on 19 March 2007
The Age of Innocence is a work of beautifully subtle observation and delicacy, but though Edith Wharton paints with pastels, she delivers a vividly moving and meaningful fable on the damage society can inflict on the individual spirit.
What is fascinating about the novel, for me, is how nothing portrayed is at all as it seems, and yet there are never any glaring or obvious revelations or realisations - Wharton creates an environment in which everything is so delicately balanced that the tiniest ripple can assume seismic proportions. Newland Archer, a slave to respectability, and yet a closet dreamer, sees the beauty of the society he lives in, and its hypocrisy, but he never fully appreciates the strength of its ties and strictures until he finds himself drawn to the lovely Ellen Olenska, who symbolises, for him, a freedom and daring that he has never known. His affianced bride, May Welland, pales in comparison - to him she is merely an obedient ornament, a 'curtain dropped before an emptiness,' but he never realises the strength that lies underneath her apparent frailty. It is the steel in May Welland's character that is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel; Ellen Olenska outwardly appears to be a strong, free spirit, who shuns convention, but she is buffeted and bruised by the society that the delicate May Welland represents. May sees far more than Newland ever credits her for, and it seems that his journey through the novel is chiefly about the gradual realisation of all that he has missed. Newland is perhaps the only true innocent in the world he inhabits.
The novel is intensely bittersweet, and there are no clear heroes or villains, only individual strengths and weaknesses operating in an environment where society itself is the deity that controls all. There is real beauty in Wharton's finely drawn characterisation and her descriptions of a grand and intricately lovely setting, but what she truly portrays through the beauty is the bleak emptiness of a world where souls are sacrificed in order to maintain the sham of society's smooth and polished surface.
on 8 July 2012
I came to Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" via a reading of another novel, of her's, namely Ethan Frome. Ethan Frome enticed me to read other novels by Wharton because in about 120 pages the novella threw up some interesting and pertinent themes such as the human being's capacity to revolt against the strictures of their social mores whilst at the same time being able to accept the limits to which they can stretch that revolt and come to some form of compromise that allows them to maintain some degree of individuality without overly upsetting the norms of their social milieu. On a much broader and more in-depth scale, The Age of innocence explores such themes.
The novel is broadly set in New York at about the end of the First World War. Wharton's characters are wealthy, upper middle class and striving to maintain the social mores that define their social milieu. Her characters organise exclusive social gatherings, attend the opera and gossip about the behaviour and fortune of each other. The two protagonists that potentially disrupt and shake up the attitude and behaviour of this group are Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Ellen, a member of the Welland family, has lived in Europe in an unhappy marriage to one count Olenska. She returns to New York apparently to escape the count's depravity and ultimately obtain a divorce. Ellen represents the outsider who perhaps unwittingly disrupts the cosy social life of her family and their friends. Newland Archer, a young lawyer engaged to May Welland, a cousin of Ellen Olenska, is given the task of persuading Ellen not to seek a divorce from her husband. A divorce would undermine the family's standing in their social context. Newland and Ellen basically fall in love leaving Newland torn between abandoning his engagement to May with all the consequences that would follow and eloping with Ellen. He stands by May and marries her. It is the subsequent tension between sticking to social norms or disrupting them and thereby engendering a new way of behaviour and doing things that Wharton brilliantly explores.
If one were to place Wharton's novel into a genre, if only to grasps her approach and what she does, then it could be argued that it has its roots in nineteenth century psychological realism. The novel is a fine example of that approach. As I read it, I was reminded of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Wharton's long sentences with their sub-clauses reveal nuances in her character's thoughts which in turn present us with fully rounded characters. Her tone is sardonic and to some extent cynical of the social world into which she takes the reader.
Having said the above in praise of the novel, I must admit that I had two major gripes with it. The first is that I had no sympathy for Wharton's well-to-do characters. And secondly the social world into which Wharton takes the reader is anathema to me. These are two very subjective criticisms that say a lot about my position and values rather than any necessary inherent fault with the novel. Nonetheless, I simply found this world of snobbery and opera attendance, not for any appreciation of the opera but simply as a result of one's social position, dull and a little tedious to read about.
The novels of Edith Wharton are a fairly new discovery for me. I like the themes she explores and her characters are well drawn. Pushing a hundred years since Wharton wrote, the two novels I have read are still relevant today and worth reading.
Newland Archer, the protagonist of this ironically entitled novel set in the late nineteenth century, is a proper New York gentleman, and part of a society which adheres to strict social codes, subordinating all aspects of life to doing what is expected, which is synonymous with doing what it right. As the author remarks early in the novel, "Few things were more awful than an offense against Taste." Newland meets and marries May Welland, an unimaginative, shallow young woman whose upbringing has made her the perfect, inoffensive wife, one who knows how to behave and how to adhere to the "rules" of the society in which they live.
When Newland is reintroduced to May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her husband in Europe and now wants a divorce, he finds himself utterly captivated by her freedom and her willingness to risk all, socially, by flouting convention. Both Ellen and Newland, however, are products of their upbringing and their culture, however, and they resist their feelings because of their separate social obligations. Various meetings between them suggest that their feelings are far stronger than what is obvious on the surface, and the question of whether either of them will finally state the obvious remains unanswered.
Wharton creates an exceptionally realistic picture of New York in the post-Civil War era, a time in which aristocrats of inherited wealth found themselves competing socially with parvenus. Her ability to show the conflict between a person's desire for freedom and his/her need for social acceptance is striking. As the various characters make their peace with their decisions--either to conform to or to challenge social dictates--the novel achieves an unusual dramatic tension, subtle because of its lack of direct confrontation and powerful in its effects on individual destinies. This is, in fact, less an "age of innocence" than it is an age of social manipulation.
Wharton herself manipulates the reader--her best dialogues are those in which the characters never actually participate--conversations that they keep to themselves, confrontations which they never allow themselves to have, and resolutions which happen through inaction rather than through decision-making. Filled with acute social observations, the novel shows individuals convincing themselves that obeying social dictates is the right thing to do. Though the novel sometimes seems to smother the reader with its limitations on action, Age of Innocence brilliantly captures the age and attitudes of the era. Mary Whipple
It was a glittering, sumptuous time when hypocrisy was expected, discreet infidelity tolerated, and unconventionality ostracized.
That is the Gilded Age, and nobody knew its hypocrises better than Edith Wharton.... and nobody portrayed them as well. "The Age of Innocence" is a trip back in time to the stuffy upper crust of "old New York," taking us through one respectable man's hopeless love affair with a beautiful woman -- and the life he isn't brave enough to have.
Newland Archer, of a wealthy old New York family, has become engaged to pretty, naive May Welland. But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned home after dumping her cheating husband. At first, the two are just friends, but Newland becomes more and more entranced by the Countess' easy, free-spirited European charm.
After Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger. He starts to rebel in little ways, but he's still mired in a 100% conventional marriage, job and life. Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and the safe, dull life that he has condemned in others?
There's nothing too scandalous about "Age of Innocence" in a time when starlets acquire and discard boyfriends and husbands like old pantyhose -- it probably wasn't in the 1920s when it was first published. But then, this isn't a book about sexiness and steam -- it's part bittersweet romance, part social satire, and a look at what happens when human beings lose all spontaneity and passion.
Part of this is due to Wharton's portrayal of New York in the 1870s -- opulent, cultured, pleasant, yet so tied up in tradition that few people in it are able to really open up and live. It's a haze of ballrooms, gardens, engagements, and careful social rituals that absolutely MUST be followed, even if they have no meaning. It's a place "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought."
And Wharton writes distant, slightly mocking prose that outlines this sheltered little society. Her writing opens as slowly and beautifully as a rosebud, letting subtle subplots, poetic prose and powerful, hidden emotions drive the story. So don't be discouraged by the endless conversations about flowers, ballrooms, gloves and old family scandals that don't really matter anymore -- they are trappings to the story, and convey the stuffy life that Newland is struggling to escape.
In the middle of all this, Newland is a rather dull, intelligent young man who thinks he's unconventional. But he becomes more interesting as he struggles between his conscience and his longing for the Countess. And as "Age of Innocence" winds on, you gradually see that he doesn't truly love the Countess, but what she represents -- freedom from society and convention.
The other two angles of this love triangle are May and Ellen. May is (suitably) pallid and rather dull, though she shows some different sides in the last few chapters. And Ellen is a magnificent character -- alluring, mysterious, but also bewildered by New York's hostility to her ways. And she's even more interesting when you realize that she isn't trying to rebel, but simply being herself.
"Age of Innocence" is a subtle look at life in Gilded Age New York, telling the story of a man desperately in love with a way of life he hasn't got the courage to pursue. Exquisite in its details, painful in its beauty.
on 15 March 2000
This is my first look at David Hamilton's work and I believe he captures the very essence of the beauty of Adolescence not seen by today's society. Many people may criticise his work as 'Pornographic' and an incitement to commit acts of indecency against Children.
But I suggest you look deeper into his work, look for the beauty with in, the Human form at it's purest. The pictures within this book are far from provocative and certainly not pornographic. If you are looking for a cheap thrill, then this book is not for you, suggest the Razzle for that, if you are looking for the purest form of art closest to Humans then this book is for you. I will certainly be looking at more of his work.
on 20 January 2004
Like her elder contemporary Henry James, Edith Wharton deals with the blood battles of gilded age aristocracy. American and British readers will find much common ground in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Here are the transatlantics who gave us the Astors and Winston Churchill and, indeed, Henry James and Edith Wharton.
Reading THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is a bit like reading a fashion magazine edited by a tragic genius. The descriptions of clothing, food and architecture are as dazzling as can be, but the agony of the main characters is just slightly veiled.
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 and the reason is clear. This novel is an indictment of a society which values surface to the point of suffocation.
H. L. Mencken, of all people, failed to notice Wharton's almost subversive theme. He thought she was a portrait painter, and an increasingly sentimental one at that.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is not a pretty picture. It's a perfect picture, but pretty it isn't.
on 6 June 2013
Of course the book is a classic, a rare treat, you can't fail to be moved. This Penguin edition is full of typing mistakes, punctuation mistakes and missing words. It has obviously been typed into the Kindle machine by a non English speaking person on a fixed rate and no one has thought to check it. You might expect that from a free edition but Penguin should take much more care.
on 26 May 2016
Warning: contain spoilers!
A good novel is not just a story which entertains, helps you pass the time and leaves you with no trace of intellectual imprints except of the momentary pleasure which is likely to pass. Rather a good novel is an analysis, observation or a view of a certain aspect of humanity through the fictitious characters, their life and encounters created by the pen of the writer. In this sense, the Age of Innocence is a good novel. It works very hard to tell of the society, its morality supported by the conventions and traditions, through the characters whose behaviour and thinking were moulded in that environment.
Through our modern 21st century eyes, the ending may be shocking - the true love did not win but conform to the demand and expectation of the social norm. The objective was not to disturb the calm waters. In the introduction to this version, it is quoted that 'Archer's and Ellen's 'particular tragedy' is their 'sacrifice' to May Welland, who is 'virtuous because she is incapable of temptation, competent because she is incapable of any deep perturbation....' (p.viii). I suspect that most people today will share that view - it's a 'sacrifice' of true love for what is proper and the norm. But when we read on in the book, the outcome was an active choice of Ellen and a passive one of Newland. It is fascinating to pick up her reasoning why she exerted so much restraint on her emotions and in so doing, also restrained Newland's. Here is what Ellen said to Newland: 'But from the beginning, I felt that there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and - unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one which all its golden hands - and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before - and it's better than anything I've known.' (p.110) When Newland mentioned his 'right', she responded, 'Ah, you've taught me what an ugly word that is.' (p.111) Ellen made her choice because she saw how her wider family operated and interacted, something that she had never observed from a close quarter until then because she was brought up in Europe. She had found something 'better than anything I've known'. That sounds a perfectly good reason to me to rein in the force that was going to destroy the harmony. To her, it wasn't just a duty but something 'better'. I think this is a very good antidote to our individualism, self-centredness, and love-above-all mentality. There are things better than love. There are other means to bring about happiness than love. There are other human virtues that are as worthy of praise as love. Ellen's choice is not that shocking if we step aside of our self-centredness.
Thereafter, her decisions and choice were her effort in keeping that balance, which she submitted Newland to it even against his wish: 'It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquilised him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity.' (p.155) 'She would go (baack to her husband) only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded.' p.155.
Of course, the delicate balance could not be sustained as the temptation was too big. They nearly blew it if not for May Welland, who feeling under threat, intervened and foiled their plan by awakening Ellen's conscience. In the end she had to leave, back to Europe but not back to her husband. Even then Newland was prepared to chase after her if not for the family responsibility brought on by the expanded family.
The ending probably is not a tragedy - perhaps Ellen found love thereafter, the book does not say anything about Ellen. Newland's life on the other hand has fulfilled all expectations and Ellen came to symbolise what he had missed in life. That's all right, isn't it? No one can have everything in life. I think the decision, albeit agonising, is the right one, because it is a mirage of modern time to believe that two people can be truly happy just on their love for one another if many loved ones are hurt by their getting together. How can you be truly happy if you know that you have wronged someone deeply?
The book surprises me in that New York was depicted as more stifling than Europe, where Ellen could be free. Europe in my mind also had a lot etiquette and social expectations and ranks. New York, or America in general, was freer in my perception. I may be wrong, but I wonder if this is because people live far away from home and extended family and therefore naturally will be freer to be themselves and do what they want.
One of the main focuses of the book is the tug between social expectations, duty and decency on the one hand, and one's own private desires on the other. As Wilberforce has dissected for us in his Practical View of Christianity, it is a fatal error to detach morality from its foundation. I believe that this conflict will go on forever if we do not have higher reason beyond ourselves and society for morality. Morality cannot survive on its own without its anchor. If it is detached from its foundation, it will only be chipped away gradually over time by the force of our private desires, as we have indeed seen in our 21st century society.
The author writes well, full of description and satires of the social norms of her day. It is engaging and keeps us thinking. I think Book I is better than Book II, as the latter doesn't grip our attention as fully as the former. An enjoyable and worthwhile read overall.
on 13 September 2010
An explosive love story packed into up-tight and tightly knit 19th Century New York. Beautiful and atmospheric prose explores every nuance of the situation and boils the plot up brilliantly for a tear-jerking end.
If you like Jane Austen you should try this and if you don't like Jane Austen then you may love this. It's an understated story of upper class New York Society in the late 19th century and, like Austen, uses the moral conventions and manners of society to provide a framework for the action. But whereas Austen colours and perhaps weakens her stories with arch humour, Wharton allows nothing to come between the reader and the devastating love story at the heart of this novel. It's a far more effective and long lasting formula but nowhere near as comfortable.
A book about enormously wealthy New York socialites does not have any obvious modern appeal and the world that Newland Archer and May Welland inhabit is almost incomprehensible to modern eyes. The nearest analogy would be an American high school prom King and Queen where a certain set of strictly observed behaviour is expected by all present. They are the perfect couple in the perfect society until Cousin Madam Olenska flees from her Polish husband and seeks refuge with her relatives. Her beauty and other worldliness shows Newland what it might be like to break with convention and he falls helplessly in love.
But this is no sleazy and clandestine love affair. Both Newland and Olenska are aware of their duties to others and the tensions between conforming and growing, pleasing yourself and hurting those who care for you are the themes that are explored. It's beautifully, gently and subtly done, mimicking the society it describes where it is rarely necessary for things to be spelt out since the participants instinctively know what is expected. There is a wonderful cast of characters some of whom make the rules and some bend them, but the punishment for breaking them is to be ostracised forever. Whether Newland is going to choose May Welland or Madam Olenska is not clear until the very end and I challenge anyone not to shed a tear for those involved.
This is an atmospheric book that conjures up an alien culture in its own terms and uncovers one of literature's great romances. A must read.
on 1 June 2015
This is a collection of approximately 200 photographs (with text and poetry) showing young girls, many of them obviously under the so called age of consent, in varying stages of undress. The majority of the photographs show bare breasted girls, and while there are a few full nudes, there are no provocative poses or photographs of female genitalia. By today's standards, these pictures would be judged as pornographic with clear overtones of paedophilia, and yet in their day, circa the late 1970's they would have been viewed with more tolerant and understanding eyes.
Should one bother to read the text which accompanies this photographic collection, it will be clear that the photographer's intention is to pay homage to the concept of virginity and to deify this almost mystical state. If the viewer should find the pictures erotic, it is testament to the fact that innocence is, in itself, one of the most erotic concepts of our human sexuality.
To criticise the book simply because of its content of nudity is to deny that the nude has always played a major role in art. To criticise the specific subject matter of the book is to completely misunderstand the purpose and intent of the artist.