Started this in May, saved and never went back to finish up till yesterday, yes-yes that's how lazy I could be:
Age of Innocence like Wharton's other influential works, set in New York. Specifically, high society of New York where money and bloodlines determine human caste system like any other place of this world. The novel revolves around the lives of Newland Archer, a young lawyer from New York old money family. At the beginning of the story, Archer has just announced his engagement to May Welland. An innocent and fresh looking girl from a family like him, but is a dull mind without ability to think individually. Which is a contrary to her older cousin, Ellen, who is returning to New York after a decade of living in Europe. Countess Olenska she is, Ellen's marriage with Count Olenski (^^) is shattering apart. Archer later learned that Ellen is not happily married, that the Count is a brute man with abusive behavior. Yet divorce is not a choice she could choose because at the time, divorce represents failure and would disgrace not only Ellen, but also her relatives. Because Ellen's divorce would also cost their good name in the eyes of New York society, they have Ellen to be cut from her allowance. Assuming Ellen would then return to Europe and therefore spare her family's good name. Edith Wharton is known for her "society novels". The pretentious life of elite New Yorkers along with complicated connection between love and pain were the theme of Wharton's stories. Charles Trueblood, literature critic, once claimed that aristocracy is the direct subject of Wharton's art. Which on my viewing is unfair because she was also wrote stories such as Ethan Fromme, Mrs. Manstley, Bunner Sisters and Old Maid. On my viewing, tragic ending is more likely to Wharton's style than aristocracy.
In many fictions that Wharton wrote, there would be a character like May. Someone who is completely unable to comprehend depth. To view things beyond artificiality, beyond status. In the Age of Innocence, May Welland is the embodiment of old New York values. As her husband who remained faithful to their marriage despite his feelings for Ellen remembering his wife: "there is no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free...."
May incapacity to recognize change has made her children and husband conceal their views from her, as Archer conceal his. Until her last moment, May Welland was still as less intelligent and conventional as she were in her youth. So there she died thinking that the world has still hold the same principles and prejudices as old time was.
What struck me the most from the novel was how subtle Wharton could be on expressing her dissonance to Old New York value. If in the story May Welland is the embodiment of old New York, Newland Archer wears what his name suggest: new-land. Someone whose progressive thinking is beyond conception of his community. Symbolism also comes from the irony of love between Newland and the exotic Ellen Olenska. I love how the stern morality in this novel could be read in different ways. The conservatives might read the novel as morally uplifting. Yet they who have more sensibility might also taking into account the satire of the story.
The themes of class and dramatic irony are the primary ingredients of this novel. The way I see it, eighty years after the novel was published human addiction to certain social status remain the same. In the age of Blackberry. In the name of prestige.