Newland Archer and May Welland are two wealthy young people living in New York in the late 1800's. Engaged to be married and looking forward to a respectable if somewhat dull life they were unprepared to meet May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Ellen has just arrived from Europe after perpetrating a harrowing escape from her debauched husband and her family greets her as if she just returned from a long vacation.
Traumatized by the experience and baffled by her family’s indifference to it, Ellen seeks some frank advice from Newland and as he is also lonely among the smiling facades, is drawn to her openness and falls in love. Because scandal of any sort is to be avoided at any cost, Newland went ahead and married May while still pining for Ellen. Having been persuaded to not divorce, Ellen finds she has been sacrificed to the god of respectability and her place in society grows dubious as remarriage is impossible.
It is easy in this day and age to misunderstand this superb novel and cast it aside as a simple satire on Victorian manners and repression. It is so much more. We all know about sexual repression of that time but that was only part of the severe restrictions placed on every aspect of what are considered normal relationships. A husband and wife could go through their lives wearing masks of pleasant affability and never show true feelings and express honest opinions.
Think about it. With her attorneys in particular, most everyone understood why the Countess Olenska left her depraved husband but a divorce was still unthinkable. The women who were shocked had no inkling of what she had been through and were kept carefully in the dark as if the knowledge itself would somehow taint them. No one could talk openly to anyone, not even to one’s own husband or wife. Not ever. With full knowledge and a heart full of pain May went to her grave without sharing with Newland his feelings about Ellen and how it affected her as a result. She hinted on her deathbed to her son but still disclosed no details. Hooray for the cult of the family.
Edith Wharton is very candid with Victorian domestic problems and tackles an entire social structure based on appearances. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and I feel it is well earned.