The Age of Innocence
“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.”
In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the late 1800s, Newland Archer attempts to live according to the societal rules of his upper class friends and family. He begins the novel happily engaged to May Welland, but when Countess Olenska, May’s scandalous cousin, returns from Europe, Newland’s ideas change; he gradually becomes disgusted with his way of life. As the wedding with May draws near, Newland discovers that he is actually in love with the Countess, and must choose whether he will follow society’s expectations or his heart.
Having a male protagonist in a marriage plot was refreshing. I had not read a book such as this–whether by Jane Austen, one of the Brontë sisters and others–that was not mainly focused on a woman. I found that I prefer a woman’s point of view, but still it was nice to read from a different perspective.
I also liked Wharton’s full rejection of societal convention. While earlier authors would generally critique social invention and then end the story with a happy engagement, Wharton has her characters submit so much to societal rules and values that they lose their chances at happiness.
Unfortunately, this book is also much more boring than its predecessors, mostly due to its redundant explanations. Instead of the reader guessing at what a character might mean, Wharton destroys all mystery with clarification: “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 [. . .]” The book would be much better if the author did not hold the reader’s hand the entire time.
Overall, I thought The Age of Innocence was okay. The plot and perspective were interesting, but if you are looking for good writing, you could do better. Try Emma or Portrait of a Lady instead.