Edith Warton’s The Age of Innocence gives us a glimpse of what life was like for the New York elite in the 1870s. Social conventions are valued more highly than anything, than happiness or even money. Newland Archer despised this aspect of his well-privileged life, and spends the novel inwardly wanting to rebel against it and yet outwardly conforming to the social order. He is betrothed to May Welland, a lovely and sweet young girl who seems never to question the role she is expected to play as a daughter and later a wife. When her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in town, disgraced because she left her philandering husband, and women aren’t to do such things, Newland finds himself drawn to her and her unconventional ways.
In my early years, I thought love affairs outside of marriage the worst of evils to inflict upon another; in my late teens and early twenties, I found forbidden love tragically romantic. Now I simply find it irresponsible and immature, and definitely one of the most hurtful of betrayals one can inflict upon his or her significant other. Of course, all relationships and circumstances are different, but in this case, May is portrayed as beyond reproach, even if completely unoriginal in thought, attitude, and action. Perhaps Newland and Ellen were better suited temperamentally, if only she hadn’t been married before, and he weren’t betrothed to her cousin.
The novel ended perfectly, though, in my opinion. I most enjoyed Wharton’s observations about New York society, many of which still ring true today, although some of the conventions, such as a businessman having to be honest above all else, seem to have fallen away long ago. Newland also seemed to believe that “women should be as free as men,” and that the strict rules of society mostly resembled those of a prison. However, his “attempts” to break free were both few and inadequate. Ultimately, his life’s course was subtly and profoundly directed by the women in his life, who seemed to manage to make all the decisions about the flow of society in the background without the men ever becoming completely conscious of it.