Hello, fellow bibliophiles! I am so excited to get to write this first post for Book Club Classics. I thought about starting this book club for months before I had the nerve to actually throw it out to you all, and now I can’t believe it’s actually happening!
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read all about this new book club. Also, if you haven’t read my introduction to Edith Wharton and her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, you should pop over and then come back here!
Now, let’s dive in, shall we?
Warning: This post will contain spoilers if you haven’t finished Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. Give it a read and come back! We’ll wait.
I guess I should start by saying a) I already feel like I need to reread this book, and b) I wonder how I would’ve felt if I’d read it a year or even a few months ago, when I wasn’t a new bride with a shiny new husband and our rose-tinted future ahead of us. I think my main problem when I finished the novel was the fact that I really, really identified with May Welland. Even after mulling it over for a while, I was surprised by how I continued to side with May even though all of my feminist sensibilities aligned with Ellen.
Why The Age of Innocence?
I felt so terrible for May the entire time, even when she was insufferably dull and acquiescent, because she was such a product of her environment. The fact that Newland recognized what his society (a society that he was so wishy-washy toward–“do I want to be a part of this life? do I want to be a Bohemian living in Europe with my mistress?”) was to blame yet continued to hold it against her just drove me crazy. I initially took Wharton’s title, The Age of Innocence, and saw May as a direct representation of this ideal. The society that she was brought up into was losing touch with the world and suffering as a result; its naiveté regarding every aspect of life outside of its sheltered walls would be its downfall. And then May got the better of Newland, and I felt so triumphant inside. Like I said, maybe I would’ve felt completely differently toward the novel if I hadn’t gotten married less than two months ago! I’d love to hear what other people thought about the Newland-Ellen-May love triangle.
May’s delicate way of keeping her family together coupled with the realization during Ellen’s going-away party that everyone had suspicions about Newland and Ellen affirmed what Newland and I should’ve seen coming the entire time: in this upper-class New York society, outward appearances never show what’s really going on on the inside. Not that I agreed with anything about their society; Wharton’s off-hand use of “mulatto servant” was especially startling to read. I just thought it was very well done on Wharton’s part to have this revelation occur so late in the novel, when Newland thought he had the whole society figured out and even fooled the entire time.
The van der Luydens
This may be a bit random, but I was particularly intrigued by the van der Luydens throughout the novel. Maybe it’s the whole early Dutch Americans thing (my dad’s family came over from Amsterdam and settled in the New York area in 1663–maybe I was May Welland in a different life?!), but I was so hung up on their power within this upper-class society and how seriously their favor was bestowed and revoked. I also found it interesting that the most important members of society so obviously hated being a part of the social sphere. They spent most of their time outside of New York and when they did return to the city it was to make sure that the expected principles were being upheld. Although they didn’t want to live within the society, they still cared that the proper “way of things are done” was maintained. It was so very interesting to me!
Just because I tended to side with May doesn’t mean that I didn’t understand in part where Newland was coming from. At the beginning of the novel, he seemed to have his life figured out, and although he still seemed to think extremely belittling and sexist things about his future wife, he had a more open mind and viewed his future in a hopeful way. It wasn’t until he became acquainted with Ellen, the illustrious Countess Olenska, that everything went downhill for him. My main issue with him from this point was that he never could make up his mind about what he wanted out of life. He wanted to uphold the values of the society that he was raised into, then he wanted to begin his life with May on more equal footing, teaching her about life and letting her express her opinions freely. He wanted to marry May, then he had feelings for Ellen, but he loved May, but then he loved Ellen! He wanted to marry May, he wanted Ellen to be his mistress, he wanted to run away with Ellen, he wanted May to die! (That was pretty much the last straw for me; I couldn’t get back into understanding Newland when that thought entered his mind.)
The strange thing is that, even though I wasn’t necessarily that into the plot, I still legitimately enjoyed reading The Age of Innocence. Wharton is a “champion of imagery” (as my friend Sarah so eloquently tweeted the other day), and she did such a thorough yet engaging job both in her images and her depictions of social interaction. Her narration is also wonderful in its ability to give us all of Newland’s (scattered and sometimes frustrating) thoughts while also showing the things he’s missing: a look in May’s eye, the way Ellen truly reacts to a situation, or Mrs. Mingott’s reason behind doing something. She reminded me of a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jane Austen, painting such vivid pictures of daily society that it captivates readers with the chance of being a “fly on the wall” in a lost era. Why do you think we’re all so smitten with Downton Abbey?
Wharton’s writing is also the reason why her sudden shift in timeline didn’t bother me as much as it probably would have in another book. She had set out to catalog the people and events of a certain society at a certain period of time, and it only felt right for her to chronicle how this society had changed over the years. It even made me feel a little less exasperated with Newland, and I don’t know if that’s due to his treatment of May following her death or the introduction of his adult children. Either way, it kept me from wanting to kill him when he agreed to visit Paris with his son, and it also helped me understand why he didn’t want to see Ellen after all of those years. I think his memories had sustained him during his life with May, and knowing what she had been up to and what might have been between them could have ruined the life that he had lived. I was content albeit shocked by her ending.
Wouldn’t The Age of Innocence make a great play? It almost felt like she had set it for the stage while I was reading it. Maybe I’ll have to watch Martin Scorcese’s film version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Whew! There are all of the thoughts that I wanted to get off my chest regarding Edith Wharton’s masterpiece novel. Feel free to leave your own in the comments, and I’ll start responding to them as they come. If you’re a blogger, I’d love for you to link up using the inLinkz button below, and if you’d slap this little button on your post, I’d be forever grateful! You can also join along in the conversation on Twitter using #bookclubclassics. Long, I know, so if anyone has a better, more succinct suggestion I’d love to hear it.
Thanks for joining me for book club, and don’t forget to fill out this SurveyMonkey with the classics that you want to read in 2015. The survey will close in exactly one week from today, and the new book club lineup for the year will be posted on the blog on Monday, February 9th