A recently married New York aristocrat encounters his former flame during a holiday. He watches her from a distance but does not approach. For the rest of the day he is in a fugue state, torn between lost love and social duty. Entering the summer home of his in-laws, the Wellands, he becomes aware of “a curious reversal of mood. There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic.”
Interior decoration is one of the few aspects of dramatization which the novelist can usually forgo. This makes the attention bestowed in The Age of Innocence upon objects seem like a statement of principle as much as evidence of the author’s research. Although the novel takes place in the 1870s, it was published in 1920. More importantly, it is written from the perspective of 1920, with all of the retroactive knowledge that implies. The title is a tip-off. A generation that barely survived civil war could hardly be expected to refer to itself as innocent. Nor would they have paid such particular attention to the white noise of clothing and furnishings: the fact, for instance, that Newland Archer used “two silver-backed brushes in blue enamel to part his hair” and never appeared in society “without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.” In the New York Times, the critic William Lyon Phelps writes, “I do not remember when I have read a work of fiction that gives so vivid an idea of the furnishing and illuminating of rooms in fashionable houses.”
This sort of set dressing can usually be left to filmmakers, who are obligated to fill out their scenes with everything that can be seen and heard. In this respect, novels and movies use opposite effects for similar ends. To the extent that a historical film is not about decoration and clothing, its thoroughness in this department is paradoxically necessary in order to avoid, among other things, anachronistic distractions. By contrast, the novel can summon a train or the Hindenburg in a few words; there is no need to itemize fixtures. In terms of universality, the novel is therefore hugely advantaged. Anna Karenina may dilate occasionally over parochial concerns like Russian serfdom, but only a vapid misreading would suggest the novel’s subject is indentured servitude. When your medium is language, you have a direct line to the imagination. As films age, they tend to feel more and more like historical artifacts. The comparison to literature is not necessarily invidious. Writing about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, James Wolcott notes its “inadvertent value” as a “time-capsule record of Times Square in the falling apart seventies.” When Edith Wharton dwells on libraries hung with “Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite,” we sense that a case is being made not for the sumptuousness of Victorian furnishings but for their oppressiveness.
On the other hand, the author’s stated intention in writing The Age of Innocence appears to be nostalgia. In her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton writes: “I found a momentary escape [from World War I] in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and wrote The Age of Innocence.” The story concerns a young man named Newland Archer, whose engagement and subsequent marriage to May Welland is complicated by the Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen is a cousin of May’s who is married to a philandering reprobate of the Eurotrash variety. When the book opens Ellen is trying to divorce her husband. Encountering Ellen at the opera, Newland is scandalized to find her sitting with his future in-laws. It’s not that New York society holds Ellen’s marriage against her. That would be too cruel – or at any rate too overt. What Newland and his ilk object to is the threat Ellen presents to their inviolate – and naïve – notions of feminine purity. Newland in particular is dismayed that Ellen should be displayed along with his fiancé, whose childishness he covets and encourages.
Faced with the putridity of such brittle morality, one begins to wonder where the author’s nostalgia for this “long-vanished America” is leading her. For much of the novel, its values are the kind that are more honored in the breach than the observance. As Newland’s passion for Ellen intensifies, he keeps trying to accelerate his nuptials, as if marriage represented an off switch for inconvenient desires. “I wasn’t made for long engagements,” he tells his fiancé’s grandmother. “No; I can see that,” she says. “You’ve got a quick eye.” In the first of the novel’s three leaps forward in time, Part Two opens with Newland and May’s wedding. Leaving the church, the bridegroom senses a “black abyss yawn[ing] before him and he felt himself sinking into it, deeper and deeper, while his voice rambled on smoothly and cheerfully.” It turns out that the dangers Newland hoped marriage would avert were actually warning signs of disasters to come. Over lunch he asks May to “tell me what you do all day” because “to let her talk about familiar and simple things was the easiest way of carrying on his own independent train of thought.” If this is wantonly infantilizing, it is also woefully ineffective. By attempting to simultaneously manage his doubts and his marriage, Newland shortchanges the latter because he is so overwhelmed by the former.
Wharton’s psychological lucidity is so persuasive that it becomes a kind of substitute for actual psychology. The author enters the minds of her characters and reports back to the reader, rather than giving the reader a torch and letting her feel her own way. That said, the author’s acuity is the novel’s chief pleasure. In a particularly keen instance of this, Wharton describes Newland’s discomfort with a family holiday to Newport. On the face of it, the protagonist’s unease only makes sense if you factor in his matrimonial misgivings. But Wharton goes further. What Newport represents to Newland is an “escape from duty into an atmosphere of unmitigated holiday-making.” The reason this is so deadly is that for Newland, duty – i.e., going to work every day – serves “as a link with his former self.” For her part, May “cannot understand [her husband’s] obscure reluctance to fall in with so reasonable and pleasant a way of spending the summer.” It is worth quoting Wharton at length to see the analytic effectiveness of her prose.
It was undoubtedly gratifying to be the husband of one of the handsomest and most popular young married women in New York. . . . As for the momentary madness which had fallen upon him on the eve of his marriage, he had trained himself to regard it as the last of his discarded experiments. The idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying the Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts. But these abstractions and eliminations made of his mind a rather empty and echoing place, and he supposed that was one of the reasons why the busy animated people on the Beaufort lawn shocked him as if they had been children playing in a graveyard.
This is extremely good and it is almost enough to make us forget that Wharton repeatedly gives us description rather than demonstration. The effect is of a guided tour of a portrait gallery by a docent so compelling that she becomes a kind of tertium quid between viewer and painting – or in this case, between the reader and Newland. Reviewing The Age of Innocence, Katherine Mansfield asks, “Does Mrs Wharton expect us to grow warm in a gallery where the temperature is so sparklingly cool?” The difficulty becomes nearly insurmountable in the novel’s abruptly sentimental ending, which leaps forward twenty-six years to show us a widowed Newland Archer, his passions mellowed nearly out of existence. What is odd about this isn’t so much the saccharine conclusion but the route by which we get there. I won’t suggest that Newland’s marriage to May is doomed or that it is implausible that it would mature into something tender and loving. But the twenty-six-year gap represents the bulk of the hard work required to arrive at such tranquil domesticity; Wharton tellingly skips over it. This is a surprising evasion from someone whose narration is otherwise painstakingly inclusive. Moreover, since we’ve accustomed ourselves to the author’s assertiveness, we have to accept her conclusions on behalf of her characters. It is here that Wharton’s insight for the first time seems to falter. The complacency with which Newland looks back on his marriage is rather astonishing:
Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.
If the good to which Newland alludes is the kind which promotes semblative happiness in the name of social conformity, the reader is right to reject it as the worst kind of sophistry. What’s missing here is the author’s rejection. When an author whose mode up to now has been diagnostic omniscience leaves such a self-serving assertion unchallenged it registers as an endorsement. For once, Wharton’s personal conservatism biases her narration. Led by his adult son to the door of his lost love in Paris some twenty-six years after they called off their affair, our protagonist hangs back with the author. “It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he tells himself. What’s real to Wharton is the whisper of the gallerist as opposed to the howl of the framed subject. Coming from her, the whispers are so eloquent that we almost overlook the characters they invariably solipsize. “But I’m only fifty-seven,” Archer protests. Is he addressing himself or the hand that created him?