While I was collecting my thoughts on The Age of Innocence
, I decided to tip it up to a four-star, from the previous three-star rating I had given it. My original rating was more a feeling of the novel's not living up to The House of Mirth
, which I still feel is the stronger novel, however the distance I have put between reading it and writing this review has given me a change of heart and let me look at it with a greater appreciation for what it is, rather than what it is not. Almost a year removed from reading Wharton's novel I am left still lingering on the epilogue, which may be the only epilogue which I have ever truly felt lived up to the rest of the novel, and was worthy of it's attachment thereto. That said, spoilers are likely to ensue, though the novel's appreciation is not derived from surprise but rather from the accumulation of emotional power throughout the novel, culminating in an emotional release in the epilogue - continue at your own risk.
As humans, as readers, we have a morbid fascination with impossible romance, with illicit romance. We love to read Anna Karenina
because we love Anna not despite her infidelity, but because of it, we are fascinated by her struggle. Conversely, the love, in the same novel, between Kitty and Levin, endears us, but does not fascinate us in the same way. We feel a bit awkward peering in on Levin and Kitty, their love is too sacred to spy on, too private, but we see in Anna's and Vronsky's transgression a scandal which, though of private concern between the two lovers and Anna's husband, we feel entitles us to observe. While Levin is as much in love with Kitty as Anna is with Vronsky, it is the latter which dazzles our imagination because it is forbidden. In The Age of Innocence
, we are presented with a doubly forbidden fruit in the dazzling vision of the Countess Olenska. She is beautiful, she is intelligent and sophisticated, but she is bruised in the eyes of society - she is divorced and suspected of an affair with her secretary. Newland Archer is in love with Ellen Olenska, despite her reputation, and she excites in him what he perceives as his truest potential for happiness. But this match is doubly damned, first by society's condemnation of Ms. Olenska, second because Archer is engaged to be married to May Welland, Ellen's cousin. This love is stifled on two levels: society's condemnation on divorce and Ellen's perceived transgressions, but also Archer's own complicity with that line of morality. He is not a man against society, but rather a man within it.
Archer is quick to defend Ellen's rights as a woman, and claim them insufficient, inequitable, and unfair: "Women ought to be free - as free as we are
," and I always imagine these lines are chanted in feminist cycles around a shrine to Wharton and a burning effigy emblematic of male hegemony, but that is to misread the text as a whole. Edith Wharton had few female friends, and lived in such a privilege that she was largely distanced from the genuine struggle of her women contemporaries. Though she was hardly unaware of the plight and double-standard of women, she seems distanced from it emotionally, and her writing is critical of society at large rather than intended to be read as having any proto-feminist agenda. In many cases, the women of Wharton's novels are the far more malicious figures standing in the way of women's freedoms than are the men. However, back to the quotation, which in the novel is a poignantly ironic one, while Archer wishes Ellen was as "free as we are" he shows how little freedom he actually has. While certainly Ellen is restricted by society, she confronts it with poise, she is a strong woman. While she loves Archer, it is he who is powerless in his own eyes to marry her, not she. His love is made as impotent as her freedoms by the society in which he lives and of which he is a part. He alone has the power to cast off his engagement to May and to instead take up with Ellen, but he cannot bring himself to do so.
His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.
Compare this sentiment of Archer with the following sentiment of the comically tragic Mme. Emma Bovary:
But, in her life, nothing was going to happen. Such was the will of God! The future was a dark corridor, and at the far end the door was bolted.
Almost a plagiary of emotion! However, I feel we are stronger inclined to feel for Archer than we are to sympathize with Emma, and certainly Wharton is much more generous to Archer whose life is certainly happier, which isn't to mention longer, than Emma's. Which brings us the end of the hall, the epilogue. In the throes of romance and passion, Archer envisioned his defeated desire as a vacuous vista, an eternal emptiness; but what he actually gets is something which he never expected: fulfillment. His marriage to May, though he felt he did not want it at the time, turns out well - he is happily married and has children to whom he is a loving father. Many years have passed and he visits Paris with his son, where he discovers that Ellen Olenska is living. He refuses to go up to see her, but sits below her balcony past nightfall, watching the procession of shadows cross the lighted window:
Then he tried to see the persons already in the room—for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one—and among them a dark lady, pale and dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it.... He thought she would be sitting in a sofa-corner near the fire, with azaleas banked behind her on a table.
"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.
In this emotional release, Archer realizes what so many tragic characters cannot: the past is the past. Missed opportunities are never offered twice in the same fashion, they are always changed. Ellen is certainly changed, and he knows this. Unlike Jay Gatsby who refuses to see that his Daisy has changed since her youth, Newland Archer knows that the Ellen he loved, and still loves, is only alive in his mind, that just the reminder of her, the chance to relive their fireside chats, even only in the flicker of his memory, is more real, more really the Ellen he loves, than if he lived by her side the rest of their lives.