Mrs. Manson Mingott, in her great wisdom, offers a reflection on New York society’s resistance to being unconventional, but of course in many ways it’s the mildest example of this in the book, right now. As “Book One” finishes, Newland is about to throw himself into the arms of Countess Olenska (if she’ll have him) and is horrified that his advice about “society’s expectations” may have trapped the Countess by convincing her to reject divorce as an escape from her marriage to a cruel man. May Welland, his fiancee, suspects something is up, and insists on lengthening the engagement so that Newland has time to consider his feelings, time even to abandon her and love someone else, if he wishes.
At first it may seem a little hard to believe that these people, raised in a rigid society, would have the strength to try and cast it off. But they seem entirely believable. They know what life is really like—Newland knows that trapping the Countess in a loveless separation (but without divorce) simply means affairs with unscrupulous men, rather than a second marriage to a man of quality. May knows that, despite all the talk that marriage cements two people together, it can be the thing that wedges two people apart who are not made for it. They know the truth that is present in every tree root that buckles and bursts through the pavement, the reality that the poet Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. Life, real aggressive energetic life, cannot be contained, perhaps least of all by the mere expectations of others. They can hide who they are—they cannot cease to be who they are.
This force, though, is destructive; it threatens to consume them, particularly Newland, caught between the woman he wants to love but can’t quite commit himself to loving, and the woman he knows he shouldn’t love but cannot help loving. It’s not clear if he loves Ellen Olenska or the idea of her, but it will matter very little to May Welland, in the end. It matters to Ellen, though, who will not destroy Newland and May, even in response to Newland’s fervent pleas. There is something substantial about her—she came to New York for a reason, and not merely to flout convention. There’s a depth to her: she’s seen the real world, seen the real folly and catastrophe that can follow passion in its wake. She doesn’t want to throw herself from that cliff again…or maybe she’s just stalling (there’s a bit of book still ahead of me, after all).
This is a powerful novel, despite Wharton’s continued care to avoid preaching or obvious moralizing. I have no idea what its “message” will prove to be, other than that nothing is more certain, or more deadly, than the truth that the human heart will not be ruled by any order or intellect that attempt to impose upon it. I only wonder this (and hope even those of you not reading the book can chime in on this)—what’s the solution? If societal norms and rules are simply going to be broken, do we give them all up? Don’t things like engagements, manners, and propriety (hey, even marriage is a social construct, in a sense) serve a useful purpose? Maybe Newland is just quick to “see through” them because it serves his purposes….then again, maybe there really is something that harms us at the heart of all that convention.