Thursday, October 7, 2010

Entry 17.2: "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton (1921)

As promised, here is the second part of my review of Edith Wharton's 1921 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.

Welcome back.
There was something I really wanted to address more in my last post, but I was way too tired to really delve into it, so I just barely introduced it. But I'd like to think that this book was a significant stride forward for women and the feminist movement. Like I said, this book was published in 1920—the same year that American women were granted the right to vote. I find it significant that the Pulitzer Prize committee not only awarded the highest prize in American literature to a woman the very next year, but awarded it to a novel that set two women as the story's protagonists (one of which was a rebellious, independent woman—a character who, at that time, would have been demonized in real life).

I also don't find it coincidental at all that Ellen Odeska, the independent woman, was the desire of Newland Archer—she was his forbidden fruit. He was attracted by her beauty, by her carefree lifestyle, by her disregard for societal customs, by her foreignness. Also, not surprisingly, she was the envy of almost every character in the novel. Sure, Old New York's aristocratic elitists had some things to say about the Countess Odeska and her foreign lifestyle, but everybody loved her. Ellen Odeska represents the new direction women are taking in life—the building blocks of feminism can be found in Ellen: she entertains single and married men in her quarters, she's a divorcee, she came to America specifically to get away from her husband, she's independent, she openly does not care about social conventions, she's strong, she's rebellious. She embodies everything foreign and exotic that Newland Archer was so attracted to.

May Welland, on the other hand, represents Old New York's dying aristocracy. She's bland, boring, snobbish, prudish, upright, aristocratic; she's far too hung up on what it means to be "civilized," far too hung up on what others perception of her is to truly enjoy life. Really, there are only two reasons Archer was so eager to marry her: 1) she was aristocracy and that was the life he desired to maintain, and 2) he was conflicted about having feelings for Ellen Odeska, so wanted to rush his marriage to May Welland (such bizarre logic, by the way). But Archer, really, doesn't want to be with May; he'd much rather be with Ellen. In fact, in a moment that, for this book, was so uncharacteristically dark that it jarred me, Archer actually fantasizes about his bride's death so that he'd be free to be with Ellen:
What if it were she who was dead! If she were going to die—to die soon—and leave him free! The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its enormity did not immeditately strike him. He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his soul might cling. Yes, May might die—people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die, and set him suddenly free.
Later, in the novel, of course May Welland does eventually die, but simply because of (presumably) old age. And, of course, when she does die, Newland Archer hops all over the first chance he gets to fly to Paris to meet up with Ellen Odeska. What I did not see coming, however, is that Newland never meets up with Ellen—he goes to her apartment, sits on a park bench and watches her son go up to meet her first but promises to be up soon enough, then turns around and heads back to his hotel alone. Perhaps Newland finally realizes that Ellen is far better off without him. Or perhaps Newland is so entrenched in his old ways that he can't bear to leave them behind.

Regardless, it should come as no surprise that May Welland dies a miserable old woman and Ellen Odeska thrives on her own in Paris. This is a symbolic image of American feminism—the old, fuddy-duddy May Welland fades and rusts while Ellen Odeska still burns bright even in her older age. Things were changing in American society—women were just beginning to gain ground in being seen as individuals and equals. The Pulitzer Prize committee surely recognized this shift in the American landscape and that surely must have been at the forefront of their minds when they selected The Age of Innocence to win their award.