Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Age of Innocence," by Edith Wharton

What can I say that hasn’t already been said many times about Edith Wharton’s wonderful, beautifully written, always revelatory novel, “The Age of Innocence”? All I can do is describe my own feelings when I read or hear it. I have read this book several times, and have just finished listening to it on CD. (Coincidentally, I wrote about my admiration of Wharton's work on 4/18/10, exactly two years ago.) Published in 1920, "The Age of Innocence" is set in the New York of the upper crust in the 1870s. Like most of Wharton’s novels, this book contrasts the great wealth and privilege held by its characters, on the one hand, and the way they are trapped by severe conventional limits on their behavior, on the other hand. Even the men are bound in this way, but they at least have some outlets, some freedoms, some possibilities that the women do not. There is only one way for women of this class at that time: the way of least resistance, the way of following society’s expectations to the letter. It is a kind of golden cage. The great (unconsummated) love affair between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is thwarted by society’s conventions. But Newland still has protections and possibilities; Ellen, as a woman separated from her husband but not allowed, by the standards of her family, to divorce, can never have a legitimate marriage or love again. Even May Welland, Archer’s wife, who is able to keep her husband, knows that his true love and passion is for another woman. Only time brings a kind of acceptance for all three of these characters. But Wharton’s fiction is a powerful reminder of the constrictions imposed on women by convention and of society’s punishments for those who attempt to break free. Wharton’s novels -- especially “The Age of Innocence” and “House of Mirth” -- are among those that I re-read every few years. I always learn something new from them and, despite the sad messages of these books, I also take pleasure in reading them, because of the beauty of the writing, and because of the exquisite portrayals of the characters and of the society in which they live.

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