“In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.“
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Edith Wharton after reading Ethan Frome in high school. Whether it was my first encounter with one of America’s best authors or simply an introduction to “higher” literature, the intelligently ironic tale of the title character stayed with me. Naturally, though years later, I finally returned to the Nobel prize winning author’s most famous work, The Age of Innocence.
The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer and his complicated love triangle amidst y New York high society at the turn of the century. Startled, but intrigued by the arrival Ellen Olenska, his fiance May’s cousin, Newland’s once certain courtship has now become quite uncertain.
Estranged from her European count husband, Ellen’s appearance begins to be a regular amongst Newland’s social group. Much to the dismay of it’s older traditional members, Newland hastens his engagement to May in order to quash any suspicion of infidelity.
Though, the soon-to-be married man’s plan doesn’t work as well as pictured. While consciously trying to keep Ellen out of his mind, Newland’s Mother, in-laws, and seemingly the rest of New York’s high society, continually speak of their distaste for her. Meanwhile, our love-struck protagonist, frightened by his inherently boring future, fails to follow his own convictions and begins frequent visits with his fiance’s cousin. The narrative comes to a head when Ellen wishes for a divorce from her husband in Europe and Newland is assigned to dissuade her. Thus the question arises; will Newland concede his romantic feelings in order to protect the feelings of May and family or is Ellen’s foreign bravado(bravada?) enough to pull Newland away from his strict societal upbringings.
When I told one of my close literary friends that I was reading The Age of Innocence, she gave the warning of style over substance in the novel. I couldn’t agree more. While I believe and agree with the author’s appeal of women’s liberation and quips at high society, the overly analytical flowered surroundings of Wharton’s world make the novel much denser than necessary.
So, should we still be reading The Age of Innocence? While the Nobel prize winning author does occasionally fall over her own evening gown, the novel provides such a rich cast of characters, countless quotes, and suspenseful plot that most readers will able to enjoy the story. I’m unsure if I agree with Sam Anderson’s labeling of “the single greatest New York novel“, but Wharton’s city immersed novel, and with a nod to the title’s irony, certainly shows us a past full of innocence.