The Age of Innocence – Review

Book: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Year: 1920
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤

Society is what makes the rules and it has the capacity to bring to life and to kill the players who don’t adhere to it.

Duty versus Love.

It’s an interesting stipulation that can be regarded either strictly in academic terms or in real terms. Academic interest raises the question on the profound nature of it being answerable so that a clinical equation, or if you must, an if-then-else analysis could be framed. A question wedded to reality demands to be answered with a justified urgency attached to it.

Of course, the divergent views regarding the same are not of great importance as the juxtaposition, so easily mentioned above, usually happens at the same time. The bent of the human mind defers such questions on a basis of principal and it is, in my honest opinion, the reason of the slow degradation of the human mind.

Newland Archer, a modern, young bachelor, is engaged to the beautiful May Welland and, like all couples, they believe that they’ve met their perfect match. Newland is infatuated by the grace of May who has been trained all her life by her mother and every female member of the extended family to be the perfect wife and daughter. She smiles at appropriate intervals at parties, educated herself in history and poetry that Newland appreciates, entertains him with jokes that are expected of a woman of her station to know and understand and succeeds in keeping Newland company at balls and events where it is looked upon with favour to have a beautiful woman in the company of an upcoming lawyer. 

The Age of Innocence ?1788 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
The Age of Innocence The 1785 painting by Joshua Reynolds believed to have been the inspiration for the title of Wharton’s novel

Everything is perfect in the lives of Newland and May until a distant foreign cousin of May’s arrives with pomp and splendor of a vulgar kind. New York of old was a society, as the author has led me to believe, which was lavish in its parties, rich in its gossip, liberated in its practice but, at the same time, strict in its judgement. Ellen Olenska brings in European sophistication along with a scandal to the society of New York. She has left her husband and come to America on her own to seek out her life away from the riches of her husband.

Newland tries, not very hard though, not to be taken in by the aura of her scandalous past, her foreign beauty and her sorrowful past. One cannot deny that Newland initially tries, in his own way, to make detours away from her. But his detours lead him towards her rather than away from her. May, being the dutiful wife that she has been taught to be, shields her eyes and senses away from disagreeable facts by ignoring the signs that were far too easy to read.

Newland knows very well that it would be a funeral march of his standing if he breaks May’s heart for a foreign beauty. Newland believes that Love has nothing to do with Duty. He reminds himself of this at every juncture of his confusion and comes out scathed, hurt and beaten by the very society that he raised toasts to.

The picture painted by Wharton is akin to the lives of great people whose chronicles are smeared with veneer to repel dirt lest the future generations not be led wrong. For the general good, the perpetuating of a lie is not considered an evil. The men and women of New York, set in the days when ‘society’ was made up of all kind of folks, but there was a sneer in its welcoming smile that was reserved for those who did not tread the fine line of ‘societal norm’, welcomed Ellen Olenska with open arms. But the same society would make their displeasure shown in the most subtle of practices.

The most striking aspect of Wharton’s novel is the portrayal of its main characters. Newland is the perfect foil for a gentleman. He has had disagreeable relationships in the past and he was never meant to be ashamed of it. On the contrary, it was deemed obvious and by the book to have had such few instances. But, the same Newland was expected to walk the strict line of decency after he married.

May’s character is like a surprise. The weakness of the physical aspects of her is a striking contrast to her mental capacity. Readers will not know how to align themselves with her. Yes, Wharton makes the case of Feminism too. Her portrayal of May is a mere shadow of Ellen’s character. Ellen is strong. May is, although not weak, but weepy and easily influenced by charm. May is the kinds that will forego her own free will completely only to adhere to the society in which she lives. She will stop horse riding and take up needle point; stop arguing with her husband and make mere references to her point without rebutting it. Wharton’s May is nothing but a woman who has decided to carry the burden of the ‘correctness’ of action where action is judged strongly.

Where Newland is shown with a lot of spine in certain instances and completely taken in by emotions in others, May has a more linear character. She is expected to be, and is, the life saver at a party; she will intercede with a remark to fill in a void; she will smile a beautiful smile at the right moment that would make her look radiant and make Newland look like he couldn’t be happier.

Wharton makes a good case for the divide in the New York lifestyles. I would suggest this book to those who would like to see the cleaving differences that society views a man and a woman as compared to a husband and a wife. The stark differences are there for everyone to see and perceive. May Welland and Newland Archer are caught in the vortex of a triangle and the story is about survival of the fittest.


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