So asks poor May Welland, whose fiance, Newland Archer, is starting to bump up against the edges of his confined society life. Ironically, despite May’s comment about “people in novels”, it’s Newland who’s learning to behave like a real person, asking real questions, starting to cut away the facade of the richest families of Old New York. Whereas May, in Newland’s opinion, is the “terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything.” Newland is a fascinatingly real person with a real struggle—he clearly wants to believe that women have the same rights as men, the same urges as men, etc. But he’s always lived in a world where girls blush at the mere mention of anything untoward, and where a good man (like him) would never condescend to marry any girl whose purity and simplicity were under any doubt. He can’t reconcile what he believes in theory with what he expects out of life. And he can’t get May’s cousin, the iconoclastic and unconventional Countess Olenska (who is separated but not yet divorced) out of his head.
The skill with which Wharton is drawing him into a romance with Olenska without his fully being aware of it is really excellent—unlike Tarkington, here we have an author who knows how hard it is to make an unlikely romance believable, and she’s patient enough to put in all the necessary time it takes to win the reader over. She’s got me now—frankly, I’m a bit impatient for Newland to realize about himself what all of us (Wharton, myself, and Ellen Olenska) have known for a while now. But the “age of innocence” noted in the title really does descend on a society man like Newland—he is so well trained in propriety and courtesy that he is innocent of even understanding his true feelings. He still believes he seeks out conversations with Olenska to “warn her” about the scandals she causes, and “protect his fiancee’s family” from reproach thereby. I wonder what will happen to the poor fellow when love catches up to him at last.
The shame of it all is that May is a very nice girl, and Newland likes her. But they’ve been trapped (May more than Newland) in a sort of weird half-life by societal conventions. Newland realizes and regrets the fact that May can’t possibly take interest in the topics he does, enjoy the books he does, or see the world the way he does, because she’s been carefully protected from reality. She has been raised with one purpose in mind—to educate and prepare herself just enough to play perfectly the part of a society wife whose primary responsibilities are to hobnob with the proper crowd, applaud the opera at the right moment, and learn how to hire and retain the best kind of servants.
I wonder, having spent the last five years among the teenaged economic elites of my particular corner of the world, if our society now sends a very different message. Thankfully there are many voices and examples that encourage women to develop their talents and claim their rightful equal place next to men in every corner of the world. But I fear that the most powerful voices aimed at young women continue to make them expect everything, and aim at knowing very little–that the strongest images of women are that beauty counts (and little else), and with such beauty, all can be yours…happiness, wealth, leisure, and most of all, true love. That brains are the refuge of those who cannot be beautiful, and they can’t expect as much because, let’s face it, the world is superficial (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Maybe I read too much into checkstand teen magazine covers and what little I know of the hit shows of MTV, VH1, and the like. But I think the society to which Wharton is taking a scalpel is a society we still have, in all the destructive ways that count. And I don’t know what Newland ought to do about it: obviously I don’t morally approve of his affair with Olenska and his abandonment of May Welland (assuming those things are as inevitable as they seem at present). But given his world, his options, and his sense of duty to his family and friends, it’s hard to see what it is that he can do to make the life he wants, and ought to have. Poor fellow. I hope this ends well for him, and fear it will not.