Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence

In attempting to explain the sexual morality of the contemporary world to older family members – for whom Facebook and YouTube are mysteries, not to mention Tinder or Snapchat – I have often declared, in exasperation, that the dating world of today resembles the dating world of the 1950s about as much as the culture of America or Canada resembles the culture of Libya or Sudan or rural China. Which is to say, not at all. I don’t mean to naively suggest that adultery and pre-marital sex were unheard of or even rare in 1950, but there did exist a common vision of the good life – marriage and children – and an approved path to that life that has been utterly obliterated in the modern world. We date or do not date at our leisure, marry or do not marry, conceive children in or out of wedlock or, more and more frequently, not at all. Taboos exist only to be trespassed, and there are vanishingly few of those left. I mention all of this because reflecting on these incredible changes has brought me closer, in outlook, to Edith Wharton, who surveyed the post-WWI culture with dismay. She saw the widespread loss of faith that would result in the Roaring Twenties and responded by turning her gaze back in time, to New York’s Gilded Age, the 1870s, when social conventions were both stricter and less questioned.

The Age Of Innocence is a “novel of manners,” an investigation into the customs and mores of a particular group of people – New York high society – in a particular time. It is unusual, by contemporary standards, in that the heroism of its characters revolves around what they do not do. Newland Archer, a promising young lawyer and New York’s most eligible bachelor, has secured the ideal marriage partner in May Welland, the young and beautiful daughter of a prosperous, aristocratic New York family. And yet something about May’s innocence and naïveté is off-putting to Newland. As Wharton puts it, “She was frank, poor darling, because she had nothing to conceal, assured because she knew of nothing to be on her guard against; and with no better preparation than this, she was to be plunged overnight into what people evasively called ‘the facts of life.'” In other words, she has been kept, by a kind of conspiracy of her culture, in a state of childlike innocence, an “elaborate system of mystification” designed to guard her innocence until marriage. And Newland Archer, to his infinite credit, does not want an innocent wife, oblivious to the facts of life.

She was straightforward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humor (chiefly provided by her laughing at his jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent, it was full of the twists and defenses of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Notice that Wharton identifies the women of New York society as being the architects and power players of this social system – something rarely acknowledged today. For his part, Archer is no virginal groom, but he has no such expectation of May, either:

He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

So much to his credit. But when May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in New York, Archer meets a woman whose character and experience make her unique – and something of a pariah to high society. She has scandalously run away from her abusive French husband, and the fact of his abuse does not seem to excuse – in the eyes of high society – her flaunting of her marriage vows. She keeps company with bohemians, in an unfashionable neighborhood (among “small dressmakers, bird-stuffers and ‘people who wrote’), rather than live nearer her family and the well-to-do hosts of New York’s most important parties, and she has no patience for the social expectations under which the rest of the world seems to operate. “Fashionable!” she declares, at one point, “Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one’s own fashions?” At another point, she will declare, to Archer, that “the real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” She does not know it at the time, but these sentiments are uniquely appealing to Archer, who will later declare, in exasperation, to his wife: “We’re all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We’re like patterns stenciled on a wall.”

In temperament and outlook, the Countess Olenska and Archer are perfectly suited to one another, but under the conventions of the society in which they both live, neither temperament nor outlook are the primary concerns of matchmaking. Good breeding, wealth, stable families, adherence to convention – these are the values that count and, ultimately, the values that triumph: Archer does not leave May to elope with the Countess. From our modern perspective, in which the needs of the individual are paramount, The Age Of Innocence is an unqualified tragedy. And yet Wharton also seems to suggest that there’s a nobility in the sacrifice Archer and Elena make. The tragedy of our times is that we cannot perceive that.