#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

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.

Cynthia @ I Love Days
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

 

age-of-innocence

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.

My Thoughts

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. 

11 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

  1. When it comes right down to it, we came to the same conclusion – that it’s impossible for them to have a good marriage when they can’t even get to know each other.
    I was also happy that he chose to do the right thing. For one thing, I didn’t really believe he and Ellen could be in love so soon. I imagined that if they ran off together, their happiness wouldn’t last. And then what?
    I had the same problem with the fact that the story was told through Newland’s eyes. I thought his view of May was interesting and I chose to go with it – I can see how some people would just want a quiet traditional life. And, like I said in my review, it’s easier to want that when you actually like the person you’re marrying (which May seemed to do).

  2. I think this story was about a struggle between conventionality and the desire to be more true to the characters’ inner lives, in other words, not being cast off by society and friends versus leading a life that was more open and free, so I guess I saw it differently than you two did. I think Wharton would have seen it differently, too, because I believe she went through this sort of thing with her own marriage, only she was Newland Archer. In her case, she left and went to France, although I don’t think she did it illicitly (that is, didn’t run off with anyone). It seemed to me that May was all the things that Newland thought she was. Her dismissiveness, for example, of the tutor (basically, she considered him socially beneath them and didn’t care that Newland found him intelligent and interesting to talk to). Didn’t that bother you?

    I don’t agree that because he was rich he could just have run off with Ellen. That wasn’t really what the problem was, although of course, Newland did think they could do that. But Ellen wouldn’t have done that. And if they had done it, that would have meant they couldn’t associate with their friends and family ever again. That was exactly the life that Ellen didn’t want to have anymore.

    • Well but being cast off by society and friends would have been a symptom of that unconventional life, that’s what makes it unconventional.
      I didn’t say that I liked May, just that he doesn’t really bother to get to know her. I didn’t like how snobby she could be but I also know that she was raised to be that way. There was no other path for a woman of her class than to marry someone who matches that class and everyone else was a threat.
      Ellen did understand what the cost of their running away would be, and I admire that she wasn’t willing to pay that. She had already seen what it would be like.

      • I agree that she didn’t have many choices and it wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t at all intellectual. I think Newland needed a wife that was more open to the arts and to the intellectual, and he chose poorly. It was very much his fault that he thought he could mold a young girl into the woman he wanted, but I think that was at the time a common misconception.

      • There was a character who had run off in the past with another woman and been shunned by society. Was it Mrs. Manson Mingott’s father? That was a bit of a morality tale for the younger generation, although it wasn’t fully developed. Maybe in Wharton’s time people would have intuited how emotionally ruinous that could be.

  3. I like the way you focused on the point of view – interesting. I wonder if Wharton felt it necessary to write from a male point of view in order to have her book taken seriously…I felt that Newland’s limited ability to empathize or put himself in the shoes of others added depth to the story by showing the blindness of an entitled young man of the time. He was a flawed, less romantic character than he could have been, and we see that his character grew and changed over time.

    • I’m sure that that had a lot to do with it. For me, his inability to empathize made me roll my eyes and feel, to quote the august Mrs Rachel Lynde, “isn’t that just like a man?” Not to say that May was so amazing – we see down the road that she’s kind of hard – but his inability to see her as anything than what he believes her to be made me want to shake him.

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