#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Goodreads synopsis: Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.” This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

Believe it or not, this was my first Edith Wharton. I thought it was going to be depressing, but there were lots of funny bits; it reminded me of Jane Austen, but darker.

Of course, the situation is depressing – there is no way for Newland to be happy. If he stays with his wife, he will forever wonder if he would have been happier with Ellen. If he goes with Ellen, he will forever feel shame for scandalizing his family. And, after such a short time, how can he know that his “love” for Ellen won’t wear off after a few months? And we can’t help but feel for him, because Newland seems like a nice guy. He wants to do what’s “right”, which is where all the conflict lies.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

In this book, the women’s experience of being a wife is all about the expectations set on them by society. If they want to remain a respected member of their community, they must act in a certain way. The men have to worry about their reputations as well, but seem to have a lot more leeway.

When Ellen left her husband in Europe and came to New York, people were shocked when her family allowed her to go to parties and the theater. Yet, they wouldn’t go so far as to condone a divorce. That would have been too much.

May, on the other hand, is seen as perfect New York wife material; she’s beautiful, traditional, and obedient. She’s been so well trained that she seems to be perfectly content with living her life this way. It helps, of course, to be happy about who you are engaged to be married to.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…”

Her only source of unhappiness is her suspicion that her husband has his eye on someone else. Because of her kind nature, she gives him the opportunity to confess and break off their engagement, but he chooses not to. For May, I’m not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

As good a person as Newland seems to be, it’s pretty clear from the book that he still holds traditional views of marriage: “And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” Although, brownie points to him for not wanting in the least for the “future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton” and for thinking that “women ought to be free–as free as we are.” Even if his idea of “free” might not be the same as ours.

Even with admiration and the best of intentions, when men and women are not considered equal, the marriage must disappoint.

What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a “decent” fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?

Some good lines…

She sang, of course “M’ama!” not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Join us the first Monday in March when we read Every Note Played by Lisa Genova!

24 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

  1. Eva @ The Paperback Princess says:

    Oh that line about a woman not having any idea that she wasn’t free really hit me. You really got to the crux of it: “when men and women are not considered equal, the marriage must disappoint.”

    I think I used to be able to read these novels and remember that the times they were written in were so different from ours. I can’t seem to make those allowances anymore which really colours my reading!

    • Lisa Hill says:

      You’ve made a good point here: we do need to make those allowances when we’re reading, but sometimes it’s just too hard to do that. I haven’t read TAOI yet, but I’ve read The Reef, which is pretty much the same theme: can a relationship thrive if he has A Past?
      As you can see in my review I struggled with making allowances for what I termed ‘a storm in a hyper-moralistic teacup’ but I did find that there was a theme that we could all relate to: whether a relationship can survive a betrayal. It’s not what he did, it’s the lies. (See https://anzlitlovers.com/2013/08/17/the-reef-by-edith-wharton-narrated-by-eleanor-bron/)

      • Naomi says:

        The Reef sounds like it might be more over-the-top than The Age of Innocence. In the case of Newland, May, and Ellen I can still see the same scenario playing out in a contemporary novel. You’re not as likely to be morally cast out of society, but pressure from family and friends can still play a big part in the decisions people make about relationships.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I liked that passage you quoted, but of course, how would Archer have liked it if she actually became emancipated? That is another question that we can’t answer.

    You were more true to our purpose in trying to see things from May’s point of view. I thought that wasn’t very possible, so I just tried to look at the marriage as a whole, which of course, we see from Newland’s point of view.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    Edith Wharton had such a sharp eye for social observation. Her approach to marriage and the position of women in society reminds me a little of Jane Austen whose work is much more acute than she’s given credit for. Things hadn’t progressed so very much in the period between those two, sadly.

  4. ilovedays says:

    I’m glad you brought up the point about humor in this book. I’d forgotten how slyly funny it is in places, and maybe more so in Wharton’s time when people would have picked up on some topical humor of the day. Love the quote by the livery-stableman – seems to be an American truism.

    • Naomi says:

      For some reason I had the impression that Edith Wharton writes depressing books. So I HAD to mention the humour – I was so relieved by it! 🙂

  5. buriedinprint says:

    I saw the film for this when it was in the theatre (pre-read-the-book-philosophy) but only got around to reading it a few years ago. But I still get it a little confused in my mind with The House of Mirth. On another note, but marriage related, I found this lovely quote in a Winifred Holtby novel recently: “A perfect marriage is a splendid thing, but that does not mean that the second best thing is an imperfect marriage.” It’s from her novel Poor Caroline, not the only book she wrote that afforded her female characters opportunities for other kinds of futures, not always a husband and that’s that.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a great quote! I see that at least one of her books was published by Persephone… Also that she died at 37!

      Now that I’ve read the book, I want to see the film. Maybe I’ll get a chance over the break. 🙂

      • buriedinprint says:

        I bet the girls would enjoy it too! (Yes, it’s amazing that Holtby published 14 books considering how young she was when she died (kidney disease–she was diagnosed two years before her death, but didn’t tell even her closest friend.)

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