Eat Your Vegetables: "The Age of Innocence" (Wharton, 1920)

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Cultural Vegetable of the Week: The Age of Innocence (1920)
Vegetable Equivalent: Iceberg lettuce
Nutritional Value: An example of how “progressive” thought hides its own reactionary impulses
Recommended Serving Size: Read slowly and steadily over a month; garnish with Martin Scorsese’s workmanlike adaptation if desired

Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in 1920, but she set the novel fifty years earlier. Wharton traffics in the style of Henry James more than Theodore Dreiser, but this novel’s prose is brisk and lean in a way that James’s rarely was, if ever. Wharton often turned her gaze toward the New York social elite from whence she sprang, and The Age of Innocence is about a definitive moment in that set’s evolution. The 1870 setting suits Wharton because her literary roots are as firmly planted in the soil of sentimentalism as they are realism. No one will mistake this book for McTeague. In the novel’s protagonist, Newland Archer, we get a synecdochal protagonist for the privileged upper class, a man who feels himself at once superior to, and barred from what he wants by, social mores. The novel’s tone is thoroughly ironic, as Archer continually misreads as progressive the very traits that consign him to the status quo.

The novel satirizes not just its characters but their entire social scene. Wharton’s characters spend countless hours in evening wear attending operas or social engagements hosted by New York’s most prominent families. At one of these early operas, Wharton takes the time to comment on the performance:

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.

Just who set such “an unalterable and unquestioned law” in place remains a mystery. A labyrinthine and arbitrary code is all that remains.

Archer is intelligent enough to recognize the staged quality of each of these affairs. He has just become engaged to the most beautiful girl in his set, Mae Welland, who for Archer represents the innocent woman in the novel’s titular age. Archer’s problem is that he is both attracted to and repelled by Mae’s innocence.

[W]hen he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

This passage establishes the novel’s chief tensions. In terms of plot, Archer finds himself more drawn to Mae’s world-wearied cousin, the already married Countess Olenska, than his own fiancée. In terms of form, the passage juxtaposes terse insights with longer, more complex sentences. In terms of the novel’s themes, Archer realizes how arbitrary and highly constructed the seemingly “natural” rules of his society are.

Archer makes a characteristic mistake in attributing Mae’s constructed purity to the women in her life. Archer would like to imagine that men like him would handle the question of feminine propriety differently. Though Mae’s father is alive, it is her aunt, Mrs. Manson Mingott, who holds the purse strings and real power in the Welland family. But Archer is far too modest. It is the behavior of he and his cohorts that maintains the social structure necessary for such “factitious purity.” Archer’s peers are philandering husbands, the crooked banker Julius Beaufort and the social commentator Lawrence Lefferts. While despising the way these men duplicitously deal with their wives, Archer closely resembles them in his desire for two lives, a superficial one that will satisfy high society and a clandestine one where he can find a woman with thoughts of her own. The passage’s central irony is that Archer knows and resents what he is supposed to want yet cannot see his desire for the tainted Olenska as similarly affected by societal forces. Mae is not the simpleton Archer imagines, and an open relationship with Olenska would not bring Archer the happiness he thinks it would.

The novel closes at the dawn of the 20th century with a solitary Archer walking back towards his hotel room. In the intervening time, he has become a dinosaur. The social mores that still consume his thoughts have long been forgotten by a new generation, particularly his own children. He once thought himself progressive; he is now unescapedly passé. He too was guilty of a factitious purity, one that manifested itself as an ironically innocent view of transgression.

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