“How shall I explain? … It’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

Newland Archer is becoming a sad little figure, but no less fascinating.  His desire to escape his society marriage to May Welland for the exotic allure of the Countess Ellen Olenska is getting caught up in many things—her lingering marriage to the unpleasant Count, her perhaps-not-concluded connection to the Frenchman who helped her “escape” her marriage, the financial ruin that Mr. and Mrs. Beaufort (relatives to both Ellen and May) now find themselves in, along with its resulting chaos in the tiny in-bred world of “the best families in New York”—it’s hard to see how much of the relationship is real, and how much is Newland getting swept up in the mere idea of something else.

I’m struck by Wharton’s repeated insistence that Newland can’t really remember Ellen…that he thinks of her constantly, but every time he sees her again, he realizes he’d forgotten what she looks like, how her voice sounds.  This most recent time he even comments on it to her directly (in the title to this post).  Am I meant to conclude that Newland doesn’t really care about her?  Or that his attachment to her is more spiritual/emotional than it is physical?  It’s hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that Ellen and May are both wiser about the world than Newland is.  May, in particular, manages to play the perfect upper class wife (so restrained, no cross word ever escapes her lips), but within that tension she manages to both keep Ellen well away from her husband, and communicate to Newland in no uncertain terms that she knows what’s happening, and she has no intention of losing him.  There is something both sad and admirable about May, who suspected before the wedding that Newland could not be fully hers, and married him anyway.  I hope Newland realizes her real value, and avoids hurting her any more than he already has.

And Ellen is no less realistic than May…and no less concerned about Newland.  Ellen’s great advantage, though, is the ability to tell him directly the truths that she is wise enough to understand, and that no one else in society could possibly tell him.  There are many passages that show how unequally matched she and Newland are, but I include the following as an exceptionally revealing exchange:

“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.

The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. … Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.

“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist.  Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh.  “Oh, my dear—where is that country?  Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

How sharp she is, how devoid of “pretense”—she has seen the world and is weary of it, and not even love (for she truly does love Newland, I think) will erase the memories that are etched into her.  How can we blame Newland for loving her, at least a little?  For all of the good, admirable things about May, his wronged wife, there are no such bleak but true things in her heart for her to share with him, even if she would let herself be honest with him.  And May (and the rest of Newland’s friends and family) will never be honest with him: it may be an age of innocence, but it is also an age of deceit, where good people are expected to lie even to themselves (perhaps most of all to themselves).  My next post will be a review—by now you might have guessed that it will be a very positive one—and I’ll see what I make of the end of the book (which, even now, I couldn’t possibly predict with any confidence).

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5 comments on ““How shall I explain? … It’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    Sullenly dumb. I like that. I can tell, just from that, that I would like Wharton’s writing.

  2. […] specific question has to do with this strangely popular blog post about The Age of Innocence.  It seemed simple enough when I wrote it—a few nice observations maybe, but nothing […]

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    You’re kinder to May than I am. I’m left with the impression that it is not kindness or tenderness to Newland that causes her to marry him or to treat him as she does, but rather an extraordinary ability to wield power in the way that this society recognizes power (particularly for women). She flat-out wins by lying–to Ellen, to Newland, even to their son. I am left with no real choice in my feelings for her: what I am left with his the question of whether she is doing this because of her limitations (she honestly believes there is no other way to live other than what her tiny New York world has shown her) or because she wishes to be so totally in control.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul, it’s been long enough that my awareness of why I admired May is a little fuzzy, but I think it’s that I recognized that she was even more trapped than Newland was (I’m taking the “limitations” side of your dilemma). She’s going to marry a Newland-type, whether or not she marries Newland, and she’s going to have to behave a certain way. She’s been limited by education and breeding to a very limited set of talents, but she uses them to the full to keep the only thing she thinks she can have—a sterling reputation with “the people who count”. Winning by lying is her last refuge: I, at least, don’t know what more could be expected of her under the circumstances. Could she have been more compassionate, more considerate? I suppose so, but what would it buy her? She knows that Newland has the flexibility she does not—he can stray and lose less than she could. His world is bigger than hers, and so when she fears he may destroy what little she possesses, well, I don’t blame her for acting like a caged animal a bit, lashing out (slyly) and leaving a scar. I definitely understand why you don’t view her as kindly, but for me she’s complicated enough that, viewing her through the lens of what’s possible for her, I see a lot I can admire about her.

      • Paul Hamann says:

        The caged animal metaphor is apt here. But I viewed her “limitations” as being between her ears. She just doesn’t understand that there’s more to the world than what she’s been taught–doesn’t question it, ever. That frustrated me as much as it frustrated Newland, I think. But your compassion towards her character is understandable.

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