“But after a moment a sense of waste and ruin overcame him. There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well been half the world apart.”
It’s been a mere week since my reading companion, Joshua, and I restarted our Pulitzer journey with renewed vigor, and I, having just finished Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, already find myself three novels closer to finishing the project. Of course, this means I still have another 63 to go, but that number looks a more pleasant prospect than 67.
As you may have well gathered by now, Josh and I don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of reading all 84 of these books in one year; I don’t think we stood much of a chance in the first place, to be perfectly honest. So we have revised the project a little bit, added another rule or two, and I think this slight detour in our journey will be much more rewarding—for one of us anyway.
So, before I go into my review of this novel, here’s the new plan: rather than attempting to simultaneously finish all of the novels in one year, we are going to race each other to the finish. This may take us all the way up to next summer to do, but that is the new goal. As a reward, the winner gets to relish in the public humiliation of his counterpart.
Allow me to explain: I am an ardent Chicago Cubs fan, and Joshua is an ardent Boston Red Sox fan. Next summer, the Cubs will be playing the Red Sox in Boston, so Josh and I are going to make the road trip to Fenway Park to cheer on our favorite teams. Here’s the catch: if I finish all of the books before he does, he has to wear a New York Yankees jersey at the game. If he wins, I have to wear a Chicago White Sox jersey at a Cubs game. Can you imagine the humility? Driving halfway across the country to watch your all-time favorite baseball team and having to wear their arch-rival’s jersey? I’m afraid this will be a humiliation he’ll have to endure, because Lord knows damn well that I am not going to desecrate the holy sanctuary that is Wrigley Field by wearing a White Sox jersey there.
This new challenge has reinvigorated both of us and has propelled us forward. This challenge may well be the reason I was so steadfast in finishing The Age of Innocence, a novel I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been able to bear reading. Then again, perhaps the reason I was able to finish the novel in a mere three sittings was because I actually kind of enjoyed it.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know by now that I am not a fan of these books that deal with the upper crust of society. Unfortunately, The Age of Innocence is one of those books. However, despite its subject matter, I actually rather enjoyed the novel. Don’t get me wrong—I had my fair share of qualms with Wharton throughout my reading, but it was nothing I couldn’t overcome by the conclusion of the story. And, really, my qualms with Wharton had little to nothing to do with the story itself—they were more centered on trifling matters like language, symbolism, character development and pacing. I know these traits in a novel should be desirable ones, but I have read enough literature in my life to come to the conclusion that if the story is good and well-told, these issues are hardly issues at all. As I have with so many other novels before, I found this to be the case with The Age of Innocence.
There are a few things that Wharton is guilty of in this book: the biggest thing, which I really hope Joshua goes more into on his blog, is her overuse of symbolism—really obvious symbolism too. There were a handful of times when I read a phrase and had to put the book down just to gaze off into the distance and sometimes actually say out loud, “Really? Really, Edith Wharton?” Symbolism, in my opinion, should merely be used in a way that will make the reader question what he/she is reading and investigate further. Symbolism should be used as the catalyst that drives the reader to “read between the lines,” if I may abuse an old cliche. Symbolism should never be used as a means of stating something that is obvious, or something that the reader could have inferred without the symbol’s placement. Furthermore, symbolism should be sly and almost easy to miss—not heavy-handed, the way Wharton employed it in this novel.
A really good example of heavy-handed symbolism can be found in Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited—at the end of the film, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman are running to catch a train, but their luggage is slowing them down. So they shed their bags to lighten their loads and are able to jump aboard the train. The symbolism here is that the bags belonged to their recently deceased father, a figure whose memory plagues the three brothers. So only by shedding their own personal baggage of their father’s memory are they able to move on. Of course, the symbolism here is made even more heavy-handed by Wes Anderson’s characteristic use of slow motion.
Secondly, and this is just a preference thing, but the language in this novel was so flowery and thick that I couldn’t hardly stand it. It was a real labor to get through the first 20 or so chapters of the book because I was so distracted, so bogged down, by Wharton’s insistence of using completely unnecessary wording. I would venture to estimate that if one were to remove all of the superfluous narrative that Wharton felt the need to foray into, my 298 page edition of this novel would only be about 100 or so pages. Honestly, I think that’s a fair estimate too—two thirds of the book’s content is completely and totally superfluous fluff. Only one third of the words she uses drive the actual plot. The rest of the words Wharton writes are adverbs for the people say things and adjectives for things that her characters have. She then has long narratives about side characters whom have no bearing on the actual story. The only thing I got out of this is that Edith Wharton really wants her readers to know what kind of people her three main characters associate themselves with.
All of that being said, I actually (surprisingly) quite enjoyed the story. The Age of Innocence documents a sordid love triangle in Old New York. Newland Archer, the protagonist of the story, is well-to-do man about town and he is betrothed to May Welland—this, of course, is a perfect match in their Old New York aristocracy: they are both wealthy, have associations in the same group of peers, and both of them have the sort-of same ambitions (namely, to be wealthy and well respected by their group of peers). This all changes for Newland Archer when he is introduced to, and thus enchanted by, Countess Ellen Odeska—a fiercely independent European woman who is obviously unfamiliar with societal customs in Old New York, but wouldn’t adhere to them even if she were familiar with them. She comes to America to escape her abusive husband, files for divorce, spends a lot of her time with men alone, refuses to adhere to aristocratic customs and “rules of engagement,” and even goes so far as to spark a love affair with an engaged man (Newland Archer)—all of these things that make Ellen Odeska who she is as a woman also make her an oddity in her new aristocratic setting. Furthermore, they make her a bit exotic, a bit refreshing, in the eyes of Newland Archer. So, then, the central conflict of this story is internal, and it lays in Archer’s conflicting desires to live in the upper crust of Old New York and pursue a happy relationship with Ellen Odeska. Unfortunately, for him, these two desires are not compatible.
When we place this novel historically, it is no wonder it won a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I would venture to say that it probably created a bit of controversy upon its release.
This novel won the Pulitzer—the greatest achievement in American literature— in 1921, a year after its publication. This was also the first Pulitzer-winning novel to have been written by a woman—Edith Wharton (preceding her were Ernest Poole and Booth Tarkington). Coincidentally, 1920 was the same year that Congress ratified women’s suffrage in the United States. Women in the United States were starting to gain ground as valuable members of society at this time in history.
Now, although Newland Archer is the main character in this novel, thus making him the protagonist—he’s not a very likable character. In fact, he’s more of an antagonist than anything. He doesn’t really contribute anything to society, he’s just a rich playboy. The only thing in the story that he actually does is nearly destroy the lives of two different women by leading them on and playing with their emotions and their minds. The two women, May Welland and Ellen Odeska, represent the two extremes that Archer sways between—”proper society” and humanity, respectively. In any story, the main character is the protagonist that the reader is meant to ally his/herself with, get behind, cheer for, identify with, etc. In this story, however, the main character is just an idiot. It is the two women that we really feel for—it is they who we most want to overcome. And given its historical context, it is no wonder that it is the women (who, really, are each others exact polar opposite) that the reader is meant to align with. It is the alpha male that is made into the bewildered, almost accidental, antagonist.
Perhaps I’m reading a little bit too much into this, perhaps I was brainwashed at Northern Illinois University by Dr. Derosa into making extreme feminist critiques of everything I read; nevertheless, I don’t find these items to be coincidental and it would take a really strong argument to convince me otherwise.
I’d like to think that this book was a significant stride forward for women and the feminist movement. Like I said, this book was published in 1920—the same year that American women were granted the right to vote. I find it significant that the Pulitzer Prize committee not only awarded the highest prize in American literature to a woman the very next year, but awarded it to a novel that set two women as the story’s protagonists (one of which was a rebellious, independent woman—a character who, at that time, would have been demonized in real life).
I also don’t find it coincidental at all that Ellen Odeska, the independent woman, was the desire of Newland Archer—she was his forbidden fruit. He was attracted by her beauty, by her carefree lifestyle, by her disregard for societal customs, by her foreignness. Also, not surprisingly, she was the envy of almost every character in the novel. Sure, Old New York’s aristocratic elitists had some things to say about the Countess Odeska and her foreign lifestyle, but everybody loved her. Ellen Odeska represents the new direction women are taking in life—the building blocks of feminism can be found in Ellen: she entertains single and married men in her quarters, she’s a divorcee, she came to America specifically to get away from her husband, she’s independent, she openly does not care about social conventions, she’s strong, she’s rebellious. She embodies everything foreign and exotic that Newland Archer was so attracted to.
May Welland, on the other hand, represents Old New York’s dying aristocracy. She’s bland, boring, snobbish, prudish, upright, aristocratic; she’s far too hung up on what it means to be “civilized,” far too hung up on what others perception of her is to truly enjoy life. Really, there are only two reasons Archer was so eager to marry her: 1) she was aristocracy and that was the life he desired to maintain, and 2) he was conflicted about having feelings for Ellen Odeska, so wanted to rush his marriage to May Welland (such bizarre logic, by the way). But Archer, really, doesn’t want to be with May; he’d much rather be with Ellen. In fact, in a moment that, for this book, was so uncharacteristically dark that it jarred me, Archer actually fantasizes about his bride’s death so that he’d be free to be with Ellen:
What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its enormity did not immeditately strike him. He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.
Later, in the novel, of course May Welland does eventually die, but simply because of (presumably) old age. And, of course, when she does die, Newland Archer hops all over the first chance he gets to fly to Paris to meet up with Ellen Odeska. What I did not see coming, however, is that Newland never meets up with Ellen—he goes to her apartment, sits on a park bench and watches her son go up to meet her first but promises to be up soon enough, then turns around and heads back to his hotel alone. Perhaps Newland finally realizes that Ellen is far better off without him. Or perhaps Newland is so entrenched in his old ways that he can’t bear to leave them behind.
Regardless, it should come as no surprise that May Welland dies a miserable old woman and Ellen Odeska thrives on her own in Paris. This is a symbolic image of American feminism—the old, fuddy-duddy May Welland fades and rusts while Ellen Odeska still burns bright even in her older age. Things were changing in American society—women were just beginning to gain ground in being seen as individuals and equals. The Pulitzer Prize committee surely recognized this shift in the American landscape and that surely must have been at the forefront of their minds when they selected The Age of Innocence to win their award.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.