THE AGE OF INNOCENCE – EDITH WHARTON
– P. Jyothi
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is a novel by Edith Wharton written in the year 1920. This book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in the year 1921 thus making Edith Wharton the first woman to win this prize. This has been made into a feature film, television film and a stage drama more than once making it one of the popular novels of the century. Edith Wharton tries to bring out the life in old New York, its traditions and morals through this story. The story is set in the 1870’s thus giving the reader an elaborate description of the lives of the upper class society during those times.
Newland Archer is a gentleman by all means and he works as a lawyer in a reputed firm. He is an heir to one of the most important families and enjoys the privileges of the high class. He had a brief affair with an elderly royal lady but this was brushed away as youthful innocence by the elite society. When the novel begins we find him courting the beautiful May Welland. May is a typical American beauty raised to be a good wife and homemaker. May’s cousin Ellen Olenska visits their family. She has gone away after her marriage to a polish count to a foreign land. After suffering an abusive marriage she chose to separate from her husband. With the help of her husband’s Secretary she runs away from her husband and lives in a far away city temporarily waiting for her families’ support. May’s grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott encourages her to come back to them and Ellen comes to stay in the city. She has been a childhood friend of Newland and is a free spirited Woman. She chose to live her life according to her terms. She does not accept the norms of the society and decides to lead a life based on her free will. The then elite New york society has a lot of complains towards her free life. Newland tries to help her by making her accepted by the best families in the city. He gets attracted towards her and for the first time doubts his decision to marry May. But he announces his engagement and when he finds that his attraction towards Ellen is getting stronger every day he also wishes to marry May immediately. May refuses this sudden rush into marriage and also questions his intentions.
Meanwhile Newland’s Senior at office requests him to talk to Ellen who is wishing to contemplate divorce. Those were times when staying separately from husband was accepted but a legal separation always aroused scandal. Newland convinces Ellen to stop her legal proceedings and let things be as they are. Ellen who also has a soft corner for Newland agrees to this proposal, and takes back her case, which comes as a relief to the family who are very much concerned about the scandal.
Newland marries May. But he understands that his feelings for Ellen are stronger than his bond of marriage. He finds Ellen an independent woman while May is the tamed woman who has been molded by the society to suit the good girl’s image. May has nothing independent in her nature. She lives according to the rules set by her family and avoids all kinds of intellectual discussions naming them as unwomanly. In contrast Ellen is found thinking, being philosophical and living life on her terms. She treats her servants as her equal and goes against the class restrictions. She chooses to opt for freedom than a bonded marriage and becomes the talk of the town. She socializes with people who are termed immoral by the society and does not even try to hide her social calls or her feelings towards these people whom she finds interesting.
Ellen’s family cuts off her allowance when her husband chooses to do so and try to force her get back to him. Ellen decides to live poor but does not wish to go back. She then comes to understand that due to her presence, Newland is finding it difficult to adjust to May and live a happy marital life. She understands the pain he is going through because she also has feelings for him but she wants him to live a peaceful life. Therefore she chooses to go back to her city. She never hides her feelings for Newland and finally decides that this physical separation will be the only answer to the agony both are going through. She also does not want to be the reason for May’s unhappiness.
When May’s grandmother falls ill, Ellen is called back. Newland personally visits Ellen with this news and requests her to come to the family as they need them. Ellen is back and finds Newland deeply in love with her. She promises to take the relationship further but one day suddenly decides to go back. Without intimating Newland or properly biding him farewell she goes back leaving Newland puzzled.
Later Newland decides to have a proper conversation with May. He tries to confess his love for Ellen but May stops him saying that she is pregnant. Newland feels trapped and shuts his feelings and love for Ellen within himself. He then finds out that two weeks back though not sure about her pregnancy May shared the news of motherhood with Ellen. This was the reason why Ellen who wanted to stay permanently with the family decides to go back wishing the couple a happy life. She voluntarily moves away from Newland’s growing family deciding it as the only best option for an undisturbed life.
Newland is shocked to know that all the while May knew his feelings and to keep Ellen away, she played the role of a insecure manipulated wife. He is thus confined to the role of a family man and lives a so called happy life for twenty five years. Now his son is grown up and May is dead. He mourns her death not for the love they shared but for the companionship they had all these years. His Son one day tells him that on her death bed May confided her knowledge about Newland’s feelings for Ellen. She said to her son that they are safe with their father because he was a decent man who put his feelings behind his responsibilities and gave up everything for the family. Newland is once again shocked to know that all these years May knew about his emptiness at heart and never mentioned it.
One day Newland’s Son arranges a meeting with Ellen who is living alone and with whom he recently got acquainted. He takes his father to Ellen’s residence but Newland chooses to stay away from her house and spends the time looking at her balcony. His son goes to visit Ellen and spends some time with her. Ellen understands Newland more than anyone around him and she respects his decision.
Newland gets up and walks back alone thinking about his love for Ellen that he can feel it more real away from her than meeting her at her place and trying to be diplomatic or gentlemanly in the presence
of the society. The ending of the novel is very moving especially to those who understand the struggle a human being has to endure between his true feelings and the societal norms.
We all know that we are expected to live our lives according to the norms of the society. Society monitors our actions, our gentlemanly behavior or our decisions. Most of the time human beings are raised to fit into these norms and to equip themselves into the mould society has created for them. Human heart endures a lot of pain in the process. But a civilized man always goes through this pain with a lot of acceptance and logic which is regarded as the basis to good brought up. Family prestige, family honor are all our creation. Most of the time, they bind the person and rob his freedom. His spirit is crushed and he finally becomes a helpless victim to circumstances.
On the other hand people around also know the pain these free spirited people go through. But they believe that this inflicted pain is to be endured if one wants to enter into the civilized world. It is said that in New york’s society it is not common for a woman to get up and walk towards a man and seat by his side. May strictly follows these rules but Ellen breaks them. When people look with awe at the elite families which rarely make public appearances, Ellen comments that this rarity is the reason why people are awe struck with their appearance and that they do not possess any extraordinary quality. At one time Ellen makes a powerful statement to Newland when she points out the flaws in the well bred New York society. She says “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend” she expresses her displeasure to be among them however kind they are. Newland then understands the reason behind his own restlessness. He was tamed to be the bossy husband and enjoy a submissive wife. Only when he comes to know Ellen he really understands the power and the truthfulness of a thinking mind.
Newland knows how lightly the people around him looked at his previous affairs and how Ellen is being scandalized because she took the help of her husband’s secretary to get away from him and also lived with him for a few days. The secretary who meets Newland never gives an assumption that they had an affair. He deeply respected Ellen after all the gossip being circulated about them. He also tries to be a mediator and tries to help Ellen go back to her husband, though he prefers the opposite. He speaks to Newland to stop Ellen being forced to go back which shows his concern for her. But being acquainted with such a respectable man puts Ellen in difficult situations while Newland’s foolish affair with a rich lady much older to him was brushed away as a minor folly. He understands that when it comes to such affairs the world ranks “them as undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman” .
Those were the times when in New York the legislation favors divorce but their social customs don’t and Ellen suffered due to this social pressure. Most of the times, Society sacrifices the individual in the collective interest of the family. Among this respectful society Ellen says, She feels that she is performing in front of a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds”. This was an insensitive society which was too different to care for the things it cared about.
Among this type of conditioning, Newland realizes that he and Ellen can be near each other only if they stay far from each other. That is the reason why he chooses to not meet Ellen when he is finally given an opportunity at the end. Meeting her among the world, with the created norms and between those people who know about their feelings and act ignorant, it would be a staged drama which he feels is disrespectful for the feelings he has for Ellen. He therefore chooses to keep her in his memories and heart than to be a part of the drama this world has pushed him into.
May is a woman conditioned by the society to be a dutiful wife and mother. She plays her role well and never hesitates to be manipulative and dominating when it comes to the fight for her rights as a wife. She knows how Newland feels for Ellen and tries to keep them apart with all her brains and might. She succeeds and therefore enjoys a happy and successful marriage. But she also confides the secret to her children and during her final moments feels happy that she is leaving them into the hands of a man who can be trusted because he chose to keep his feelings aside for his family’s security which makes him the most responsible father to them. What amount of sacrifice comes with the responsibility is the irony the writer wants the reader to understand.
Times have changed a lot in the past hundred years since this book has been written. But still there is and will be the conflict between human emotions and society’s conditioning as long as society dominates the lives of civilizations. This is a well written novel and wonderfully narrated story which sensitively portrays the life of a gentleman and his fight against society’s conditioning and his need for submission to survive.
Completed her PHD in hindi, worked as hindi junior lecturer in railway junior college, wrote more than 1000 books samishalu and movie samishalu.