“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***

 

First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Is May Welland really that innocent? While she doesn’t appear that often, I think she is far more aware of and in control of the situation than either Wayland or Ellen. They are the innocents in comparison to her.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree that May controls things behind the scenes. She is aware, and is in control, whereas the other two aren’t. And, as you say, this makes Wayland and Ellen more “innocent”.

      But if we consider some other definitions of “innocent”, we may have a different perspective. One of the definitions offered by Merriam-Webster is: “free from guilt or sin, especially through lack of knowledge of evil”. If May lacks knowledge of the harmful effects of thwarting human passions, then, by this definition, she is “innocent”. If, further, she believes, and is right in believing, that social propriety and stability should override disruptive individual passions, then she is more than merely “innocent”: she is morally good.

      One question that intrigued me throughout was May’s motives in all this. Because she is so shadowy a figure, we never really get to know precisely. But it’s unlikely to be selfishness. It is hard to see how anyone can be happy when married to someone who loves someone else. (Unless, of course, one is insensitive – and May certainly is not insensitive.) It is unlikely that May herself can be fulfilled when married to Wayland, who, she knows, loves another. So what does May get out of this?

      One possible answer – and I think this is a likely answer – is that her motive is to assert the values that she believes are more important than those of individual human needs. Not just the needs of Wayland and of Ellen, but also of herself. So, while she engineers a situation in which Wayland is compelled to sacrifice, she sacrifices herself also. From her perspective, marriage is not – or, at least, not necessarily – a consummation and resolution of individual human desires: it is, first and foremost, an institution that serves the wider ideal of social stability. We may think this deplorable, but nonetheless, these are her values, and these are the values also of her family: Ellen Olenska may be happier divorced, but that’s bad for social stability; and so, the family is against it, although they care for Ellen personally. Similarly, May and Wayland may not find personal fulfilment in being married to each other, but for May, there are values far more important than individual fulflment. She acts for the sake of these values, and if, in the process, she demands a sacrifice from Wayland, she sacrifices herself too. In this sense, I’d argue that May is, indeed, innocent.

      At the very least, the title of the novel compels us to question what “innocence” actually means.

      Reply

      • Well, May was engaged to Wayland. What would be her response to or how would she feel about having him break the engagement? I think that may also play a role, in addition to her feelings about societal values.

      • Yes, it’s difficult, isn’t it? I’m honestly not sure. May is such ashadowy figure, it is very difficult to disern her true motives. This difficulty is obviously what Wharton had intended: the ambiguity surrounding May’s motives is important, I think.

        It is certainly true that May wants to avoid the social stigma of having her engagement broken off. But this again goes back to the values of society, ad the importance of upholding them.

        The alternative is that May would prefer to live in an empty, loveless marriage to having the engagement being broken off. I can’t really see May as soeone so short-sighted. Indeed, everything she says and does reveals her as being very far-sighted.

      • Yes, the ambiguity is there–perhaps it’s a case of mixed motives on May’s part. She acts for several reasons. The pressure to get married may have been so strong that even a loveless marriage was better than spinsterhood back then.

  2. Posted by Charley Brady on June 22, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    I dislike doing this, but I can’t really add anything to your review, Himadree, without sending you my own, far more simplistic one:

    http://www.cbsays.com/edith-wharton-the-age-of-innocence-1920/

    It is the only book of Wharton’s that I’ve read and I wasn’t expecting to find it so engrossing. And truly shocking, in its way.

    Martin Scorsese said of his film version (which I thought was quite extraordinary) that it was in many ways the most violent film he had ever made.

    Yes, I know; coming from the guy who had done two films right before like ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Cape Fear,’ this sounds like pure hyperbole.

    And yet I see what he is getting at: these awful social strictures, this idea of being in a cage of utter conformity…yes, I THINK I know what he meant…..

    Reply

    • Hello Charley, thank you very much for that link.

      It’s interesting you mention the ambiguity inthe novel. It is something I felt quite strongly, but it doesn’t appear to be something that’s widely noted. I think if we were to see this simply as a straightforwardlove story with a sad ending, then May Welland is bound to appear something of a villain. And I don’t think she is. Also, if we see in in such terms, the whole thing becomes yet another account of individual aspiartions crushed by Society, and,quite frankly, that sort of thing does become a bore after a while.

      It’s not that Wharton did not appreciate this aspect of it. But she also realised the importance of social stability. It’s this stability that provides Newland’s and May’s son with a stable environment in which to grow up: it is not something to be summarily disissed.

      If it weren’t for this ambiguity, this wouldbe just another novel on awell-worn theme. It’s this ambiguity that prevents it being flat, and throws everything into relief.

      I haven’t actually seen Scorsese’s film. Perhaps I’d best get round to it,

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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