Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

Or, Newland Archer is a Douche.

Okay, I made that up, but it does pretty accurately reflect my thoughts for much of the time I was reading Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winner. Not that it's not a good book. It is! Just probably not if you need to "like" the protagonist. It's worth reading even just for the descriptions of New York in the 1870s. It's a completely different world than Manhattan today.

I had heard that book referred to as "The House of Mirth-lite," but I have to disagree. True, there's much less focus on the dirty, gritty aspects of the dangers involved with falling to the underclass, but that really isn't the point in The Age of Innocence. There is still plenty of biting commentary on the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.

Newland Archer is the biggest hypocrite of them all. He is firmly planted in the upper-middle echelon of New York Society. He innately understands how to navigate all of the social minefields, and he has always managed to do so. He has decided that now the time has come to put away childish pursuits of unsuitable women and settle down with a proper wife.

Young, beautiful, sheltered May Welland is his intended bride. He looks forward to developing her mind and thoughts to coincide with his, away from her parents. That is, of course, until her slightly older cousin, Ellen Olenska, enters the scene from Europe, where she has left behind a bad marriage to a rich Polish Count.

So Newland wants this very respectable bride to be his very respectable wife in very respectable society. He wants to train her to think for herself, not be so naive, and leave to influence of her parents' house to be under his constant instruction. But. Whenever she thinks for herself he's annoyed. When she does what her society-obsessed parents want he's bored. When she puts off his physical advances (as she's expected to) he's enticed by the maybe-soon-to-be-divorced Countess. The Countess who is May's cousin, who has "experience", who goes to shocking parties, who hangs out with a married Jewish guy, who is inappropriately familiar with her maid. AND HE DOESN'T LIKE ANY OF THOSE THINGS.

Newland Archer is a douche.

I mean, I get it. He's a product of his society, blah, blah, blah. His society is constrictive and hypocritical and stifling. One one hand, he likes all the lovely parts, on the other, he longs for freedom. Before he can break away, and be the non-conformist he thinks he wants to be, he has to decide if that life of threadbare coats and small quarters in the unfashionable part of town, being talked about by his former friends as a disgrace to his mother, is what he really wants.

Enough about him. I want to talk about May. She is pretty badass. I mean, everyone kinda shuffles her aside and doesn't pay her much attention, but she is using her time off stage to pull some major strings. She knows the dangers to a young woman in her position - the scandal it would cause should she be jilted. The only way for her to keep her place in society is to marry well. She's not going down without a fight.

Here's to May Welland. This should be the cover of all the copies of this book:
Book cover showing May Welland with a bow and arrow at an archery contest

5 comments:

Violet said...

Perhaps Wharton was showing us how men also were trapped within the tight confines of societal expectations, and how they were brought up to believe that they had the right to control their wives. Newland could have run off with the Countess, but that would have shamed May and his family, so he stayed. He did the "right thing" and sacrificed his own personal happiness for the sake of others. I think he's more of a victim of the prevailing stifling social propriety, and May is manipulative, sly, and a lot more conniving than you allow. :)

Heather said...

I think I agree with Violet--I can't imagine having to live in that time period and being forced to marry a certain person in order to please others. I think both May and Newland would have been a lot better off had they not gotten married. May could have found someone who truly loved her, and Newland could have been with someone he truly loved. The end of the book broke my heart.

Mabel said...

I can't wait to read this book. I'm about a third through The House of Mirth right now. :)

MJ said...

I absolutely agree with Violet. There's no doubt that is one of the points Wharton was making. However, I also think that Wharton recognized that within this vastly flawed society, which harmed both men and women, men still had significant relative advantage.

Should May have been jilted, she'd be seen as damaged goods, and would have likely had a much more difficult time securing a subsequent match. Certainly she was conniving and manipulative, because that was what society required. She had to use approved means (ie, invisible means) to keep Newland. If she lost her position, she might literally not survive, suffering a similar fate to Lily Bart. So while yes, both genders are suffering, the risks to the women are far greater.

Rebecca @ Love At First Book said...

Oooooh now I really want to read it, even if I will hate the main character! Having that advance knowledge might make it easier to read.