It’s sad that we regard many classic novels as stuffy things of the past. There are several I’m still afraid of reading (Portrait of a Lady comes to mind) for fear of getting lost in a month-long haze of reading. I’m sure some of the fault lies in the way these novels are presented in schools. It wasn’t until late in my education that I came to realize that classic novels were classic for a reason: usually they are very very good and people like to read them because they are more than just an intellectual exercise and more than just a formulaic plot.
I now challenge anyone to read Edith Whaton’s The Age of Innocence (the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to be awarded to a woman) and call it stuffy. Sure, the cover might look very formal and the society it describes is certainly stuffy, but Wharton’s prose is full of comedy and insight on par with or perhaps better than Jane Austen’s best. If that scares some of you away because you find Austen’s stories too happy, don’t worry about that here.
Let me begin by presenting a sample of Wharton’s writing that made me laugh out loud. Here Wharton is describing the morbidly obese matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the center of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.
That is not stuffy prose. And I’m not going to work hard to temper my desire to quote liberally from the book. With that introduction to Wharton’s skill, I now feel secure in describing the setup of the story, hoping that it won’t sound stuffy now.
It’s New York in the 1870s. Young Newland Archer of the upper-class has passed through the initial stages of manhood lock-step with what society expected. He is now grown and has a job at a prestigious law firm that handles the affairs of the upper-class. He’s had his conventionally wild post-adolescence, carrying on an affair with a married woman, etc., but as expected he has now found the value of settling down in matrimony.
There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable — and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous — that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.
Strangely, even that feeling of relief when one’s son passes the Siren Isle is conventional. Despite the fact that Newland’s life is hardly unconventional, he has always seen himself as above New York’s social mores and considers himself quite cosmopolitan. He tells himself that he didn’t have an affair with a married woman in his youth just because that’s when his society condones that sort of behavior; he did it because he wanted to. He is not now settling down to marriage because it is expected; he’s truly fallen in love with May Welland, and together they will rise above society.
May is purely conventional, however. But Newland looks forward to liberating her, though recently he’s had fears about how easily that might be accomplished:
It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman’s eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family tomb? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of theKentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?
As marriage approaches, Newland is less secure about his future with May:
He reviewed his friends’ marriage — the supposedly happy ones — and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation to May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
To complicate matters further, Newland’s heart is drifting away from May. In the first chapter we meet the Countess Olenska, May’s older — but not old — cousin who married a count and has lived abroad for years. Returning to New York in a scandal, the Countess has just left her husband in Europe (“And now it’s too late; her life is finished”) and is even seeking a divorce. In another scandal, the Wellands have allowed the Countess to accompany them to the opera. Newland is proud of his almost-fiancée for avoiding false prudery and receiving her cousin, but to bring her to the opera is shocking even to him. Naturally, that doesn’t stop him from meeting the Countess.
Recognizing an innate attraction to the Countess, Newland convinces his family and May’s family to announce the engagement sooner than planned. He then attempts to get them to flout convention and advance the date of the marriage, though this frustrates him because it is expected that the future groom will desire such things. May asks Newland if he’s afraid he’ll fall out of love with her if they don’t move the date. And then in a form of magnanimity appropriate to one of her well-bred station, but shockingly genuine (May is a fantastically elusive character, allowing Wharton to criticize the society while recognizing its strength), May asks whether it is because Newland is in love with someone else but is unable to marry that other person.
Newland denies everything, which is all the easier when Newland sees that May thinks the woman he loves is his old fling and not the Countess, neither of whom he could marry since they were not divorced. Surprisingly, Mrs. Manson Mingott says the marriage date should be sooner, not later. Thus begins a torturous marriage where Newland has an affair in extreme slow motion, seeing the Countess only occasionally, and her basically unwilling. But though he rarely sees her, his mind is absent while he is with May. The marriage deteriorates quickly as Newland blames May for not being as interesting as the Countess. There was “no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.” The ideas of his “untrammeled bachelorhood” no longer interest him.
This is a great story about a society afraid to approach the brink of change except by paying it lip service, only to create the illusion of an enlightened mind. Fascinatingly, and I didn’t expect this, Wharton also shows the intricacies of that society’s power. Not even Newland understands how it works, even when it is working to make him fall in line. And underneath these giant themes are the lives of three individuals — the heart of the story. We feel for Newland, though we may not like him. We are attracted to and respect the Countess, who both flouts and respects the social construct of New York. And while we sympathize with May, at first because she looks pathetic, we increasingly come to respect her as we see that she is far from naïve and powerless even though — and perhaps all the more so because — she has to do her maneuvering beneath the surface and within the social constructs she considers inviolate.