Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Genre: Romance, parody

Originally Published: 1920

No. of Pages: 304

In thirst of a good classic, I decided to read Edith Wharton for the first time. I chose one of her more acclaimed books The Age of Innocence and was ready to plunge myself into the opulent world of 1870s New York high society.  

Through an omniscient narrative, Wharton presents Old New York and its rigid structure, inhabited by individuals who are satisfied yet largely disillusioned. The novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is an anomaly to this and begins to see beyond society’s glorious façade. Engaged to the naïve May Welland, Newland battles between a sense of duty or following his desire when he falls in love with Countess Olenska. Recently arrived from Europe, Olenska possesses different values and customs, completely unfamiliar to those in Newland’s world, permeating the novel with challenging questions relevant both at the time and today.

Wharton successfully conveys the social conventions and rules of civility that upheld New York in the 1870s. From the most respected family, the van der Luyden’s, to lavish balls and extravagant architecture, Wharton constructs a vivid and immersive picture. Through Newland, Wharton challenges these notions, highlighting society’s artificiality that cages one in, making freedom intangible. This idea of freedom that Newland desperately seeks is manifested in the unconventional Olenska, and a story of temptation, morality and societal obligations unfolds.

Where Newland’s individuality shined throughout and evoked from me emotions of anger, pity and hope, it was the character of Olenska that stood out. She is elusive, mysterious and enticing. Though ostracised from society for being different, and despite scandalous rumours regarding her marriage, her spirit remains strong and she continues to be unapologetically herself. For me, she is indeed a memorable literary character.

To elucidate Olenska’s unconventionality, May Welland stands in stark contrast. She is a typical product of New York society due to her innocence and inability to question both her status as a woman in society and her purpose in life. She is the ideal American wife. Through May, Wharton highlights the lack of agency women had and their simple task to be loyal and dutiful wives.

The Age of Innocence embodies the theme of change, culminated in the final part of the novel which jumps ahead twenty-five years. Not only are there major technological advances (cars, airplanes, telephones) but there is a shift in attitudes, signalling an ending to Old New York’s rigid code. The novel also underpins the message of truth and the ability to articulate it. If everyone saw the world with more clarity, imagine how different it would be?

I was not entirely sure how I expected the novel to end, but it certainly did surprise me. Wharton continued to excel in her elegant prose till the very end as she steers away from common and inevitable endings, causing you to pause to reflect, and succeeding in a memorable conclusion. I highly recommend this classic and it is certainly not my first and last time reading it.

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