The early Pulitzer Prize winners were concerned with documenting and commenting on the effects that rapid social and technological changes had on “society”, whether that of a Midwestern town evolving into a large industrial city or of “old” New York. The most sharply observant, critical, and personal is The Age of Innocence, in which Wharton describes a set of mores governing behavior for the wealthiest families so stultifying that even reading it 85 years later produces claustrophobia and a sense of being unable to breathe.
The protagonist of the book, Newland Archer, is one of the more conscious of his set. At the beginning of the book, as a young man in the early 1870’s, Archer is quite taken up with his own class and wholeheartedly subscribes to “form”, that unwritten code of what is allowed and far more important, NOT allowed in Old New York society. He realizes that these constitute constraints on his actions but accepts them as de rigueur and necessary to the survival of his way of life.
However, he meets an alien who has suddenly appeared in the midst of this hierarchical, rigid society—the beautiful Countess Olenska, a member of one of the most prominent families whom Archer knew as a child, who married a Polish count, and moved to Europe. After an unspecified number of years, she has left her husband and moved back to New York under mysterious and even scandalous circumstances. Being a member of a distinguished family and somehow “foreign”, the Countess Olenska’s behavior baffles society; they alternately rally around and shy away from her depending on which by-law of the social code she has most recently “transgressed”—usually unwittingly.
Archer, engaged and then married to May Welland, one of the most beautiful as well as most unimaginative and uncreative daughters of an Old New York family, falls under the Countess’ spell. She evokes within him a vaguely intuited, dormant but not yet fully suppressed streak of independence and rebellion, a dread of living out the rest of his life in the sterile, iron-clad environment of High Society.
The story centers around Archer’s feeble and ineffectual attempts to transcend the rules and mores of his class and strike out for a life in which he can grow. In one of the more telling quotes:
His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever going to happen.
At each critical moment, in which he seems poised to break out, Fate, in the person of May, presents him with a choice between personal freedom and a shot at happiness and duty. Duty, in the form of his refusal to grasp at his own happiness at the expense of others’ pain—and May—win each time. Archer spends the rest of his life conforming to the code of behavior expected of a man of his class; the Countess Olenska moves to Paris. The scenes are underwritten, but in the most chilling prose.
The end of the book is poignant, even heart-rending.
The prose style is quite sharp, even unforgiving, as Wharton, at times in great detail, presents a way of life that worships Form and correct behavior; it is clear that she despises this life. It is a life that is inconceivable to us today, but through near-perfect writing, she makes it real for us, a staggering achievement.