THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
Although this is a love story on many levels, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, is, also, a documentary of a culture- in this case, the elite rich society of New York in 19th century America- who buries its own dreams and deepest desires behind the greater need to be accepted and approved by one’s own ‘reference group.’ The book hinges on the words people are “chained to separate destinies,” and proceeds to illustrate how this is true of rich and poor alike.
This star-crossed love story centers on a love triangle. Rebelling against a long-time, smothering tradition, a young, idealistic man, Newland
Archer, marries his loving and sweet-natured-but, boring and traditional- wife, May, under pressure from friends and family. The complication comes when he falls head over heels in love with his wife’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olinska, who has recently come home. To the disapproval and shock of her family and New York society she has deserted her husband, a rich, albeit unsavory French Count.
The Countess is a beautiful Bohemian ‘outcast’ central to the story because she dares to have the courage to reject that which is destructive to her true nature, making her misunderstood by her family and friends. However, her integrity, compassion, and joie de vivre make her a sympathetic and irresistible character to all who know her, especially the men, who fall under the spell of her charms and are depicted as being in a much better positon to flout the chains of society in contrast to the women of the time.
Archer loves the Countess Olenska because she possesses the attributes he most wants himself, and she is a metaphor for freedom of choice in that she defies the expectations of her sex and the confines of society in exchange for being true to her own ideas of integrity and proper behavior.
A heart-wrenching story of unrequited love, it depicts the forces that band together to bring the protagonists to heel and keep them chained to separate destinies. Their personal desires are squelched by family and friends in the name of dutiful honor and expectations amidst the rigid judgment and hypocrisy of their unyielding, self-righteous social class.
Edith Wharton was a master at evoking the social mores and confines of the society she grew up in, and is often a society that she seems to condemn for its snobbery and hypocrisy.
Even though the book depicts New York’s upper crust of the 19th century, it is ‘everyman’s story,’ because it’s a reminder to us all that, although we can exist in a world to which we may not want to belong, our choice to remain there may come at the steep and personal price of dream walking through life. This story is so beautifully written and is evocative of human nature which demands that men and women put duty, honor, and pride above all else regardless of individual liberty and personal happiness.
In the concluding pages, the reader has an epiphany that one comes to terms with the sweet fragileness of our memories by consciously choosing to reject choices that may expose and destroy perceived perfection in order to maintain the dream of what might have been. So, it is with Archer. He, at last, accepts that he gave up something dear to him for the greater good. And, as he moves into mid-life, fate helps him to accept that it may have been the right decision, after all.
The Age of Innocence is a story that will resonate with anyone who suffers and pines over the one that got away in the blush of youthful love. It remains a story for the ages and serves as reminder that we cannot always direct the course of love, because love takes many forms, and often wounds us. But, a life lived fully requires understanding and accepting love’s many manifestations.