THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
by Edith Wharton
Barnes & Noble, 2004 (original pub: 1920)
Paperback; 305 pages
Set in the old New York of the early 1870s, The Age of Innocence is an examination of the tension between society’s demands and personal freedom. Newland Archer is a young man from a wealthy family about to be married to May Welland, a sweet but unimaginative girl. A bookish dilettante, he leads a comfortable life among New York’s moneyed set. However, his life is turned upside down with the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, a damaged woman fleeing her troubled marriage to a European count.
In contrast to conventional May, Ellen goes against the grain, spurning society’s expectations. Newland is immediately drawn to the more free-spirited cousin. Although Newland follows through with his promise to May, he secretly yearns for her Ellen. Some melodrama ensues, blah blah blah, you can read the novel.
I did not love this book. The social criticism of the first few pages was really biting and funny, but the tone of the book quickly changed to something more somber and less enjoyable. I also had trouble relating to Archer; I understood his frustrations with his rigid society and his desire to break free and follow his heart, but at the same time I was thinking, “You’re a rich white man at the top of New York society, and you’re about to marry a very nice girl. Man, you just have it SO HARD.” (I probably need to work on that empathy thing.)
I was, however, fascinated by Ellen. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I am ALL ABOUT anything feminist. I loved that this woman pretty much does what she wants to, and her reputation be damned. She gets married off to a European, has a horrible life with him, and then takes off with the help of ANOTHER MAN (Scandal with a capital S). And then she returns to New York, where she grew up, and proceeds to dress provocatively, socialize with people at whom the “real” old-money crowd look down their noses, and attend parties members of the most privileged set wouldn’t be caught dead at. I so admire her fight for independence, especially considering the time period.
Overall, The Age of Innocence was kind of “meh” for me. I appreciate the themes Wharton portrayed, and I thought her nuanced depiction of old New York society was interesting. I just had trouble connecting with the narrator. However, if someone wants to write a spin-off of this story, Longbourn or Death Comes to Pemberly-style, told from Ellen’s perspective, I would totally get behind that.
This is my third book out of 50 read for The Classics Club.