The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, is a tricky book for modern audiences. To start with, the main character, Newland Archer, is neither likeable nor relatable. He’s not a villain, simply a weak man. Meanwhile, the story lacks action. As my husband would say, “It needs more explosions.” In this book, even the most dramatic moments are delivered politely and quietly. The stakes are small, nothing more nor less than the personal happiness of three people.
Wharton’s writing has quite a bit in common with Jane Austen’s. Like Austen, the events of The Age of Innocenceinvolve small matters – clothes, dinner parties, marriages. When we read Jane Austen, we talked about how everyone in Austen speaks in a kind of code. In Wharton’s book, the author calls out the code and demonstrates explicitly to the viewer what the role of the code is, and what people are really saying:
“The change will do you good,” she said simply, when he had finished; “and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone she might have employed in urging him not to neglect some irksome family duty.
It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: “Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathize with my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree in approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you this evening, the hint that has made you so irritable… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval—and to take the opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is likely to lead to.”
Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on the sulky flame.
The central question of The Age of Innocence is whether one should, and whether one can, live what Archer calls “a sham life.” Archer believes that his sham life serves his family well, and protects him from want, and preserves an ideal of a beautiful society. But we (the reader, and the author, who wrote this novel after WWI) know the flaws of this society. We know, as Newland does not, that the Gilded Age will end and that the families of upscale New York are essentially the last passengers on the Titanic.
I found the following quote from Schmoop.com to be helpful in understanding the tone of the book:
The Age of Innocence is a love story, and a love story of the best kind: two star-crossed lovers who clearly belong together but are kept apart by mean people. It’s the same formula you see in all the great love stories — Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights— and practically every soap opera. There’s just something so dang romantic about impossible love. Yearning is cranked up to eleven, no one is getting sick of each other’s weird habits or nose hair, and there is so much sighing.
But this novel is also a romance of a different kind —a romance with a period in history. You know the cliché of good girls falling for bad boys, a la Grease? This is essentially the kind of romance between Edith Wharton and New York of the 1870s. Edith Wharton knows that New York in the 1870s is no good and will break her heart, but she can’t stop talking about how good it looks. New York in the 1870s is a heartbreaker, but an irresponsibly handsome heartbreaker.
Some things to think about:
- When we ponder whether a story is about anything important, how do we decide whether it is or not? Is a story about the happiness of three people a story worth telling?
- Who are the strongest characters in the novel?
- What does the title mean? Is anyone in the book actually innocent? Is it an innocent age?