The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.
I love nothing more in a classic novel than learning of the societal customs of the time. Attending parties at the home of someone who isn’t on one of the higher rungs of the social ladder? Frosty. Divorcing your husband no matter how badly he treated you? Shunned. Travelling to Paris to buy a dress and then wearing it straight away? Oh, bitch.
Wharton addresses all of these blunders in The Age of Innocence, and I was living for it all. Her irony in her descriptions, the hypocrisy of her characters, and the utterly glorious dead-pan ways in which they chastise each other, are all completely delicious.
Newland Archer, our protagonist, is a man of high standing who abides by form. He is not a man to shirk his moral code, nor the rules of New York. After meeting Madame Olenska, and witnessing her solid refusal to conform, we see him make drastic transformations. It was a delight to follow along with his contrasting and ever-changing opinions of the metaphorical cage he had been born into.
There are wonderful commentaries on the institution of marriage, on female emancipation, and on the social boundaries prevalent at the time. Wharton mixes her wit and irony with beautiful writing and dialogue; everything positioned perfectly to best make a mockery of the strict unwritten guidelines adhered to (mostly) by her characters.
A masterpiece, gorgeous, filled with brilliance. Wharton is a genius in my eyes, and I can see this as a novel I will return to time and time again, noticing even more analysis of scandal each time.