It seems cruel…these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people…now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled: “Use unknown”.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
It’s taken me quite a while, but I think the meditative pace at which I’ve read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is quite fitting. The story takes place in a much slower age than our own and offers us a revealing snapshot into a different time. The Age of Innocence strikes me as a very unusual book; written by a woman, yet narrated from a male perspective it presents a rather sobering picture of upper class New York life in the late 19th century.
I can’t say that The Age of Innocence has gripped me, but there is something captivating about it. Whilst reading I have left the book for days at a time without reading a single page and yet, upon picking it up again have been thoroughly engaged by the story and my curiosity has been excited throughout. Each time I have read a passage of the book I have enjoyed it, although in between I have not felt myself as drawn to it as with other books. It’s hard to explain.
Wharton’s story is narrated in the third person, but as a reader we largely follow Newland Archer and his internal thoughts and perceptions of the society in which he lives. It’s a strange narration, Newland seems to me to be something of a matter-of-fact person, not too effusive, not too verbose…even in his most tortured moments of inner turmoil the narration is calm and straightforward with no wild metaphors or heady outpourings of emotion. Perhaps this is Wharton’s greatest metaphor…Newland’s narration is self-contained, unemotional and tightly-laced up…mirroring the circle of society in which Wharton’s story takes place.
The Age of Innocence is very much a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ account of the battle between respectability and passion. It’s a very sad story with the extraordinary Countess Olenska as the personification of this sadness. She is very much the sacrificial lamb on the altar of several societies. No more beautiful than at her palest when she herself decides to step up to that altar, “her face looked lustreless and almost ugly, and he had never loved it as he did at that minute”.
The Age of Innocence won Edith Wharton the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman ever to be awarded it, I can see why this book earned her renown. Wharton’s story, like others, carries many warnings. Even today it could be held up as a stark warning against marrying without affection. It is also a glaring account of the ways in which society – at any level – ushers us along a particular course and binds us to certain behaviours.
The book’s final pages are perhaps its saddest, Wharton’s final warning…beware what you do with your life, eventually you will become a product of your habits. If you live under restraint, not saying what you think and feel then one day you will become too frightened to step outside of a line you yourself have drawn – confined in action and in word by bars you have been polishing throughout the days of your life. At the book’s conclusion we understand that society demands its sacrifices in many ways and, perhaps, Countess Olenska’s early self-sacrifice upon the altar was only a portent to the slow gnawing away we see others undergo as society drains them to a husk.
Would I recommend The Age of Innocence? I think so. It’s a little slow-going and perhaps a few pages longer than it needs to be, but Wharton’s story is well written, well drawn and well read. Even today, almost a century after it was first published, The Age of Innocence is still relevent to the modern reader, there are still parallels to be drawn, warnings to be taken.
I move on to a book I have been meaning to read for several years, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.