The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
July 2006 Ed.
It has an Introduction by Wendy Wasserstein who gives us a comparison of the modern America and the America that Edith Wharton used as the social setting in her books. She dwells on Wharton’s personal life and how it affected her writing. Her introduction makes the enigmatic characters to us a little more relevant and understandable. I usually skip introductions and launch into the story fast but this was, on first intention, an exercise less in entertainment and more in literary appreciation That’s the focus of my reading of this year.
The book is set in the America of the 1870s when the New England settlers still held on to their New England norms and mores. Where divorce, as Newland Archer, the hero says is legally accepted but socially abhorred. They live in their small world of nobility where gentlemen only pretend to work and foreigners are excluded where marriages are sacrosanct and European ways are unapproved . In their world family and its traditions are upheld at the cost of individual thought, freedom and of course love. In one of conversations Madame Olenska asks why they looked for new lands when they had to keep the old ways.
The book spans thirty years of the life of Newland Archer, his fiancée and later on wife May Welland and her cousin Madame Olenska. The affianced couple have their lives pushed into turmoil by the arrival of Ellen Olenska. To say more will reveal the plot. The story is of love: intense but inarticulate, and how they all live through this. Does Archer do what he is supposed to do? Is Ellen really the woman she has been projected as? The book keeps you hooked till the end. The peripheral characters Mrs. Mingott, Beaufort and Mrs. Archer along with others weave a web of wonder around the main characters.
What thoughts/feelings it provoked in me? I was disheartened by their situation and wanted to change the course they took. I understood their wishing for a world where they could only live for each other and their grief and helplessness over its non-existence.
The literary part and its significance. It’s a beautifully written book with deep insight as well as inside information of the America of her time. The writing is lucid and simple. The descriptions are short and crisp and she never loses her grip on the plot. She brings to light how they were changing in late 1800s and now we can see now how they have. I was forced to think about our situation here in India we are still caught up in caste, poverty and class struggle while sticking to the same type of rigidities. Maybe it will also take us another 150 years.
For me a work of fiction should give you pleasure as well as insight and arouse some emotion. This one did all of it.