I think I’ve mentioned that I am part of a book group called “Masochists and Classics.” My friend Nicki was inspired to start the club by a reading of Moby Dick that I co-organized last summer. The first book club pick was Anna Karenina; since I’d already read that novel, I replaced it with Wuthering Heights. The second pick was The Power Broker, which I had zero interest or motivation to read (which is the point of the exercise, but it didn’t seem “classic” enough to me to warrant the effort), so I skipped that. But the summer selection is a pairing of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Golden Bowl by Henry James–choices I’m finally on board with. I’ve read The House of Mirth, but nothing else by either author. I tackled The Age of Innocence first and absolutely loved it.
The novel starts off with a description of an opera–the performance, the opera house, and the audience. It is impossible to tell if the point of view is first or third person; the editorial voice is so strong that it hints at first person, yet there is no obvious source of the judgments being issued on New York society. A few pages in, the novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is introduced. I still wasn’t convinced that the book wasn’t in the first person; I waited a few pages further to see if there was another character, seated somewhere across the opera house, giving his or her take on the scene. When I was sure that there wasn’t, and that the narration was in the third person (I was only sure when we got a clear thought from Newland’s point of view), it became even more interesting to see where Newland’s cynicism matched up with the book’s cynicism and where they diverged. Part of the genius of the novel is that, at the outset, it seems as if Newland is at the heart of the regimented, silly conformity being critiqued, but as the story unfurls, it becomes clear that the novel only exists because he sees what the omniscient narrator sees. He is one of the only people in New York society who sees the artifice of his life for what it is; the tension is in the question of outcome: will he be able to escape? Will he act outside of his social parameters? Will society release its grip on him?
In recommending this book, I want to make sure you all know that it is hilarious. I highlighted passages every few pages and wrote “hilarious.” Humor doesn’t always survive across centuries, but I think Wharton’s sarcasm and wit are timeless or at least haven’t hit their limits yet. I will also say that it is insanely romantic and also kind of hot. I could have expected that since the 1993 film version of the novel starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer–pretty hot combo–but I wasn’t expecting to be so emotionally invested in the love story here. I think it must be my own bias against books from this era; I expected to appreciate it in more of a period-piece way than viscerally. But wow–Edith Wharton was able to do some serious damage just by putting Newland and Ellen Olenska in a room together. I wanted desperately for them to be together and yet knew, based on the historical context and the literary set-up, that they couldn’t be together. No one was swooning in the novel, but I was swooning reading it.
Which brings me to the feminism of The Age of Innocence. Newland has outbursts such as this: “Women ought to be free–as free as we are.” Followed by editorializing such as this: “…he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.” (21stC problems: how does one site the page of a book read on Kindle?). He remarks often on how Ellen Olenska should not return to her abusive husband just to preserve the reputation of her family, irregardless of how things are supposed to be done. He believes that people should be free to choose and to be with the ones they love. But, he also knows that this is not how the world of his time works. For all his half-steps towards Ellen–following her to various cities and vacation locales, sending her huge bouquets of yellow roses, engaging in brief, furtive make-out sessions–he marries the conventional young woman, May, he is engaged to before Ellen arrives on the scene and he stays with her. He bemoans May’s inability to think for herself, often belittling her lack of imagination and selfhood. But where the feminism comes into his truly sad marriage is in his conviction that it is society’s fault that May is the way she is. He does think of her as a dull woman devoid of intellect, but he also alludes to her true self, somewhere lost inside of her, that she herself was robbed of the opportunity to know.
For a while, I was wondering what a book from May’s point of view would look like. Is she actually so devoid of an inner life? Is she truly so devoted to the social mores that lead her into a marriage with someone who obviously is in love with someone else? Does Newland discount her to make himself feel better for how he treats her? But I think it is important to take the choice of Newland as protagonist seriously. Edith Wharton could have written this book through May’s eyes, or Ellen’s, and yet she chose to give us Newland’s inner life instead. It may seem like the least daring choice–most books then (as now…) are from the male point of view. But I think showing a man thinking so deeply and seriously about the choices women make and why they make them–and even more so about the choices they are not able to make–is fairly subversive. He takes responsibility for his place in the social order and, although he comes close to breaking it down, he ultimately does not. Near the end of the book, he mentions that, despite the lies that comprised her life, May believed in, and lived within, its social constructs and so she was happy because she didn’t know she shouldn’t be. Newland, though, is even more trapped for recognizing the structures in place around him.
The radical jump in time in the book’s last section reminded me of To The Lighthouse. It added an extraordinary layer of melancholy to the story to know that it was so expansive. I’d been thinking all along that it was amazing how Wharton managed to make such an absorbing book out of such limited material–a handful of characters, a handful of drawing rooms, about two years of action mostly taking place in the form of conversation–but then she jumps ahead decades. The New York details are brilliant–who doesn’t love to see “ancient” New York history portrayed as the new thing. The thought of that many years lived in summary exemplifies one of the points of the book: the reader doesn’t need to read a moment by moment account of the thirty years between Newland’s wedding and his child’s wedding because all of that time passed in nearly exactly the same way that time passed for any other man occupying his same place in society. He did what everyone else did. Again–it is sad because the readers knows that, as opposed to everyone else, he knew what he was doing. He was actively conforming not because he had internalized the social order but because he knew he couldn’t escape it.
Now: on to The Golden Bowl!