It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
As always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton! There are definitely spoilers ahead.
Edith Wharton’s novel, published in 1920, was the first by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence was originally serialized and is one of her three novels of New York (The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country are the other two).
It’s New York in the 1870s and Newland Archer is about to marry sweet, young May Welland. According to both of their families, this is a perfect match, further uniting them all. But then May’s disgraced cousin Ellen returns to the city after a failed marriage to a Polish count. The beautiful, willful and independent Countess Olenska makes Newland feel all kinds of new feelings and he has to choose between a conventional, easy but passionless marriage to May or an alluring and forbidden love affair with Ellen that would see them both shunned from the world they know.
This was the second time I read The Age of Innocence. The first time I gave it five stars and was no doubt swept up in the romance and setting of it all. I felt a little differently about it this time!
I still really liked it – although it was hard to really get into it with all the other noise in the world. BUT I kind of hated that our main character was male. Go ahead, roll your eyes, get it out of your system. I had a hard time not rolling my eyes every time Newland refers to the women in his life, especially May. His poor sister Janey is getting to that time in life when it’s not really appropriate for her to wear a traditional wedding gown, it’s tiresome to have to provide May with the thoughts she should have about anything, he can’t read poetry out loud anymore because May always asks so many questions etc.
And it was hard to sympathize completely with his conundrum: marry May or run away with Ellen because he was a man in his time. A wealthy man! He could have easily run away with Ellen and lived another life and there would have been few consequences beyond being shunned by society he wasn’t that attached to anyway. Poor May would have been jilted and that would have impacted her chances at a ‘good’ marriage. And of course Ellen would have forever been a scarlet woman.
Newland does a lot of supposing about May, what kind of woman she is, what she thinks and feels but he doesn’t spend a lot of time actually talking to her.
“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”
Ultimately he does the right thing and stays with May and I did appreciate that. I kind of like when characters do the so-called right thing rather than the thing that feels good and exciting. I like that he stayed with May, that he accepted that and made a good life out of the choice he felt he had to make. I even kind of like that when he had another chance at a life with Ellen he didn’t take it!
What has happened to my romantic tendencies??
What does the book say about being a wife?
This book has a lot to say about how to be a good wife but it’s never from the perspective of any actual wives. In the end, the battle is between the rewards of being a good and faithful wife whose husband thinks you’re dull and those of doing what you want and not settling for a husband who treats you terribly even if it means giving up the kind of lifestyle most only dream of.
When Newland is still trying to make a case to the families for the Countess Olenska not to go back to her husband, the family’s matriarch asks if he knows what he’s asking her to give up?
“But on the material side, Mr Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things; do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there on the sofa – acres like them, under glass and in the open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels – historic pearls; the Sobieski emeralds – sables – but she cares nothing for these. Art and beauty, those she does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music, brilliant conversation. […] And she had it all; and the homage of the greatest. […] Are these things nothing? And the remorse of an adoring husband?”
The society that they live in makes it almost impossible for a marriage to be a true partnership, to allow for two people to fall honestly in love. They’re not allowed to be alone, they have to marry within a certain set of families, everything is in service to appearances.
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”
Newland, May and Ellen are all victims of a society that would rather see them miserable than live unconventional lives.
Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! And come back in March when we’ll discuss Every Note Played by Lisa Genova.