"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

786700Whenever I read classic literature I question my ability to add anything to the full cadre of information and opinion already available about the novel. This is the case with The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I sit here in front of this blank blog post and the only words which circulate through my head are from Wayne's World, "I'm not worthy." How am I, a lowly person who never even took one English Lit class in college and faked my way through them in high school, qualified to add anything on the discourse in the face of such greatness? Well, I'm not. Instead I shall attempt to pull together a few thoughts and tidbits of information I have gleaned from the tiny bit of research I've done on the book and the author. I hope this will satisfy you, my readers, and encourage you to pick up those classic books which you've always meant to read knowing that you too can at least say something which is interesting and presented in a new way.

First, I selected to read The Age of Innocence to satisfy three reading challenges: Classics Club Spin, the Women's Classic Literature Event, and my own personal challenge to read some of the past Pulitzer Prize winners. I'd long wanted to read something by Wharton, so it seemed like it would be a win, win, win selection and it was.

Reynolds, The Tate Museum
"The Age of Innocence"
Secondly, I was very perplexed by the title, The Age of Innocence. As I read the novel I kept wondering at the title and its meaning. Were the 1870s truly an age of innocence, at least in the minds of those who lived it? Did the characters and their stubborn adherence to their own rules of conduct make the appearance of innocence to outsiders? Or was the title relational, comparing the 1870s in New York to 1920s Europe, where Wharton was when she wrote the book? I concluded, in my mind, it was probably some combination of all three. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Wharton titled the book after a famous Reynolds painting entitled, "The Age of Innocence." Ha! Got me.

The setting, old New York in the 1870s, was handled very deftly by Wharton. It was really obvious that she had lived the life she was describing since she knew it so intimately. The rules and snobbery by which the characters lived their lives: who was in and who was out; what to eat and what to wear; where to vacation and what to do while there. Everything was spelled out. One got the impression that Wharton was poking fun at the stupidity of it all without being funny or ironic in the text. Here is a quote from the book which describes a dinner party in which the guests were served Roman punch.
Roman punch made all the difference; not in itself but by its manifold implications--since it signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, a hot and a cold sweet, full decolletage with short sleeves, and guests of a proportionate importance. (Chapter XXXIII)
Wharton also seemed to poke fun at old New York by giving her characters funny, odd names. There were no Bills or Williams in the bunch. Instead there were characters with unique names like Newland Archer, Manson Mingott, Sillerton Jackson, Emerson Sillerton, Julius Beaufort, and Lemuel Struthers. Not exactly hilarious names but odd enough to make this reader pause and notice.

The Age of Innocence is the story of a love triangle but not in the modern and irritating angle which involves a girl who has to choose from two sexy boys. This story begins with Newland Archer, who is newly engaged to May Welland, meeting May's cousin, the Countess Olenska, for the first time. May represents the best and the worst of old New York, while the Countess appears to embrace the opposite. Archer is attracted to both the old and the new and it just about tears him apart. The lack of sex makes this book more full of passion than ones where the sexual act is explicit. When Newland finally decides to take the plunge, so to speak, his plans are thwarted by the Countess leaving town.
This was her answer to his final appeal of the other day: if she would not take the extreme step he had urged, she had at last yielded to half-measures. He sank back into the thought with the involuntary relief of a man who has been ready to risk everything, and suddenly tastes the dangerous sweetness of security (Chapter XXX.)
Near the end of the story there is a quote which seems to sum up life in old New York perfectly, 
It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.
I can totally relate to the ending where Newland (spoiler alert) decides to go home rather than meet Madam Olenska again after thirty years of separation. We all have our memories of past loves and events associated with that person. Those memories are real to us. I, for one, am not sure if I want to have those memories wrecked by present realities. But readers who crave happy endings will find this finale frustrating.

Apparently Edith Wharton lived in France during or right after WWI and became very disillusioned with the life she had lived before in old New York. She penned The Age of Innocence, her tenth novel, as a reaction to those feelings. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, the first time the prize was awarded to a female author. The prize was awarded amid a controversy where the lead person on the committee ignored the recommendations of the other judges to award the prize to Sinclair Lewis for his classic, Main Street, in favor of Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Since both books have stood up to the test of time, I am glad the award went to Wharton since she was female.

In an effort to know more about the author, I visited the website about Edith Wharton's past estate, The Mount in Massachusetts. It was designed by the author herself. It looks like a very lovely place which clearly shows the author's love of art and symmetry, something I recognized in her writing. After viewing the webpage I have added a visit to The Mount to my bucket list. It will be a long trip from Washington State, though.

In conclusion (this blog post is much longer than I originally thought it would be) I can wholeheartedly recommend The Age of Innocence to my readers. I wasn't as enraptured with the love story as I was with the peek at a by-gone age and era shown us of 1870s New York. It is amazing to think there were people who lived such gorgeous, frivolous lives as the Archers and the Wellands. Read it for that reason alone and you will gain new insights into American history and how people lived (at least some of them) in the past.




11 comments:

  1. Sadly I've still not read anything by Edith Wharton! I am hoping to rectify that this year by reading The Fruit of the Tree for the What’s In A Name? 2016 challenge (for 'a title with the word ‘tree’ in it' category).

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    1. This is the only Wharton I've read. Someone told me her best work is The House of Mirth. But she was a prolific author so there should be a lot to pick from.

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  2. I have never read this classic, but you have convinced me that I must.
    Thank you so much for a GREAT review!! (I would say you had much to add to the "full cadre of information and opinion") :)

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    1. You are so kind. I often feel so inadequate when I review books which a lot of people have read. For some reason I rarely feel that same way about newly published books.

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  3. Like your other two commenters, I've never read anything by Wharton either, which is probably strange since I took countless lit classes in college. ;)

    But, I am curious now about her work. And it seems like The Age of Innocence might just be a good place to begin. And for what it's worth, you did a fine job analyzing a book in a way that feels quite original. Well done.

    And thanks for the comment on my Wuthering Heights review!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words about my review.

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  4. Excellent review - definitely makes me want to read this book, which is also on my Classics Club list. the only book by Edith Wharton that I've read is Ethan Frome, which I loved, such a beautifully told tale and in contrast to The Age of Innocence is set in the countryside (in a fictional New England village).

    Here's my review of Ethan Frome, in case you want to read it - http://www.booksplease.org/2014/03/05/ethan-frome-by-edith-wharton/

    Margaret@BooksPlease (http://www.booksplease.org/)

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    1. I haven't read Ethan Frome but I enjoyed Wharton's writing enough I should consider it. Thanks for dropping by my blog.

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  5. A very well thought out review. I have to concur with your thoughts. The Age of Innocence was deeper than I imagined it would be and gave me lots of food for thought.
    Also, the names humored me as well. :)

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    1. I kept wondering if the name "Newland" was symbolic of a man who was trying to be a new man, embracing a new position in his thinking about society.

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  6. This is my favourite Wharton (although I do love House of Mirth as well). Her books are not designed for happy I think. They are much more like real life in that way. The endings are often complicated, complex and somewhat messy.

    I also loved the look at old New York through Wharton's rather disillusioned eyes and found the sexual tension between Newland and Ellen electrifying and frustrating in equal measure.

    When you get a chance watch the movie with Cecil day Lewis and Michelle Pfieffer - exquisite!

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