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Winner Of The Pulitzer Prize, The Age Of Innocence Is Edith Wharton S Masterful Portrait Of Desire And Betrayal During The Sumptuous Golden Age Of Old New York, A Time When Society People Dreaded Scandal Than Disease This Is Newland Archer S World As He Prepares To Marry The Beautiful But Conventional May Welland But When The Mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska Returns To New York After A Disastrous Marriage, Archer Falls Deeply In Love With Her Torn Between Duty And Passion, Archer Struggles To Make A Decision That Will Either Courageously Define His Life Or Mercilessly Destroy It The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing Just when I think a classic unlikely to give me pause, it surprises me with relatable themes After reading Wharton s short story, The Muse s Tragedy one of the supplemental reads I ll be teaching this Fall , I knew I had to visit one of her longer forms So rewarding it was, to be wooed by elegant prose and positioning a plot that moves in practiced laps a story that could be yours, mine, theirs a setting that will always be known for both its vibrance and austerity Wharton is a writer of words nestled in conscious rhythm, the director of a play that centers around societal distinctions like class and gender, yet still embodies universal themes of love, betrayal, and self actualization Wharton writing from a male s perspective reminds me of Cather, in My ntonia they do it so well, so authentically She had Henry James as a mentor, and yet I prefer her books to his although I see a resemblance to my favorite James book to date The AmericanHis whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen Countess Olenska is not just a woman ostracized in 1920s New York Society she is symbolic of New York on the verge of change, the cusp of a new era she is love and beauty and complications she is pain, consolation, a new life which uncovers an insipid way of living The Countess represents fresh ideas, a new way of thinking, a society that doesn t place class and materialism before all else, a bohemian way of being The Countess is hope I realize I m taking an unorthodox stand, seeing as how the Countess also represents infidelity and betrayal, and the uproot of normalcy Yet knowing Newland s choices when he meets Ellen, one knows that in the end, he ll make a decision forced upon him by his society In the end, we see his gratitude for life, and the regrets from his choices, which once again, reminds us of the complications of life Wharton leaves us with an ending rife with speculative contemplations, and as readers, we become just like her charactersSomething he knew he had missed the flower of life But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery Conventional New York was not ready for the Countess The city had not yet formed itself into the diverse structure it now is, with a roadway tunnel that traverses the Hudson river, and a train station that connects you with New Jersey and Pennsylvania In fact, conventional New York City was also unprepared for The Harlem Renaissance, taking place only a few blocks away, in the same decade and the same world, yet separate and forgotten like Ellen OlenskaBut then you come and you re so much than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind, just quietly trusting it to come true We can t behave like people in novels, though, can we A few years ago, I read The Age of Innocence and thought it was okay It has something of an Austen esque feel criticisms of middle upper middle class society, paired with a subtle and clever humour and a love story here deliciously scandalous But it s taken me a few years to come back to this novel and appreciate the magic Wharton has brought to the table.This little book is so clever Everything about it from the damn title to nearly every piece of dialogue is perfectly placed and often ironic Things that didn t hit me fully the first time around became so much important in this reread Wharton knows 1870s New York City like the back of her hand she knows its habits, its traditions, and its expectations of people She creates a rich, twinkly picture of parties and social standards that is both delightful and ultimately ridiculous then she throws a spanner in the works.Never has a love triangle been so welcomed by me This isn t the modern affair we re used to, where a girl must choose between hot guy 1 and hot guy 2 Nope, in this story, Newland Archer is torn between the stability, comfort and duty he can be offered by the socially favoured match with May Welland and his passionate, all consuming love for the unconventional, rebellious and ostracized Ellen OlenskaEach time you happen to me all over again It s as important as it is beautifully written Wharton casts an eye over this society, both disdainful and affectionate Incorporating issues of female emancipation into the story, never has the idea of a woman enslaved by marriage and convention seemed so unattractive from a male perspective Newland Archer is full of modernity and the call of new ideas, but finds that any freedom he poses to May she would receive only with the intention of pleasing him Though, it should be said, I believe May is far than she seems.It s hard to read the ending of this book without feeling emotional, but the exact emotion may differ with your interpretation Ambiguity reigns supreme as this novel finds its close and even the coldest of unromantics will surely have their hearts pulled along for this ride One of my favourite tragic love affairsOnly, I wonder the thing one s so certain of in advance can it ever make one s heart beat as wildly Blog Facebook Twitter Instagram Tumblr Part of why I love The Age of Innocence so much is for the very reason my students hate it the subtlety of action in a society constrained by its own ridiculous rules and s In Old New York, conformity is key and the upper crust go about a life of ritual that has no substance or meaning Both men and women are victims in this world as both are denied economic, intellectual, and creative outlets All the world s a stage in Wharton s New York and everyone wears a mask of society s creation Such is the norm until Newland Archer.Symbolically, Newland represents an America on the cusp of modernization, the awkward period of transition between the Victorian era and World War I At first a devout member of New York aristocracy, Newland is awakened as one from a trance with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska Ellen decides to separate from her abusive husband, Count Olenski, and is rud to have escaped the Count by having an affair with his secretary a scandalous circumstance that brings her back home to her native New York Vibrant, intellectual, and free spirited when compared with the dowdy and restrained women he s known, Ellen s predicament is a revelation to Newland As he himself has just ended an affair with a married woman and knows the ease with which society forgave his indiscretion when contrasted with Ellen, Newland begins to acknowledge the inequality amongst the sexes However, there s a serious roadblock to Newland ever being with the captivating Ellen Ellen is the cousin of May Welland, Newland s fiancee Wharton writes with cutting wit about the hypocritical and ludicrous customs of blue blood society and cunningly plots events to work against Newland, the archer whose target is a new land in which he and Ellen can be together The pity is that, ultimately, May proves to be the cunning huntress who cleverly stalks and traps her quarry in the labyrinth of society.Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty There was never getting away from their circumstances for Newland and Ellen, the protagonists of The Age of Innocence As I weep for them and their unrequited love, I realized it was not meant to be Edith Wharton depicts masterfully New York s traditions and judgmental airs, which were from the start against them This elite group within which they existed had very rigid rules of behavior, social rituals, fashion, and clear censures for those that violated them There is a clear hypocrisy in their life that existed behind their conservative moral exteriorIn 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 As I started reading Edith Wharton s crisp prose and witty dialogues, I got to know Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen, Countess Olenska What was inescapable from the outset is that they were a product of New York society of their time.As Newland meets Countess Olenska, he is not prepared for her worldly persona Thus it is that May and Newland make their engagement public right away, to ease the acceptance of Ellen into their social pack May is considered the perfect model of what a young wife should be young, beautiful, soft, obedient, pliant, conventional, and with no opinions on anything of importance We would consider her boring, but those were different times Newland starts out pretty much the same he s a young lawyer, used to his luxurious and idle style of living all in accord with the strict rules of society Yes, both are good persons with many amiable qualities, but they simply are not exceptional They were clearly not in love, just following rituals that defined that a young man should marry a nice girl with a good familyThere was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from what point you choose Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to Newland and Ellen s love story is nevertheless magnificent because it is the changes and character growth of both lovers that make it endearing and wonderful When we first meet Newland Archer he could not have been in tune with New York society s status quoBut Newland Archer was too imaginative not to feel that, in his case and May s, the tie might gall for reasons far less gross and palpable What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a decent fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal If Newland Archer seems indecisive and hesitant, it s in part because he is conflicted with his values and desires He even starts defending new ideas,Women ought to be free as free as we areNevertheless, it is easy to note how typical Newland Archer was when we first meet him, how judgmental, how hypocriticalThere was nothing mean or ungenerous in the young man s heart, and he was glad that his future wife should be restrained by false prudery from being kind in private to her unhappy cousin but to receive Countess Olenska in the family circle was a different thing from producing her in public, at the Opera of all places, and in the very box with the young girl whose engagement to him, Newland Archer, was to be announced in a few weeks No, he felt as old Sillerton Jackson felt he did not think the Mingotts would have tried it on Could he have been traditionalHe hated to think of May Welland s being exposed to the influence of a young woman so careless of the dictates of TasteYes, in the beginning, he hated the idea of his innocent fianc being contaminated by the worldly Countess.Nevertheless, Newland s careful and predictable world is flipped completely upside down when he meets and really gets to know the intriguing and intrepid Countess Olenska As the plot moves on, we discovered all is not as we first envisioned Newland is changing as he falls deeper in love with Ellen He soon starts to show signs of rebelling against his previous ideals, begins transforming himself A conversation with Ellen s grandmother and family matriarch is particularly revealingPoor Ellen she was always a wayward child I wonder what her fate will be What we ve all contrived to make it, he felt like answering If you d all of you rather she should be Beaufort s mistress than some decent fellow s wife you ve certainly gone the right way about it But his transformation is not fast or deep enough, he is not able to entirely free himself from the constraints imposed on him by society and his own upbringing He is not courageous enough , you might askHis whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happenBut there is much at play here He soon realizes how restrictive his marriage was, how loveless and lonely his life would beThere was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free and he had long since discovered that May s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration And much ,He perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in the future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him nut as he paid the hansom and followed his wife he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other s angles, he reflected but the worst of it was that May s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep Even after understanding what his marriage would make of his life, he cannot escapeOutside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room Absent that was what he was so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there He cannot break up from convention, although he dreams of going as far as Japan with EllenArcher had fancied that his path was clear before him He had meant to have a word alone with Madame Olenska, and failing that, to learn from her grandmother on what day, and by which train, she was returning to Washington In that train he intended to join her, and travel with her to Washington, or as much farther as she was willing to go His own fancy inclined to JapanEven if the story is told through Newland s point of view, we cannot forget how much Ellen suffered Probably even than him, since it seems she had no choiceOh, I know I know But on condition that they don t hear anything unpleasant Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr Archer The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thin shoulders shaken by a sob We also soon discover that May is not so innocent Although all her fight seems to be enforced to defend her marriage, its survival, and in that she would never change What she learned with her mother she would repeat in her marriageNow she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr Welland. No, she was never weak just limitedI told her I was afraid I hadn t been fair to her hadn t always understood how hard it must have been for her here, alone among so many people who were relations and yet strangers who felt the right to criticise, and yet didn t always know the circumstances She paused I knew you d been the one friend she could always count on and I wanted her to know that you and I were the same in all our feelings But Newland was still dreaming of breaking away from everything, of being with Ellen He tells May he needs to get away, but she was ahead of him Not an innocent at allI want to take a break A break To give up law To go away, at any rate at once On a long trip, ever so far off away from everything He paused, conscious that he had failed in his attempt to speak with the indifference of a man who longs for a change and is yet too weary to welcome it Do what he would, the chord of eagerness vibrated Away from everything he repeated Ever so far Where, for instance she asked Oh, I don t know India or Japan As far as that But I m afraid you can t, dear Not unless you take me with you That is, if the doctors let me go but I m afraid they won t For you see, Newland, I ve been sure since this morning of something I ve been longing and hoping for Have you told anyone else Only Mama and your mother That is and Ellen You know I told you we d had a long talk one afternoon and how dear she was to me Ah said Archer, his heart stopping What I concluded is that Newland might be rebellious while May is until the end tradition itself This pattern we witness endlessly, and when Newland ponders what their marriage and family life had been like it is all summed so clearlyThis hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered Her incapacity to recognize change made her children conceal their views from her as Archer concealed his there had been, from the first, a joint pretense of sameness, a kind of innocent family hypocrisy, in which father and children had unconsciously collaborated For one thing, his life as a man allowed him freedom even to circumvent social customs for he was not as closely watched Not that it was easier for him, for he struggles between social conformity and honesty to one s emotions And not that May would want to change She was set on her role without any uncertainty.And often we see him contradict himself Despite his transformation, we realize he will always be a 19th century man, as we witness him saying things such asWhat could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a decent fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal , while later he will dream of running away with Ellen.The essence of Edith Wharton s novel is whether Newland and Ellen ever had a chance Not at their time And Ellen recognizes realityAh, my poor Newland I suppose this had to be You re engaged to May Welland and I m married And Newland replied, It s too late to do anything else. To apart mean a return to their old respective life patterns, but to be together would mean going against what they both loved the most in the other I can t love you unless I give you up. Being together would mean breaking too many rules, hurting loved ones, and carrying a guilt that would ultimately separate them if not physically for certain emotionallyBut you knew you understood you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands and yet you hated the things it asks of one you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference That was what I d never known before and it s better than anything I ve known This great work is a bittersweet love story at the mercy of society s morals and ethics, with conflicting values that prevents them from realizing their most ardent desire to be together I d say this is the strong and beautiful point of this classicThe idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts Even heartfeltThe long was with him day and night, an incessant undeniable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten The characters are forced to adjust and readjust to their changing life, but that is still not enough At least it was not in their lifetime The changes they go through are not deep enough to allow them a happy ever after How painful to live through this changing times and how dreadful to accept their fate I can just imagine and suffer for them, and weep for them Here lies the greatness of The Age of Innocence Their fate was to be apart, and so nothing rests for them but to keep their memories intact It s what we lost and our memories that stay with us If he had gone up to meet her, it would be another storyIt s real to me here than if I went up, he suddenly heard himself say and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other Oh, I have to repeat myself there is nothing heartbreaking than unrequited love So I weep again for them My first impressionsI can t love you unless I give you up Oh, Vessey, I just finished The Age of Innocence And I have to tell you that the last 10% conquered me It made it me think that it had to be They were set on their way before Ellen arrived and Newland and Amy made public their engagement And I believe it had to end as it did Suddenly, I discovered it deserved 5 full stars It s what we lost and our memories that stay with us If he had gone up to meet her, it would be another story.I loved how it analyzed his marriage with May, the old costumes that are no That hypocritical society that held him down is finally fading But too late for Ellen and Newland Well, it is all still too new to me, and the only thing I can say is that it touched me deeply Maybe because of my age, since I know enough of life and remember all that I lost and could never simply be revisitedIt s real to me here than if I went up, he suddenly heard himself say and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other There is nothing heartbreaking than unrequited love So I weep for them.