I’m switching “Historical Value” out for the phrase “Historical Insight” for the reasons I mentioned in the review of The Magnificent Ambersons, but otherwise this follows the established format.
It’s hard to encapsulate the positive things I have to say about Wharton and this novel. The ending was marvelous (so much so that I don’t want to reveal the very last events of the book: if you haven’t read it, I want you to experience it for yourself)—it combined being unexpected with being somehow the perfect fit with the rest of the novel.
But to say some broader things about why I think Wharton works. She respects her characters—I’d almost say she likes them, but “like” might imply that she always casts them in a positive light, and she doesn’t. The characters are their own people, and I never got the sense that they were being “used” to advance the plot. It’s not just the main characters—the exotic Countess Olenska, the infatuated Newland Archer, the perceptive and not-to-be-trifled-with May Welland Archer (Newland’s wife)—even relatively minor characters like the Beauforts, or Mrs. Manson Mingott, or the van der Luydens seem real and honest in a way that none of Tarkington’s characters ever did. One of the books’ greatest delights, for me, was that I was never forced to see any of these people as “good” or “evil”, and I remained engrossed in the story without having to choose, for example, whether I was rooting for May to win Newland’s affections back or rooting for Ellen to whisk him away to Europe.
Wharton’s use of the narrator was especially skillful. Though the narrator is 3rd person, the perspective is so close to Newland that we are severely limited by his point of view, and limited in interesting ways. We gradually become aware, as he does, of what New York society thinks of him, of how much May knows about him and how much she suspects, of what Ellen and May are really up to in their quiet side conversations. The shifts are so subtle and lifelike that it’s hard to believe, once any particular truth is revealed openly to Newland, that I could have been in any doubt as to the realities of the situation, and yet if I am honest with myself, only a page before I would have been as deeply in the dark as the young Mr. Archer.
Lastly, I have to say (without saying too much) that Wharton manages an ending that is truly excellent. Epilogues are hard in any novel, especially when an author (as in this case) moves ahead many years to follow the consequences of characters’ decisions. J. K. Rowling, for example, attempts this at the end of her Harry Potter series (and did what I would call a disastrous job of it—poor enough to taint my positive memories of the series and toss the book down with some displeasure), and I’ve certainly seen other authors try and fail. Wharton manages success here, as she often does, by letting the characters be real, by letting the reader only gradually understand the truth of a situation, and by not letting the conventions of storybook romance get in the way of what real love looks and acts like. I can’t believe I’ve never read Edith Wharton before, and I intend to read more of her work. Based purely on my assessment of her literary skill, and knowing nothing about the other novels of 1921, I have to say this is a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
This isn’t a novel about the “problems” of contemporary America (as was His Family) or a frank assessment of how America was changing (as The Magnificent Ambersons was at least intended to be), so honestly it doesn’t rate as highly in this category as it perhaps might. But it was fascinating to contemplate the existence in American society of a world as tense and shackled by convention as anything Jane Austen and the Regency authors might have experienced. The van der Luydens may not be the Bingleys (and Mrs. Manson Mingott may not be Lady Catherine de Bourgh), but the stifling confines of upper class life, the way that a look or an apparently innocent comment can convey an ocean of contempt or scorn, the conflict between how people do live and how they believe they ought to live—these things dominate the lives of Newland and May Archer far more than I would have thought possible in post-Civil-War America. I’d say it’s making me more aware of what it once meant to be “important” in the U.S., at least on the East Coast in the big cities, and that’s of interest to me. But this doesn’t illuminate any of the larger questions of what it means to be American, as far as I can tell.
My aversion to numerical or scale-based ratings continues, but in case it wasn’t obvious, The Age of Innocence gets my highest rating: “You Must Own This Book”. It is, in my estimation, possibly the most accomplished and well-composed novel written by an American, at least of those novels I am familiar with. I don’t know that it ranks as “The Great American Novel” (largely because of my hesitation on the Historical Insight of the book, see above), but it certainly deserves to rank among America’s greatest novels, and I’d recommend this book to essentially any literate friend I have.
As has become my custom, I leave you with a more extended snippet from somewhere close to the end of the novel (though this time I pull back a bit farther from the end, so as not to spoil it), allowing Wharton to close this thoroughly enjoyable chapter in my journey in her own distinctive voice. Here, Newland sits at the head of the table at a farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska, who will return to Europe tomorrow, despite his unrequited desire to run away with her on his own.
Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings. As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another, he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.
It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.