…and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”
I don’t know how she keeps doing it—I hate to keep gushing about Wharton as though I’ve just discovered electricity or sliced bread, but returning to this book (having set it down for a week or more) was almost exhilarating. There’s something so immediate about her characters: a few paragraphs of Newland Archer’s anxiety about the coming years, and I’m immersed in him somehow.
It’s odd (or maybe it isn’t) how Newland combines anxiety and despair with a sense of destiny—that somehow Ellen is meant for him, that around some corner lies his real life, the one in which his marriage to May dissolves almost soundlessly and freedom opens up like a parasol. Part of what delights me about the book is that Wharton doesn’t seem to tip her hand about her attitudes…I may be dense, but I can’t tell if she admires or dislikes Newland. I can’t tell if I’m meant to root for him to break free of the confines of his society life, or be disappointed in his willingness to turn from a loyal and sweet wife to chase after the not-quite-real romance he thinks Ellen Olenska is waiting to offer him.
What’s strange is that Ellen believes in destiny almost as fervently as Newland does, but a different kind of destiny. He needs to believe in her, to believe even simply in the idea of her, if he’s going to survive….if he’s going to accept that life can be worthwhile. But she needs to believe in Newland and May, in the idea of love that can persist—in the extended free-fall from her not-quite-over marriage to the Count Olenski, she loves Newland, but she needs to believe in his love for May even more. And that’s such an unexpected (and, somehow, wonderful) emotional response. I don’t understand entirely where she’s going. Newland, I understand. In the end he’ll either make peace with New York society or he’ll break spectacularly, and either way I think I can get a handle on that. But Ellen could do anything in the next chapter. That’s why I’m fascinated by her–perhaps why Newland is also.
I want to say more but I’m realizing these posts work better when I keep them as short as I reasonably can. I know I’ll say more eventually on other things–on Newland’s ability to “trick” himself into crossing paths with Ellen “without meaning to”, on Ellen’s belief in America (specifically, the fact that Newland has somehow, in spite of himself, made her believe in the innate value of the very American society he’s learning to reject), and probably much more. I’m closing in on the end here, and although I’m frustrated at the giant blog slowdown of the last couple of weeks, it’s been great to take the time to savor this book a bit. I hope Wharton’s as capable at journey’s end as she has been all along the way.