May's heads and can only guess at their interior perspectives (the effect is very Jamesian, in restricting access to the female characters' subjectivities).

Newland repeatedly hopes for a "real" that is beyond the customs and unwritten rules of old, monied New York society. It isn't clear, though, that there IS in fact a "real." At times, he posits that this real is available in Europe, where those who read literature, who write, who engage with "ideas" aren't a separate culture from those who have money. At other times, Newland thinks that running away with Ellen Olenska to somewhere else (Japan, he suggests at one point) is the "real." In the end, as seductive Newland's "real" is, his decision to remain outside while his son visits Ellen signals his own recognition of the tenuousness of his "real." Newland imagines Ellen living her life amidst "theatres she must have been to, the pictures she must have looked at, the sober and splendid old houses she must have frequented, the people she must have talked with, the incessant stir of ideas, curiosities, images, and associations thrown out by an intensely social race in a setting of immemorial manners..." This vision of European life he knows isn't necessarily more "real" than America, as he quickly concedes that "more than half a lifetime divided them, and she had spent the long interval among people he did not know, in a society he but faintly guessed at, in conditions he would ever wholly understand." Because of this impossibility of knowing, Newland resorts to protecting the vision of his and Ellen's past, because that is something that he does know, and so is as "real" as anything could possibly be.            

The novel's conclusions about the new generation of New Yorkers throws doubt, nonetheless, on even this last bit of "reality." Focalizing Newland, the narrator gives: "To the boy [Newland's son Dallas], no doubt, the episode was only a pathetic instance of vain frustration, of wasted forces. But was it really no more?" Not only are the perspectives of America and Europe different, but so are the perspectives of the past and the present. Dallas's generation seems to have done away with the repressed Victorianism of Newland's, and yet Newland still wonders if maybe there were something more precious to his experience with Ellen because of the repression. It might be said, finally, that every age is an "age of innocence," in that Wharton doesn't allow access to anything definitely "real." Though definitely a biting commentary on the petty social customs of old New York life, Wharton's offer of a limited perspective leaves open the possibility that there is much more behind the curtain of these social customs. At the very least, the rather vindictive contest which May wages with Ellen and wins does happen, though not with directly vindictive words but with hidden but very real implications. The rest we, like Newland Archer, can really only guess at.

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