Today we are discussing Edith Wharton’s classic novel The Age of Innocence. The novel, recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman, takes place in late 19th century New York City. The plot centers on the marriage of Newland Archer, a lawyer hailing from one of New York’s best families, and May Welland, a beautiful young socialite. When May’s cousin, the exotic, worldly Countess Ellen Olenska, returns to New York, her appearance causes a scandal: Ellen has separated from her European husband amidst a number of scurrilous rumors, and she even wishes to divorce. May asks Newland to be kind to Ellen and help smooth her acceptance by New York City’s rigid, rule-bound society, but in the process Archer becomes enchanted by the mysterious Ellen, whose intelligence and willingness to live by her own rules makes him doubt his love for the conventional, traditional May.
Below, I’ve asked a couple of specific questions regarding the novels themes, with particular emphasis on how these themes intersect with our own contemporary Mormon culture. Feel free to answer either question, or both, or to simply share your general thoughts on the novel. And don’t forget: our next book club pick is Room, by Emma Donoghue, one of the most talked about novels of 2010, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, May 19th.
Now on to the discussion!
“[Archer] delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed [May], in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.) She was straightforward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chiefly proved by her laughing at his jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”
Question: Is May as innocent as Archer believes her to be? How does this perceived innocence both attract and repel him? In our own 21st century Mormon culture, do we continue to engage in the “conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses” to create what Archer sees as a “factitious [female] purity,” or is our idealized version of womanhood different than the one embodied by May Welland in the novel? If there are similarities, how does this idealized version of womanhood affect modern-day LDS marriages?
“I say, father: what was [Ellen] like?” [Dallas, Archer’s adult son, asked].
Archer felt his colour rise under his son’s unabashed gaze. “Come, own up: you and she were great pals, weren’t you? Wasn’t she most awfully lovely?”
“Lovely? I don’t know. She was different.”
“Ah—there you have it! That’s what it always comes to, doesn’t it? When she comes, she’s different—and one doesn’t know why. It’s exactly what I feel about [my fiance] Fanny.”
His father drew back a step, releasing his arm. “About Fanny? But, my dear fellow—I should hope so! Only I don’t see—”
“Dash it, Dad, don’t be prehistoric! Wasn’t she— once—your Fanny?”
Dallas belonged body and soul to the new generation. He was the first-born of Newland and May Archer, yet it had never been possible to inculcate in him even the rudiments of reserve. “What’s the use of making mysteries? It only makes people want to nose ’em out,” he always objected when enjoined to discretion. But Archer, meeting his eyes, saw the filial light under their banter.
“Well, the woman you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t,” continued his surprising son.
“I didn’t,” echoed Archer with a kind of solemnity.
“No. But mother said—”
“Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone—you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”
Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sunlit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: “She never asked me.”
“No. I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! . . . ”
. . . After a little while [Archer] did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, some one had guessed and pitied. . . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably. Dallas, for all his affectionate insight, would not have understood that. To the boy, no doubt, the episode was only a pathetic instance of vain frustration, of wasted forces. But was it really no more?
Question: Did Archer make the right decision in marrying, and staying married to, May? Would he have been happier with Ellen? The publisher’s reading guide asks this question: “Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one’s happiness? Is duty to one’s community more important than duty to oneself?” What parallels to you see between the society Wharton depicts in this novel, with its emphasis on early marriage, long-term commitment, and duty for the sake of family and community, and Mormon culture today?
Let us know what you think!