1921: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

I’m switching “Historical Value” out for the phrase “Historical Insight” for the reasons I mentioned in the review of The Magnificent Ambersons, but otherwise this follows the established format.

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to encapsulate the positive things I have to say about Wharton and this novel.  The ending was marvelous (so much so that I don’t want to reveal the very last events of the book: if you haven’t read it, I want you to experience it for yourself)—it combined being unexpected with being somehow the perfect fit with the rest of the novel.

But to say some broader things about why I think Wharton works.  She respects her characters—I’d almost say she likes them, but “like” might imply that she always casts them in a positive light, and she doesn’t.  The characters are their own people, and I never got the sense that they were being “used” to advance the plot.  It’s not just the main characters—the exotic Countess Olenska, the infatuated Newland Archer, the perceptive and not-to-be-trifled-with May Welland Archer (Newland’s wife)—even relatively minor characters like the Beauforts, or Mrs. Manson Mingott, or the van der Luydens seem real and honest in a way that none of Tarkington’s characters ever did.  One of the books’ greatest delights, for me, was that I was never forced to see any of these people as “good” or “evil”, and I remained engrossed in the story without having to choose, for example, whether I was rooting for May to win Newland’s affections back or rooting for Ellen to whisk him away to Europe.

Wharton’s use of the narrator was especially skillful.  Though the narrator is 3rd person, the perspective is so close to Newland that we are severely limited by his point of view, and limited in interesting ways.  We gradually become aware, as he does, of what New York society thinks of him, of how much May knows about him and how much she suspects, of what Ellen and May are really up to in their quiet side conversations.  The shifts are so subtle and lifelike that it’s hard to believe, once any particular truth is revealed openly to Newland, that I could have been in any doubt as to the realities of the situation, and yet if I am honest with myself, only a page before I would have been as deeply in the dark as the young Mr. Archer.

Lastly, I have to say (without saying too much) that Wharton manages an ending that is truly excellent.  Epilogues are hard in any novel, especially when an author (as in this case) moves ahead many years to follow the consequences of characters’ decisions.  J. K. Rowling, for example, attempts this at the end of her Harry Potter series (and did what I would call a disastrous job of it—poor enough to taint my positive memories of the series and toss the book down with some displeasure), and I’ve certainly seen other authors try and fail.  Wharton manages success here, as she often does, by letting the characters be real, by letting the reader only gradually understand the truth of a situation, and by not letting the conventions of storybook romance get in the way of what real love looks and acts like.  I can’t believe I’ve never read Edith Wharton before, and I intend to read more of her work.  Based purely on my assessment of her literary skill, and knowing nothing about the other novels of 1921, I have to say this is a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

Historical Insight

This isn’t a novel about the “problems” of contemporary America (as was His Family) or a frank assessment of how America was changing (as The Magnificent Ambersons was at least intended to be), so honestly it doesn’t rate as highly in this category as it perhaps might.  But it was fascinating to contemplate the existence in American society of a world as tense and shackled by convention as anything Jane Austen and the Regency authors might have experienced.  The van der Luydens may not be the Bingleys (and Mrs. Manson Mingott may not be Lady Catherine de Bourgh), but the stifling confines of upper class life, the way that a look or an apparently innocent comment can convey an ocean of contempt or scorn, the conflict between how people do live and how they believe they ought to live—these things dominate the lives of Newland and May Archer far more than I would have thought possible in post-Civil-War America.  I’d say it’s making me more aware of what it once meant to be “important” in the U.S., at least on the East Coast in the big cities, and that’s of interest to me.  But this doesn’t illuminate any of the larger questions of what it means to be American, as far as I can tell.


My aversion to numerical or scale-based ratings continues, but in case it wasn’t obvious, The Age of Innocence gets my highest rating: “You Must Own This Book”.  It is, in my estimation, possibly the most accomplished and well-composed novel written by an American, at least of those novels I am familiar with.  I don’t know that it ranks as “The Great American Novel” (largely because of my hesitation on the Historical Insight of the book, see above), but it certainly deserves to rank among America’s greatest novels, and I’d recommend this book to essentially any literate friend I have.

Last Word:

As has become my custom, I leave you with a more extended snippet from somewhere close to the end of the novel (though this time I pull back a bit farther from the end, so as not to spoil it), allowing Wharton to close this thoroughly enjoyable chapter in my journey in her own distinctive voice.  Here, Newland sits at the head of the table at a farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska, who will return to Europe tomorrow, despite his unrequited desire to run away with her on his own.

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another, he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies.  He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.

10 comments on “1921: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    I would recommend the movie, if you haven’t seen it. It is beautifully done, and has a wonderful cast.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the recommendation! I’d considered watching it before (independent of this crazy quest I’m on), and after reading the book, I’d like to see a good adaptation. I’m a little worried it, like most adaptations, will pale next to the book, but I’m willing to take the risk. 🙂

  2. […] to bring other guns to bear.  I’m trying to pace myself a bit and enjoy this (as I did with Wharton’s novel), but I won’t be able to slow down much: I’m hooked. Share […]

  3. Kristel says:

    Although I’m yet to read “The Age of Innocence”, I’ll have to (prematurely) agree with your post. I have no doubts the book IS epic. Edith Wharton’s writing style is incredibly fluid and graceful without completely disregarding the importance of brevity and conciseness. Of course, I may change my mind about this book; but with the way Wharton crafted “The House of Mirth”, I don’t think I will.

    About the film, the 1993 film adaptation was pretty good. But then again I have this incredible love for Daniel Day-Lewis, so… 🙂 Great review, as usual. 😉

  4. […] most in command of the language (yes, this is me signalling once again that I don’t think The Age of Innocence will be displaced from my “favorite Pulitzer novel” position), but she is remarkably […]

  5. […] instead to recognize a book commended (but not recommended) by the jury: Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence.  Sinclair Lewis was outraged at the decision, and always suspected that one or more jurors had […]

  6. […] England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there were certainly a few new glimpses of that world, which I found useful.  I liked the […]

  7. Paul Hamann says:

    I think your statement of “not letting the conventions of storybook romance get in the way of what real love looks and acts like” is very close to the center of Wharton’s goals here. We get kind of hung up on the word “real.” What would the newlywed Newland believe as he is swept up in his passion for Ellen? What would the older Newland at the end of the book say? Are either right? Both? Neither?

    When I saw the film (which I didn’t realize I had seen until very late in the novel), I was 23, and I was certainly on the side of “real” love being what he had with Olenska. Now, the young-boiling-blood has cooled, and I’ve got a loving marriage with two kids that doesn’t feel like what I had at 23. I’m much, much less judgmental about Newland’s choices now than I was when I saw the film. (Some of this may be because the film presents events in a way that encourages us to root for a Newland/Olenska union–as I recall (and it’s been 19 years), the film encourages us to take sides in a way that, as you aptly suggest, Wharton does not. But she does want us to ask the question. What does Newland/May have that Newland/Olenska would not? It’s a life that’s smoother, it’s calmer, it’s different…you can’t compare young blood-boiling love to older, companionable love, I guess. But Wharton certainly invites us to do so, and she does so in an incredibly understated way. I don’t have an answer at the end of this book as I did in 1993 for the film. And, because of that, I love the book. It’s about decisions we make and their consequences.

    As to my earlier question about whether it’s life that is so brutally stifling or just 19th-century New York society, I’ve concluded that it’s the latter. The fact that his children are so free form the dictatorial oppression of what they OUGHT to do makes that answer pretty easy for me. Newland was screwed over because he had the misfortune to be born into one society and get the tiniest taste of another way–a way that was simply not possible. And yet…and yet…he did manage to make the most of it. Sort of.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I find the see-saw between young and old Newland, between Ellen and May, really rich for reflection—I’m not sure Newland is ever right, but I think he gets righter at the end. There I agree with the 42 year old Paul more than the 23 year old—splitting the difference, in a sense, here at almost 33—and I think the fact that I have a slightly higher opinion of May than you do makes me a little more positive about that choice. I think Olenska’s initial feelings about love, which she shares with Newland in those beautifully sharp and keenly observed phrases, are more accurate about the possibilities for their relationship than the more optimistic tones she strikes later in the book. And for her, I think, not being with Newland was better than being with him: he’s not liberated enough to really be ready to stand as her peer. So, although I don’t know how to answer for Newland with certainty, I am fairly certain that Ellen shouldn’t kid herself…this isn’t love. I don’t know what to tell May, but she seemed to know what she wanted, and more or less got it.

      I absolutely agree that the book’s seriousness about decisions and consequences was a strong point. Wharton wastes nothing, that I can see, and makes sure the events pay off in the long run, but never in a particularly showy way. That awkward dinner is as close as we come to anything staged, and even that feels very muted and human and real.

      It’s interesting to me that you chose the side of your dilemma that you did. I (as you’ll see if you go back to it) commented in reply to your dilemma that I found the other side a bit more compelling. If Wharton means to comment only on that society she’d grown up in, I wonder why Ellen’s sadness is as real as it is. It seems to me to come from more than just her return to New York as a prisoner of local convention. Whatever else I can say about the novel, it does not make love look like a very good idea. Love is, by turns, naive, grasping, miscommunicated, insubstantial…..never satisfying, though, and never restorative. I don’t think that Wharton was that jaded a person, but her novel is, I think, and I wonder if it isn’t meant to comment on something about the human condition.

      Thanks so much for leaving these comments—it’s good to have been a fellow-traveler (parted only by that flimsiest of dimensions: time), and to gain from your insight into the book. Good luck with Ceremony!

      • Paul Hamann says:

        I don’t think I can overstate the importance of Newland’s children in my conclusion that the crappiness of 19th century New York rather than the human condition. Newland’s children grew up without that stiltifying sense of what ought to be done overriding every decision of every day,and I think it’s clear that they’re better for it (in Wharton’s eyes as well as my own).

        I also enjoy the fellow-travel! I don’t see a Pulitzer winner in the near future on MY list, but that day will come…Thanks for talking to me!

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