The Age of Innocence read-along is hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm. Today we are posting our thoughts on Book Two and the entire novel overall. You can read my thoughts on Book One here.
Oh Edith Wharton - she is truly fantastic. Prior to The Age of Innocence, I had only read Ethan Frome, which I liked very much. Wharton has now established herself to be a master in relating a tortured love story. But it really is much more than that. I think one of the things that makes The Age of Innocence so powerful is Wharton's ability to impose the character's emotions onto the reader. Book One concluded with the announcement that Archer's wedding had been pushed forward. We still weren't sure what would happen with Ellen and I wondered whether or not Archer would go through with the wedding. Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day. Wharton throws her readers into the event - highlighting the haste and slight confusion Archer himself undergoes. Wharton also does this to the reader in the end when we jump forward many years to learn about May's death, the birth of Archer's children and his son's engagement to Fanny Beaufort. There is a disconnection between Archer's life as we left it and the one that we now learn about.
Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy - busy with reforms and "movements," with fads and fetishes and frivolities - to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody's past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?In my post on Book One I mentioned that this book is almost a work of observational anthropology, critiquing our inherent societal values and rejection of the unusual. These ideas are true throughout Book Two as well. Wharton further examines Old New York society in Book two by considering its gender relations. In Book One we are lead to believe May falls short of average intelligence, but in Book Two we see her "blue eyes wet with victory" when Archer knows he must stay with her and let Ellen go. I think Wharton is highlighting the underrated astuteness of the girl who plays dumb, and the true potential they hold to get exactly what they want. Wharton also touches on the double standards of an affair and then examines them backward, insisting that a woman is prone to changing her mind and acting impetuously, and it's the man who should be at fault for adulterous actions. I found Wharton's examination of gender relations in Book Two both interesting and witty.
When reading books I am usually hesitant to believe two characters in a novel are truly in love. The author really has to show me this emotion and make it unique - in The Age of Innocence, I never doubted Archer's love for Ellen. Wharton really pulled at my heart strings when Archer picks up Ellen at the train station and states,
Do you know - I hardly remembered you?Now, a discussion of the ending (spoiler alert). I think Wharton really does this entire novel justice when Archer walks away from Ellen without even saying hello years later. I don't think this novel was ever just a love story, which is what it would have been had Archer and Ellen ended up together. I think this is a story about a life of regret. I think this is a novel that articulates the importance of timing in life and the mutability of of our everyday world. It's about doing what's best for those you care about and stifling selfish motivations. It highlights the repercussions of the choices we make and the inability to go back and do things differently. I think it's about understanding societal constraints and despite a yearning for something more, facing the inability to break free of those constraints. All in all, the ending as it was made me think about the book as a whole more than I would have had Ellen and Archer lived happily ever after. Well played, Edith Wharton. Well played.
Hardly remembered me?
I mean: how shall I explain? I - it's always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.
The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Publisher: Macmillan, 1920
Publisher: Macmillan, 1920