“Nobody ever had built above Fortieth Street—no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

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.

3 comments on ““Nobody ever had built above Fortieth Street—no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

  1. […] a post on The Age of Innocence, and it’s a really well-known novel “, I give you this: a post on The Age of Innocence, as old as the wildly popular one, that up until today had a total of 3 hits.  Buridan’s ass […]

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    “Is there more?” That, to me, seems the way that Newland approaches this whole life/marriage/society thing. There’s a line where he looks back at the little things in his society that he used to believe were important. He no longer does. And yet, he sits next to May, is generally good to her, and does see her positive traits and views her with affection in spite of her limitations: the impossibility that she’ll ever be anything that could really run with him intellectually or even question the world around him. I get the intensity of societal expectations and the way that Newland can’t really get out of them. I’m now about this far in the book–May and Newland are on their honeymoon–and Newland even sees a way that he can lead a perfectly decent (if a little dull) life: come home to his sweet, beautiful, limited wife while enjoying art on the side, on his own, as he always has. I guess my question is whether he can live this life when Olenska is present. She awakens in him what the world could-be-but-isn’t, in looking at both her past and her current sadness.

    I read -Ethan Frome- as a high school junior, and I remember the thesis of the paper I wrote: those who try to upset the way society expects them to act will be punished. This smells similar. I’m thoroughly enjoying the trip that Newland is taking all the same. I do think that, if Ellen died or moved somewhere where Newland never saw him, he could make do and even find some kind of happiness. But the New York Wharton paints is so shallow, so limited, and so silly that I don’t see how he can escape. Olenska is present just to give a taste of what that particular New York does not have. It’s important to see all the reactions: pity, anger, and, in Newland’s case, passion–but it sure feels like a pretty air-tight prison.

    I guess my question is whether Wharton feels 19th-century New York is the prison, or life in general. It’s a tossup for me at this point.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I like the way you sum up the challenge Newland faces. Ellen has a lot of power, and I think she’s clearly symbolic of something, both for Newland and for Wharton, but I hesitate to commit to exactly what I think that is. I’ve never read any other Wharton—I wonder how that would affect my reading of AoI. I’m also very interested in how the novel’s ending will affect your reading of Wharton’s message/motive. Your dilemma at the end is a good one, maybe the best way of presenting this, but I don’t know if I’d have put it just that way. Personally I find the dialogue between Newland and Ellen fascinating because he thinks he can get out of the prison and be free, and she doesn’t….but what does she think? Wharton clearly sympathizes with her to some extent, but is she really as cynical as Olenska? If so, what would the two of them have Newland do? I love the depth in those conversations, because I don’t get the sense that I’m being presented just two ways of seeing their predicament. If I had to lean, I’d lean towards “life in general” being your answer, but Wharton doesn’t feel as depressing as that answer does, to me. It makes me think it’s missing some importance source of strength or hope present in the novel. Anyway, thanks for bringing your thoughts, and I hope you bring more soon—it’s great to revisit this novel in my memory with the benefit of your insights!

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