The Age of Innocence
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence is the twelfth novel published by Edith Wharton, winning for her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. It centers on the impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland. And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth.
Apology it may be, but it still has biting passages and moments of silent despair for the primary characters of Newland and Ellen. And there is the sacrifice of artistic, romantic impulses for family duty and societal respectability. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York's best families, thinks he is in love with the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska and even entertains the thought of leaving his wife for her, but when he learns that his wife May is pregnant, he abandons all hope of love and happiness and decides to stay with May.
The difficulty of genuine human communication in the upper strata of society is an important theme in the Archer plot. Newland Archer lives in what Wharton calls "a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." Most of the important personal communications between Archer and his wife are left unsaid. Many times Archer imagines what she is saying to him (or more complicated yet what she thinks he is saying to her), but of course Archer may be reading the hieroglyphics wrong. Because so little that is felt is actually expressed, Archer at times appears to be having an internal dialogue with himself.
Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience. But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especially Newland and Ellen as noted above, were what I found most interesting. The regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.
Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds. It was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations. This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.