It is a novel of intimacy. Intimacy felt in the ruffle of fabric and of passion looking at the lady you are in love with while she is looking away at the waves of the sea. The horse drawn carriages are mere evidence of the era and classism is the notorious ex who will not feel like your own but will not let you be with the woman you are pining for.
‘The Age of Innocence’ caught my fancy while I was still unemployed and new to the city. While I was binging on Gossip Girl for the mindless entertainment I came across an episode where a bunch of high school students enact ‘The Age of Innocence’. If it hadn’t have been for Vanessa’s description of the novel I would have let it slide. But Vanessa can be quite convincing.
So here I am, reviewing ‘The Age of Innocence’, a classic. It has renewed my interest in classic and aren’t we glad!
I posses a penguin ‘the times’ edition of the novel. I have not seen too many of these around. But I quite like the cover. The pink and white band give a classy no-nonsense look to the cover. The book falls into romance genre and it is made clear through the cover. There is not much to talk about the cover other than that but the inside is as beautiful as the outside. The pages are comfortable to read unlike the other penguin paperback copies. I plan to hunt for few more books in the same edition.
The book is primarily about the romance of Countess Olenska and Newland Archer. Countess Olenska returns to New York after her separation from her husband. She is a forward thinker and an art lover. She is the only one who looks alive among a sea of dead people. She is not beautiful, she is inherently charming.
Newland Archer is immediately smitten by her.
He is a free thinker. He is a feminist. He believes ‘women in our society should be as free as the men’. He can see his own ideologies live in Countess Olenska and thus she becomes a subject of his thought rather quickly.
Newland Archer is a man of ways. He knows what’s acceptable in a society and what is not. He understands that arriving early is not in fashion and a flower in his buttonhole at every arrival is. He is in love with art. He understands that a man needs to find a socially acceptable wife. He dreams of an ideal life with May Wellend, cousin of Countess Olenska and who may share his love for art and literature.
May is a woman of society. She possesses all the grace and manners of a lady. But what she lacks is the fire that makes life liveable. Engaged to Newland Archer, she is a good match for him, an obedient wife, someone he can go to parties with. She is woman who lacks imagination but fulfills it with emotions.
All three characters are as deep as the sea. They are all very complex in their own way. Each loves in their own way and sacrifices in their own way.
The story begins with an opera performance where all the elites of New York are present. And present there is Countess Olenska. She dressed different and carries herself different from the other ladies. Newland Archer, after waiting enough, to not be early to the opera, enters the old elite auditorium and is taken aback by her presence. He was aware of her presence in the city but he never expected May to bring her to the opera with her. He finds it his duty to protect Countess Olenska from the public scrutiny since she is family now.
Thus begins the heartbreaking tale of forbidden love.
Newland Archer settles into a marriage because ‘he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she has represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an inescapable duty.’
He wanted a wife who is free. Who realised that she is free and enjoys her freedom in ways more than just laying good dinner parties and winning archery matches. ‘He did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience’. He thought he could lift the curtain and make her see but he soon realised his limitations. He decided he will have his domestic life inside the house and intellectual one outside.
Newland Archer finds love but it is not attainable. The elite society of New York that he once was in love with comes biting when he seeks happiness. His denial of being a cheater like Lefferts and his various affairs pulls him into the abyss. He sets himself apart from the other cheating men. He and Olenska were different, but different how?
The narration is from the point of view of Newland Archer. Countess Olenska is made a Goddess figure with Archer’s eloquence. She is the kind of woman every man dreams of and every woman wants to be like. It is a great work of one’s passion. May Wellend is not the sad little woman as it may sound like. She is emotional but holds her Fort well.
The novel possesses great detail in passion. The strive to reach the unattainable and the perfection in tragedy is the beauty of this classic. The intimacy in the mind surpasses all the stolen kisses. The romance is heartbreakingly beautiful.
After all of the above, the book is a lot more than just romance. It is about classism in New York. It is about the changing faces of society. It is about the introduction of feminism to the conservatives. It is the Age of Innocence.
Edith Wharton has a perfect voice for a high society literature which depicts the era. Her descriptions are to the point, sometimes poetic. The life and time are described extremely well with doses of commentary and passion throughout the book.
The cover page is a collectible. The characters possess extreme depths. They are all unique in their own way. The story is about love, loss and moving on with life with a hollow where heart ought to be. The language is probably the best part of the book. It makes the reading worthwhile.
It is complex novel, needs multiple readings to understand various aspects of the book.
It was my new year resolution to read one classic per month and unlike other resolutions, I plan to keep this one. ‘The Age of Innocence’ has revived my love for classics.
Whom do I recommend this to
This is for all those who want to be a part of history and feel it to the bones and gray matter. This is for those who tire of shallow writing.
The real loneliness is living among all these kind of people who only ask one to pretend!
“Look at the career of the honest man in American politics! They don’t want us.” “Who’s ‘they’? Why don’t you all get together and be ‘they’ yourselves?”
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
I can’t love you unless I give you up.
The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.