Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton {review}

This is what my copy looked like,
except much more vibrant.
*WARNING*:  This story deals with content such as societal hypocrisy, adultery, and the question of chastity, so I will be discussing those kinds of things in this review.

Where to start...this book blew me away.

The story is about a man named Newland Archer, who is waffling between baffling social hypocrisies and his own occasional aspirations to a "higher philosophy." Already sinking into discontent after his engagement to May Welland, his conflict is cemented when May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska returns.

Before I get on to the philosophical part of the review, a quick overview of the novel itself:  the writing was excellent, the characters were believable and evoked the right emotions, and the plot, if not dreadfully original, was flawlessly executed and given a wonderful sprinkling of authenticity by the unsuspected outcome of certain events.

Now.  On to "the good stuff" ;)

"'What's the use--when you will go back?' he broke out, a great hopeless How on earth can I keep you? crying out to her beneath his words." ~ Chapter 24 

I was apprehensive at first that this story would be one of those "satires" that would loudly shout for the abandonment of all physical or social boundaries (death to limits!), basically condemning anyone who has the temerity to think that open-mindedness and intelligence could possibly be consistent with sexual purity. However, that was not exactly the case with this book.

While I did not agree with everything Newland believed and concluded, the book did make me think--really THINK, you know, the type when you actually set the book down and stare philosophically into  the distance whilst contemplating profundity. It made me really dig beneath the surface of my convictions about purity and my faith, and that's always a good thing. (And just so you know, they came out the stronger for it.) Even though I am a firm and passionate advocate of abstinence and thus can easily lose my patience with our sex-obsessed society, it is a fact that in certain cultures, including those existing in our own countries, marital hypocrisy ran rampant even while people claimed to practice Biblical virtues such as abstinence. Typified, men would philander where and when they pleased, and were seldom seriously chastised or shamed for it, while if their wives were to do the same, society descended like a flock of vultures, and the woman's life would be plunged into irreversible ruin and social exile. So Newland did have a point there.  

What is so sad about that situation, no less sad than our present one today, is that the people were posturing to obey an empty religion.  They upheld certain Biblical doctrines, but missed the entire point of the Bible itself:  salvation and relationship with Jesus Christ.  

"'I envy thee not thy faith, which is ever in thy mouth but never in thy heart nor in thy practice.'" ~ Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott

I think that's why I actually felt for Newland. I certainly didn't agree with him, but I did pity him.  (He was basically like Sir Timothy from LRtC, but different.)  If only he had turned to the real, true God of the Bible instead of the vague nonentity of whom he'd been taught!  If only he had turned to true philosophy, if only he had sought to fill the void his culture created within him with something other than an adulterous passion which, however sincere and ideologically pure, was nonetheless unjust and wrong.  

Reminiscent of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence captivated me like TGG never did.  Aside from what I already mentioned, TAoI surprised me in the twists and turns which Ms. Wharton took with her writing and the power she exercises as an author to determine the overall moral of the story.  Just when one thinks she had nothing but a young, scintillating disregard for the societal mores that demanded women to be chaste while men were "unrestrained,"  she would unveil a new color in her kaleidoscopic tale--a softer, more pitying confession of a man slinking into the very hypocrisy he purported to disdain: 

"Ellen Olenska was like no other woman, he was like no other man:  their situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they were answerable to no tribunal save that of their own judgement." ~ Chapter 31

I know Ms. Wharton is classified among the satirists and cynics, and while TAoI is certainly an exercise in both satire and cynicism, I think the labels that paint her as an ultimately sympathetic author are also true.  At the end of the book, I felt no judgment from her, no hostility, though, to be fair, the "unresolved" "love" might leave this book open to interpretation as a story almost overwhelmingly dripping with cynicism, due to the way in which it ends.  However, I didn't get that feeling at all.  I got more of an "everything worked out as it should have."  Ellen ultimately made the right choice, as did Newland in at last accepting the way his life was and trying to make the best of it.  

"Something he knew he had missed:  the flower of life.  But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery.  There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him.  When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture.  That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women." ~ Chapter 34

All the characters made mistakes, all of them desperately needed the saving grace of the Good Shepherd; but in the end, I was left with a sense of closure and, if not peace, at least the feeling that redemption was attainable for these people.  That may or may not have been Ms. Wharton's aim; relational religion was certainly not a component of the storyline; but I came away from the book with a  gently dusty, far-off regret for the characters' choices, and yet a satisfaction in the way everything ended.  

All in all, though I recommend it with caution, due to the themes of the novel and the questions it raises, I certainly do recommend it.  Quite a book, really.

11 comments:

  1. I love that Walter Scott quote. I've not heard it before. x

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    1. I do, too, Jillian! Thanks for commenting:)

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  2. It left you "staring philosophically into the distance whilst contemplating profundity?" Wow, Olivia! I'm afraid this book might be a bit over my head and if it includes sentences like that one! Haha! Seriously, though, your vocabulary is amazing! :) I like it!

    Oh, it's so nice when a book leaves you the option of believing that the characters may eventually find redemption...even if that wasn't the author's intention...because it would be a pretty depressing book otherwise. (And depressing books aren't very much fun.)

    I echo Jillian's comment...that quote from Sir Walter Scott was excellent!

    Good review, Olivia! :)

    ~Miss March

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    1. Haha! Miss March, your comment made me smile. Thank you for it:D It seriously did, though! It was quite something. Hee, thanks;)

      Exactly--it's like something Hamlette said in a post a while back; I don't mind sad books as long as they aren't hopeless. But I can't handle hopeless very well:-/

      Isn't it, though? Ivanhoe is kind of my go-to book for great quotes:)

      Thank you so much!

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  3. I'm glad that it was so thought-provoking! Sometimes it's good to read a book like that--where the author may not have the same views as you do, but the kind of questions they bring up make you see your OWN beliefs more clearly.

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    1. Yes! It definitely is--if you never really think through your convictions, how can you call them convictions at all?

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  4. Interesting.... this is on my Classics Club list so I'll be reading it some time in the future. And to echo everyone else, what a great Sir Walter Scott quote!

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    1. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it! Isn't it?! I lurve that book:)

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  5. I own this one (actually, it's a B&N Classics edition that happens to match all of my JA novels except for Northanger Abbey, which is partly why I grabbed it at the flea market ;)), but I have yet to read it. I don't know... it's the same reason I haven't yet read The Scarlet Letter. I have read (and quite enjoyed) a lot of Fitzgerald's short stories, but I think I just need to be in a certain mental and emotional place when tackling certain material. ;p One day maybe!

    But anyway, a most excellent review -- thank you! :)

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    1. Oh, I think I know which B&N Classics Editions you're taking about! Those are lovely:D

      I so get that. I personally liked TAoI better than either TSL or TGG--I actually just recently reread Gatsby, and I still just Don't Get the Appeal. It's excellently written, of course, but other than that...anybody want to clue me in?

      Anyway. That was random;) I certainly recommend it, but I also definitely get needing to be "in the mood" for such content! I do, too:)

      Thank YOU for reading and commenting!:D

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