The Age of Innocence is a striking retrospection into the waning class-conscious of late 1800s New York. In a country defined by its assertions of freedom, this story raises questions of experience in high society, and how too much decorum risks making emotions barren.
Like England, the class system of Wharton’s society is really a caste system. It is intractable. While we never really conflicts between the classes, we sense class fears within them (or at least one). Despite its apolitical stance, its potency actually relies upon the whimsy of its beginning. Like so many class-based stories, Wharton’s prose delightfully dances with exotic detail, her noticing of European decor is as enchanting as it is beguiling – I had to refer dozens of times to my Kindle dictionary to know what might have been what. This commitment to European stratification creates an in-group. Wharton exploits this in-group with magnificently clever narrative portrayals of this society’s perception. Newland wonders whether his wife knows of his romantic affections for Olenska. Without verbal reply he reads her eyes, and over a page of exposition he experiences how she infers and double-bluffs both with and against social expectations. Even Austen did not try that over so long. The progression of the wife May, and her awareness of Archer’s love, is the most engaging relationship in the story. While demeaning for her ignorant ‘innocence’ for not subverting expectations, she rather uses them, with morally sound, if devastating, consequences.
The heart of the novel beats in its excellent ending where Newland Archer and Countess Olenska have sacrificed their romantic happiness only for Newland to see those social norms decay. Whilst this devastates a 2018 reader, such melancholy is dignified:
It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.
This is what the book is really about, the balancing heart and mind, reason and sensibility, of self and others. This message needs to be heard in an age of dislocated excess where cultural deprivation is experienced by many. Replacing expectations of social decorum, our mindless feel-good messages have made a god of materialism. A romantic way of living problematises the wider theme of stability vs nourishment in relationships, a theme that should be much recognized in the Tinder generation. Do you want to follow your heart against good sense? The feeling that a better match could always something better around the corner is not just a modern danger – Charlotte Bronte suffered it, as did Austen. Suffering the disappointment of reality should make a relationship more authentic. Authenticity is a prime facet of romance. Yet it seems that Archer’s love is built grounds that are inauthentic, but not to him:
“It’s more 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.
Conflicting with romantic expectations, it seems that it is the man who is metaphorically conquered for once, not his lover. I am reminded that reality is that which exists even when you ignore it: you can ignore a fist flying through the air into your face, but it will still strike you regardless. For Archer, reality is seen as something that imposes, and it seems that fantasy and reality are interchangeable – both are arbitrary, and yet appear to be relative. Fantasy has as much a hold on Archer as does real expectations of marrying May. Perhaps the force of control in this society is the urge to live in the view of others. The structuring of The Age of Innocence, where they last chapters last decades, demonstrates how time is not experienced in a linear fashion, but rather in reaction to the intensity of emotional experience.
If such social coercion regulates love and relationships, perhaps our definition of innocence in this age is to accept that coercion. It is to live up to expectations without perhaps even knowing what they are. Any manipulation of Archer’s reified social atmosphere seems fraught with difficulty. Upon discovering that he is not so keen to guide Countess Olenska to avoid divorcing from her loveless marriage, he is unable to provide a straight answer to his fiancé as to what he has done, let alone thought. Whilst some trivial, he is affected by his witholding of information from his fiance: Yet not to do so gave the affair an air of mystery that he disliked. He desires to dalliance, yet does not want to take responsibility for the consequences. As is so easily the case in a patriarchy, a man sincere when declaring love fails to leave follow through if the personal cost is too great. It is this tension, this inability to defy that which gives you status in exchange for your soul, that makes The Age of Innocence somewhat magical.
I wondered as a reader how aware Archer is of his own reasons and his own thoughts. In contrast, the obese aunt figure is funny and contentious. That she operates outside physical expectation of women makes her powerful. She manipulates expectations of her and subverts the thought that New York is the centre of things This expectation drives the text, with old money clinging to power with desperation. Its transmogrification into modern frippery defies a world that doesn’t exist anymore:
What was left of the little world he had grown up in, and whose standards had bent and bound him? He remembered a sneering prophecy of poor Lawrence Lefferts’s, uttered years ago in that very room: “If things go on at this rate, our children will be marrying Beaufort’s bastards.”
The old world has changed and is no longer ordered by incestuous expectations: America has evolved into a ”free” state.
Such freedom leads to intellectual contention, most notably for Newland. His intellectual ideas contrast with his desires, and with his environment. His attraction to Olenska is presented as passionate and worthwhile, yet is often presented in physical terms, to subtle eroticism and repeated motifs of her ‘little satin boots’ that ‘peep’ from her ‘long draperies’ titillating his high-Victorian (USA!) sensibilities. Yet he is never able to seize his passion and subvert expectations he has for himself. His dialogue is particularly telling, and demonstrates his frustrating vacillations:
For a moment he could not speak; then he said: “There is no pledge—no obligation whatever—of the kind you think. Such cases don’t always—present themselves quite as simply as . . . But that’s no matter . . . I love your generosity, because I feel as you do about those things . . . I feel that each case must be judged individually, on its own merits . . . irrespective of stupid conventionalities . . . I mean, each woman’s right to her liberty—”
His inability to express himself damns him to unhappiness. This tension is revealed partly through his inabilty to articulate, but also through his inabilty to refuse the coercive attraction of his social structure and power. This inarticulacy in love, of how social determination closes the heart, is a devastating message, and one with no easy ending. That Archer ultimately lives to benefit his family and children and holds an image of an alternative love in his heard is poignant if not ideal. His love for Olenska may not be real, but his experience is.