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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fixing a Hole #2: The Age of Innocence

Here’s the second edition of my ongoing, sporadic series by which I plan to become a more worthy recipient of the sheepskin which bears my name.
(See http://iamnotprincehamlet.blogspot.com/2011/08/fixing-hole-1-othello.html for the first.) Our book this week is The Age of Innocence, which aside from being the least representative motion picture in Martin Scorsese’s filmography is also a novel by Edith Wharton.

How I Missed It: Misogyny, mostly. To my chagrin, as a white male I tend to gravitate toward white males when I choose my literature and the same goes for when I used to choose my literature courses. For my mental health, when I had to register for courses I struck from consideration any which contained the words Women (or Womyn), Gender, Sex, Class, Other, Labor, or really anything which promised to view novels through a prism based on leftist causes. This was mostly a great idea, but it unfortunately limited my exposure to novels by women (or womyn.)

What’d I Think?: Ugh, women. Relax, I’m kidding, but word to the wise, if you’re trying to convince someone that they should read more novels written by women, don’t use Wharton to make your case. The Age of Innocence most definitely falls into the dreaded novel about manners category. Newland Archer is a young man in a prominent New York family. He is engaged to an innocent young woman from another family just as prominent, so everything would seem to be just hunky-dory with old Newland, no? But the rich, God bless ‘em, have their problems too it seems, and not just the imaginary ones the hypochondriacs cooks up to get them out of going to the opera.

Archer’s world is shaken up by the repatriation of his fiancee’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, escaped from a horrific marriage to a Polish count. The Countess’s unusual ways, informed by her life among European artist and aristocrats, make her a pariah in New York. Archer is drawn powerfully to Ellen, whom he knew as a child before she left for Europe. He becomes closer to her as his soon-to-be-wife’s family implore him to use his legal authority to convince the Countess not to seek a divorce, a possibility so shocking to their sensibilities that they consider it much worse than her abusive marriage.

Wharton’s novel is at its best when it shows that it knows the people it chronicles are inherently ridiculous. But this humor is much too reserved and sparing; Wharton never lets these pompous gasbags really have it. And after all, she does expect the reader to feel sorry, not just for the sympathetic and appealing Ellen, but also for Archer, who is “trapped” by his class and its prejudices. He and Ellen commence the sort of affair-from-far, all words and considered clasps of hands, that make lots of novels about the nineteenth century such a bore.

Even though it is not an exceptionally long novel, The Age of Innocence takes too long to get to its obvious destinations, and its straightforward plot leaves the reader wondering what the animating force was that drove Edith Wharton to write it.
Do You Wish You’d Read it in Class?: Only if it would have motivated me to read it faster. Honestly, this novel would definitely have evoked the types of class discussions that were always most tedious to me. It would have been all gender roles, class distinctions, and the like. I would have disliked it even more than I disliked the novel.

Further Holes to Fill?: Wharton’s prose itself wasn’t too bad, and I’ve heard the House of Mirth is good, but I rather doubt I’ll be reading more Wharton. The goal of reading more women is an ongoing effort, the fruits of which can be seen on this blog. Just this year I’ve read novels by Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, and Jennifer Egan, with mixed results.

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