The hardest thing about this entry was picking exactly which Edith Wharton book to write a mash note about. I really do love many of her books, and even as I write this, I feel slightly guilty that I’m not writing about The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, both of which are amazing books, featuring Wharton’s signature mix of incisive social commentary, well-considered prose and an ironic take that can swoop to devastating effect into tragedy with a deft turn of phrase.
But I’m a romantic, and The Age of Innocence is a grand, tragic love story above everything else, and it hit my heart in a way that I can’t forget. Wharton gets the push and pulls of falling in love right, of how two people can come to deeply love one another, even if they never really quite touch. And she renders it with a command of classical craft, within a near-perfect structure and polished, elegant language. On its own, the story of the doomed romance between society man Newland Archer and the divorced “foreigner” Countess Olenska would be kind of a potboiler (of a very classy, restrained sort, of course), but it gets its power from the grasp that Wharton has of the milieu they live in — upper-class New York society in the early-to-mid 1800s — and her ability to situate her lovers within this rarefied, but ultimately stifling, sphere.
There’s such rich, loving detail of this slice of the world — you can practically feel the silks and velvets of the evening gowns, the smell of lilies in a conservatory — but Wharton never loses sight of the subtext of this deeply tribal world, and how it shapes the emotional lives and impulses of its inhabitants. Americans like to presume they are independent and free, that they command deeply individual destinies. Wharton powerfully portrays that this isn’t the case, that no matter what our emotional realities are, we are still social creatures and shaped in many ways by the mores of the world around us. It is just that relative privilege allows us the illusion that we are freer than we actually are.
Besides the absorbing, emotionally subtle love story, The Age of Innocence, to me, is a story about patriarchy and its mechanisms, and how even those who benefit most from it can suffer under it. Newland is part of a certain stripe of “gentleman,” and he sits near the apex of the top of the pyramid of the powerful and wealthy. Sure, he’s likely a bit more sensitive than most, and fancies himself more enlightened (and part of the book’s genius is how the veil falls from his eyes in his respect, and how he realizes his own social training has contributed to his emotional tragedy). But he’s still Mr. Fancy Pants, if you know what I mean. That I came to care for him, and felt the pangs of his sorrow as if they were my own, is really a testament of Wharton’s ability to trace the emotional development of Newland so well. And it’s a pretty indicting comment on a society that the villains of the story are the women the system aims to “protects.”
These days, of course, divorce isn’t social suicide, and Newland and Ellen could (maybe) find some modicum of happiness under more relaxed social mores. Wharton’s work, being so attuned to the social settings of her time, are of a time and place that no longer exist, perhaps adding to their grandeur and romanticism. But it still makes me think — especially when I think about all those fiery right-wing female political pundits — of how a society can convince its biggest victims to act against their own best interests. The ending of The Age of Innocence will always slay me as a romantic, but as I read it again as I’m older, I see how the romantic tragedy is also a tragedy of social and political dimensions, existing within a system that has never really quite gone away, which makes me even sadder.
And the ending of The Age of Innocence? Never fails to kill me as well.