Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, carefully illustrates the social stigmas prevalent in 1870s New York. I loved Wharton’s ability to draw me in to the internal battles the main characters faced, and I empathized with their desires to find belonging. While today’s social stigmas differ, the emotions remain the same.
In the beginning of the novel, Newland Archer ponders his upcoming engagement to May Welland, idealistic about his ability to influence her life and help her become a “free” woman, simply by being an engaging and caring husband.
Newland Archer’s idealistic world is shaken, however, first when May’s cousin and his old beau (Ellen Mingott Olenska) returns to New York, shamed and disgraced after leaving her cruel and abusive husband. Newland must reconsider his notions of women’s social position. When Madame Olenska begins to seek a divorce, the New York society is shocked. Such a situation would bring shame to all of Ellen’s family, including Newland’s wife-to-be. Newland must determine if his own exclamation “women should be free—as free as we are”(Vol. 1, Chap. 6) is realistic for “poor Ellen Olenska.”
In the process, Newland Archer realizes that he is not as free in his relationships as he had imagined. His developing relationship with Madame Olenska complicates the matter, and he realizes that his marriage will not be as he had envisioned.
Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. … There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…. (Vol. 2, Chap. 2)Ultimately, The Age of Innocence is the story of a man coming to terms with the 1870s social constraints on the most intimate of relationships, love and marriage. Newland Archer finds that the social stigmas prevalent in society distance people: “There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart” (Vol. 2, Chap. 6). In the end, he must decide whether or not he will live within the socially unacceptable dreams he has or if he will look “not at visions, but at realities” (Volume 2, Chapter 11).
I highly recommend this novel.
Originally posted here.