Monday, 6 April 2015

'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton (1920)

Synopsis: The Age of Innocence takes place during the 1870s. Newland Archer is a young lawyer and the heir to one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York City. Newland has recently become engaged to a pretty and thoroughly conventional young woman called May Welland and is looking forward to his marriage. This changes when Newland then meets May's alluring and mysterious older cousin Ellen Olenska. Ellen was born in New York but has spent most of her life travelling around Europe and is the wife of a Polish count. Ellen has scandalously returned home to New York after separating herself from her adulterous husband. She has set up her own home in an unfashionable part of town and her family are now putting great pressure on her to return to her husband and her miserable life. However, Newland is fascinated by Ellen and her exotic European ways and feels great compassion towards her. The two of them then become good friends. Newland's affection towards Ellen becomes even stronger and eventually grows into an intense passion. Even after his marriage to May, Newland can't put aside his feelings towards Ellen. He begins to rebel in small ways but still feels suffocated by his socially conventional marriage, job and life and longs for Ellen. Will Newland divorce May, run away with Ellen and become an outcast of society or will he stay with May and live a safe but dull life?

The Age of Innocence is my first Edith Wharton novel and it's now one of my favourite books of all time. It's an achingly beautiful book that I was completely captivated by and now I really want to read more of Wharton's works. The writing in this book is wonderful! It's vivid, emotional, poetic, beautiful and full of atmosphere. Edith Wharton was the first female author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and her award was completely deserved. That being said I couldn't disagree more with the reason why the judges chose this book. The judges of the prize praised The Age of Innocence for revealing "the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood"... what were they THINKING?!

Edith Wharton grew up in 1870s' New York and The Age of Innocence is a scathing portrayal of that world. Most of the New Yorkers in the book are convinced that their culture and society is far superior to the French and English and yet Wharton depicts New York as a place that's stuffy, uptight, cruel and hypocritical. The city might be glamorous, beautiful and cultured but people aren't really alive in it. New York society is obsessed with tradition and is tied up in ridiculous and meaningless social conventions that have to be followed at all times. People care more about following conventionality and being "decent" than being moral. Ellen's family consider her an embarrassment because she has "odd" European ways and is now seeking a divorce and yet they're the ones who are trying to force her into going back to her husband! Even though they're perfectly aware that the Count had numerous affairs and - it's heavily implied - abused Ellen. I was very angry with these characters on Ellen's behalf! I did love the social commentary in this book though. Wharton's writing is witty, sarcastic and biting and it reminded me very much of Jane Austen in this respect. The bittersweet final chapter of this book is an interesting one too because Wharton indicates that times are changing and that New York society is improving and yet... The Age of Innocence was written in the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the 1920s and that book is a highly scathing portrayal of New York society as well. Clearly New York is changing for the better but it still has a very long way to go.

Another thing that I absolutely loved about this book was how engaging and complex the main characters. To compare this book with another classic novel that features the theme of adultery, I found Newland and Ellen far more sympathetic than Anna and Count Vronsky in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. They're nowhere near as selfish for one thing and they actually consider the feelings of their families. When I was reading the book I actually said out loud "Oh why couldn't the two of you have met you earlier?!" once or twice. Newland and Ellen seemed so intellectually and emotionally compatible. Newland is very flawed but I did him very interesting and sympathetic. He believes in women's rights, is well-travelled, appreciates European culture, and is an intellectual with a genuine love of art, music and literature. He doesn't go to the opera and the theatre for social reasons (like the other characters do) but because he genuinely enjoys the music and stories. Newland is also quite the romantic and the dreamer. I really felt his frustration and his inner struggle between his conscience and his desperate longing for Ellen. I had a huge amount for sympathy for Ellen as well. I really felt sorry for her because she isn't trying to be rebellious. She isn't revelling in her scandalous reputation. All Ellen wants is to have a quiet life and she's bewildered and hurt by New York's hostility towards her. She's a fascinating character and it's easy to understand why Newland falls for her; since she's mysterious, vivacious, passionate, independent and unconventional. I suppose I should mention May now who's the other part of the book's love triangle. May comes across as nothing more than a shallow, bland airhead for the vast majority of the book - appropriately - but there are certain occasions where Wharton hints that there's much more to her. And towards the end of the book we find out that May has a cunning, calculating side and was much more aware of what was going on between Newland and Ellen than Newland gave her credit for. However, whenever May shows any flashes of spirit she quickly represses this and reverts back to being boring and socially conventional again.

The final chapter of this book is highly ambiguous and I've read multiple interpretations about why Newland did what he did. Why did he refuse to meet up with Ellen even though his son Dallas encouraged him to do so and both May and the Count are now dead? Well, here's my own personal take on that: although I do believe that Newland loved Ellen I think he was afraid of meeting her again. It's quite likely that after living such very different lives for decades that Newland and Ellen might not have had very much in common with each other any more and I think Newland would have been aware of that. I think he would have been worried that he would no longer recognise the Ellen that he fell in love with or that she would now find him boring and insipid (which are the things that he once thought about May). Newland didn't have the courage to meet Ellen again. Instead he chose to dwell on the happy memories of Ellen which had sustained him - which is utterly heartbreaking and tragic but it's completely understandable and in-character. Throughout the book I think it's pretty clear that neither Newland or Ellen really had the courage to turn their backs against society.

The Age of Innocence is a spectacular novel. At this point in the year A Room with a View has been the most entertaining and delightful book that I've read but The Age of Innocence has been by far the most moving and powerful. I would highly recommend this book - especially to fans of classic novels and to fans of rich, internal character dramas.

Rating: 5/5

P.S. I've also seen the 1993 Martin Scorsese adaptation of this book and I would highly recommend that film as well. Scorsese is best known for directing gritty films like Goodfellas and Gangs of New York so I can imagine that to some he'll seem like an incredibly odd choice to be directing a period drama like The Age of Innocence. His film is extremely faithful to the book though and it really does justice to the story. Scorsese even utilises an omniscient narrator (voiced by Joanne Woodward) to recite much of Edith Wharton's prose. The film is a feast for the eyes visually and there are some stunning shots. I was also very impressed by how Scorsese handled the more emotionally charged scenes between Newland and Ellen. They're sensual and erotic but are very far from being explicit. Newland and Ellen's scenes together are written that way in the book but a lot of writers would have felt the need to "sex up" their scenes so I was impressed by the level of restraint that was shown in the film. Acting-wise, Daniel Day Lewis gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Newland. I was especially impressed by him because the last film I saw him in was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of A Room with a View where he plays a completely different character in Cecil Vyse! The roles of Ellen and May in the film are played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. Neither Pfeiffer or Ryder look anything like their book characters - in the book it's Ellen who's the brunette and May the blonde - but they both give excellent performances. If Scorsese had made more films like The Age of Innocence and Hugo in his career I'd be a much bigger fan. 


Corinne said...

Oh, if you like this one I highly recommend The House of Mirth. It's absolutely exquisite. I think it's one of the most finely written novels I've ever read. :)

Hannah said...

Corinne - Hi! Thanks for the recommendation! I've heard great things about that book although apparently it's even more tragic than The Age of Innocence?! I'll be sure to read the book at some point but probably not *very* soon.

Hamlette said...

I need to read Edith Wharton! I've been wanting read either this or House of Mirth for years, but it just hasn't happened yet. They sound so excellent.

samara said...

Oh thank you for your insightful review! It seems this novel is often a secondary classic novel, but I believe it belongs on all of the lists of great classics--and your review captures why! So glad you enjoyed it :D [I LOVE that last chapter!!]

Hannah said...

Hamlette - Yay! I hope you'll like your first experience of Edith Wharton whichever book you pick :) Or you could start with the movie which I thought was excellent.

Samara - Thank you! :) And I think I know what you mean. I first found out about this book quite a few years ago and I've been meaning to read it for a long time and yet, it doesn't seem to get the love that many other 20th century classics do. I think it's a terrible shame. I think it deserves just as much praise and respect as... 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'The Great Gatsby' for example. You talked about Wharton having a "transatlantic" feel in another post I did and I'm thinking that might have something to do with Wharton being underrated. Maybe she's seen as too European to be lauded as a great American writer. Who knows?! And yes, that last chapter was a perfect ending for the book. I really loved it. I think if I'd read the book as a teenager that I might have found that last chapter depressing and confusing but really, the book couldn't have ended in any other way.

Lianne @ said...

I second Corinne's recommendation for The House of Mirth; to date it's my favourite Edith Wharton novel for all of the themes it touches on, internal character drama, and just the characters, but yeah, it's also much more tragic than The Age of Innocence.

Anyway, great review! The social commentary in this novel was very interesting to think about and explore.

Hannah said...

Lianne - Thank you! Based on what you've said about 'The House of Mirth' I'm going to try to read that one at some point this year :)