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.