The Age of Innocence : Book 2 (Chapters XIX - XXXIV)

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The Age of Innocence : Book 2 (Chapters XIX - XXXIV)

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Jun 7, 2008, 3:13 am

A place to discuss Book 2 when we reach it....

Jun 15, 2008, 4:22 pm

I've been given the luxury of a lazy Sunday, so I spent a good three hours on the screen porch finishing Book II of The Age of Innocence. What a wonderful book! In the end, I found it to be not only about society's rules, but also about what goes unsaid in marriages and about dreams unfulfilled. Off to make Father's Day BBQ - I'm looking forward to what others have to say about the book.

Jun 16, 2008, 9:15 pm

Wow, I finished it too. That was really fast.

Jun 17, 2008, 7:34 am

Although I enjoyed it, overall I was a little disappointed in the novel - I expected something with more depth.

Jun 18, 2008, 9:58 am

I just finished this book. I read it slowly knowing I would want to savor each chapter. It is one of my favorite books. I know some people don't feel sympathy for Archer, but I do. At the beginning he was part of one world and with Countess Olenska he had a glimpse of something different. I loved when his son told him what May said before she died. She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted. It surprises me that even though May pretended to be in the dark she really knew what was going on. Apparently he didn't hide his feelings as well as he thought. I also like seeing what Archer's life was after Countess Olenska left New York. The changes in the world. His son marrying a Beaufort and his wife never changing the way the world around them changed.

Jun 18, 2008, 10:12 am

Over in the Book I thread, there was the beginnings of a discussion about who was free.

Jargoneer wrote: "At no point does Archer actually stand up for what he believes: it could be said that he is trapped but in truth he is imprisoned by himself."

I responded: "I think this could be said of both May and Ellen. You don't see it so much in Book I because we are still seeing so much through Archer's eyes, but I think they're all trapped, just in different realities."

Jargoneer resonded: "not sure I completely agree with that. Ellen has already escaped from her husband, and she escapes the New York family - it involves compromise but is still freedom. May doesn't want to escape; she believes in the system and therefore cannot be seen in the same way as Archer."

My response: Yes, Ellen escapes from New York, but only on the terms of Mrs. Mingott - and only because of her money. Based on the terms, she had to go live overseas if she wanted the money. And if it wasn't for the money, she probably would have had to go back to her husband or have an affair with someone like Beaufort to pay for her lifestyle. There was some comment in Book II about Ellen having the lifestyle habits of the rich, and from that I got the feeling that she would have never chosen complete freedom - living her life without outside financial support - because she, like the others in the book, was used to a certain lifestyle.

I guess I just wonder how much "freedom" there really is in that choice. I think Archer sees it as freedom, but I'm not sure that Wharton would see it that way. I think she's saying that none of us are really free from our societal constrictions - whether we are living within them or rebelling against them.

Editado: Jun 18, 2008, 4:27 pm

Ellen having the lifestyle habits of the rich - the part I remember is when Archer states that Ellen wouldn't be swayed by money, that she can live on a little. Ellen doesn't leave because of the money, she leaves because May tells her she is pregnant, and she knows that Archer will never leave his wife. I actually have a problem with this part of the story, this whole scenario is a cop out - Wharton seems unwilling to deal with Archer and Ellen finding their own conclusion.

Jun 18, 2008, 6:49 pm

I finished yesterday. I read this book back in 9th grade, so it's interesting to see how my reaction has changed. Most notably, when I read it the first time I absolutely *hated* May, but now I really can't imagine why that was! I mean, she does keep Archer and Ellen apart, but I can't really fault her for that; he's her husband, after all. I quite like May this time around.

As far as freedom and all that, one of the things I liked was that it wasn't just Archer and Ellen straining against society's cage; they liked parts of society too, and wanted to protect it. It was more complicated than just 'oh, we love each other, but what will They say?' And that was part of what I liked about the very end; I felt like it wasn't really fear of the rest of New York society that kept them apart, it was their own feelings about what society should be, and how they should behave that did it. Society changes, and maybe their being old-fashioned is silly and useless, but it's also a bit noble, in a way.

As far as the May's baby twist, I was kind of glad it came along. I felt like Ellen and Archer agreeing for her to come to him just once was a real but rather weak moment, and if they had done it, it would have just made things worse. They couldn't have what they really wanted, and they would have dragged their feelings for each other down to the level of Beaufort et al. Apparently I've changed I've gotten older; in high school, I thought they should've just run off together and left May and New York Society to gossip. Go figure.

Jun 18, 2008, 9:01 pm

May's pregnancy is a 'deus ex machina' moment - it removes the need for the author to resolve the novel's main conflict, as we know that neither Ellen or Archer could do anything other than conform now.

Re society, freedom and Archer - we can remove May and Ellen from this equation and see that Archer still wants to move beyond his milieu. Archer is associated with literature and art; he wants to talk to artists, he wants to embrace bohemia but is too cautious, too afraid to take a chance. Every time Archer is faced with a choice in the novel, he chooses the safe option.

Am I the only one who thought that the Archer-Ellen relationship wasn't that well handled at times. I think some of this was down to the character of Ellen being a little uneven - she seemed to oscillate between the over-emotional and the calm collected Countess. Would she really fall for Archer just because he helped her enter society? Wouldn't she realise that it was in his benefit that she was accepted, therefore was doing it more for himself as her? When Ellen was portrayed in her over-emotional state the writing veered into the realm of melodrama.

Re the Pulitzer Prize - it is interesting to note that the novel only won the prize because the sponsors refused to accept the original novel chosen - Sinclair Lewis Main Street - because it was too controversial.

Jun 19, 2008, 9:35 am

I'm a little confused about the secretary guy...was it a coincidence that Archer met him in London? He just seems to pop in at the strangest points of the plot, even more so than May's baby.

Jun 19, 2008, 5:01 pm

#9 I disagree that May's pregnancy is a deus-ex-machina moment. Note when May decides to tell Ellen, she is not sure herself then and she doesn't tell Archer for another couple of weeks. I think May knows everything and plays the game very well. After all she is the only one who gets what she wants.

Jun 19, 2008, 5:33 pm

>11 marvas: - I talking about the author using the pregnancy as a deus ex machina moment. Throughout the novel we follow Archer as he struggles to choose between his duty to family/society and his love for Ellen but we never get to see him make a choice - May's pregnancy denies the possibility of Archer making a choice. It is a cop-out on behalf of Wharton.

Jun 19, 2008, 5:45 pm

>12 Jargoneer: It is a cop-out on behalf of Wharton.

See, I don't know about that. I think the main point about Archer is that he never makes a choice about much of anything.

Jun 19, 2008, 5:50 pm

But doesn't he choose society? May's pregnancy doesn't deny the entire possibility that Archer and Ellen could choose each other, at the expense of everything and everyone else. It would certainly make them feel worse, but I don't think it really changes the nature of the choice. And it's not like they were even deciding to run away together; they had decided to be together once. Even before May talked about her pregnancy, they had chosen society. May's pregnancy doesn't make Archer any less likely to cheat on her; it would perhaps make him less likely to leave her, but he was never really going to do that.

In a way, I think it emphasizes that what they were more worried about (or at least Ellen was more worried about) was not what society would say, but hurting the people they cared about. Society already thinks they had an affair; May thinks they had an affair; the only ones who know they didn't are Archer and Ellen. I suppose you could say that May's pregnancy reminded Ellen of who she was hurting, but I don't think it takes the choice away. The society vs love choice was already made; May's pregnancy just threw into sharper relief what they had already discussed at the gallery. They can't have their cake and eat it too, and there's nowhere they can be together without hurting May and the Mingotts (or setting tongues wagging, for that matter).

Not to mention it's probably the best May moment in the book, to echo #11.

Jun 19, 2008, 6:07 pm

>14 legxleg: Yes, you're right, even a "non-choice" is still a choice. I see Archer as seeing himself as buffeted by the winds of fate. It's like he gets really close to making a conscious choice, but then "something happens" and he falls back to what he knows best. That's also how I see the choice he makes when he finds out May is pregnant. Even though I've read the book before so May's pregnancy wasn't a surprise, it seems to me that it was inevitable all along. I guess I just don't see it as a deus ex machina moment.

Jun 19, 2008, 6:21 pm

>14 legxleg: - that highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of Wharton as the author: throughout the novel she has Archer yearning for freedom, for a life with imagination and feeling, but at no point can she let imagination win - that would be too shocking. Therefore she has to find a sentimental way for everyone to be heroic, i.e., May's pregnancy, allowing our 'lovers' to sacrifice their potential for happiness. (Wharton would never, never, allow Archer to choose Ellen over a pregnant May).

Jun 19, 2008, 6:39 pm

How is it hypocritical of the author to have a character tempted, and then accept reality? I would find it much more hypocritical if Archer and Ellen rode off together into the sunset and everything was happily ever after. I can certainly understand feeling frustrated that Archer and Ellen can't be together, but I wouldn't call it a hypocrisy on the part of the author. Personally, I think the choice Wharton made wasn't necessarily the easy one; I'm not able to take into account the popular feeling of the times, but I would think that the natural inclination of the reader is to want the lovers to be together. She's denying us the happy ending that we want, and giving us a different sort of 'happy' ending that we don't want to accept, but which is, in my opinion, much more true. People want things all the time, but more often than not they can't have them, and find a different sort of happiness in what they do have. I find portraying a common and very real experience the opposite of hypocritical. Personally, I find that the ending makes the book.

Jun 20, 2008, 6:29 am

A reality that she herself didn't accept - you can read Ellen as a version of the author. I disagree about the lovers going to Paris being a happy ending, they would always be haunted by their betrayals. I'm not necessarily saying that that should have been the ending - Archer rejecting the life that Ellen offers would have been fine as well.

To call on more learned individuals as myself -
V.S. Pritchett - Mrs Wharton may have hated old New York but she hated new New York even more. She disliked the prison of silent hypocrisy, but drew in her skirts when candour came in. Especially after her long life en grand luxe in Europe. What indignation denounces creeps back in the name of sentiment. We can see this at the end of AoI; there is no candour, only sentiment. In giving us this sentiment, Wharton is giving us the "happy ending" - look she is saying, people didn't get what they thought they wanted, but they had good fulfilled lives.
Katherine Mansfield - Is it - in this world - vulgar to ask for more? To ask that the feeling shall be greater than the cause that excites it, to beg to be allowed the moment of exposition (is that not the moment that all writing leads to?) to entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul? You would think that Archer, after being trapped by his wife and society, would be bitter (there aren't many loveless marriages of 20 years that are much more, for example) but no; he accepts that society is good, blah blah blah.

On a different topic - what do people think of the portrayal of the two women in the novel? When I was reading it I was a little surprised at Wharton's treatment of these characters.

Jun 20, 2008, 10:29 am

I felt she was a bit condescending about New York "in those days", and I wasn't crazy about May most of the time, but I think she was written to be a bit annoying, to gain sympathy for Ellen. Still, Ellen was a bit thick headed in the way she spent her time with Beaufort. (I still liked this book, though.)

Jun 24, 2008, 2:38 pm

I just finished The Age of Innocence and was enthralled with it. I just can't believe that I have bypassed it all these years. Thanks to the group for choosing this book.

I'm still a bit too close to the book to join in the friendly debate about Wharton's plot devices. It's enough for me to appreciate her writing style. I liked how she gently poked fun at the snobbery of New York's upper crust society and how masterfully she created a sense of place. She emphasized the importance of social standing and propriety while including the sensual undercurrents of desire vs. appearance.

As for the characters, specifically our love triangle, I could not help but be drawn to Ellen. She chose the very real possibility of public shame over the certainty of more abuse by her husband. She didn't want to have an affair as she knew that for her it would be the source of true loneliness. She was smart enough to know that there was no escape for them for, wherever they went, the scandal of divorce would follow.

I had little sympathy for May. I realize that her pliant nature was a product of her times. She had in effect been brainwashed and was afraid to be vulgar "like people in novels." But for one who was portrayed as having the innocence of a lamb, she had the underlying craftiness of a fox. I just did not care for that hypocritical side of her.

Newland is the one who struggled most in his moral quagmire. To me, he was the weakest character, but also the one who suffered greatly for not following his heart. I lost much of my sympathy for him, however, when he had that fleeting sense of hope that Ellen would play nursemaid to Granny Mingott and he could have his fun on the side. The "come to me once" melodrama was just silly. I was glad when the farewell dinner replaced that nonsense. Oh that dinner! May in her sweet conniving element of a "tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe." I'm just glad that Ellen escaped that suffocating environment.

Jun 26, 2008, 9:49 am

Lots of interesting comments made. I started and finished The Age of Innocence today. Mine was a large print version so I found the hours just rolling by. It was a nice subtle book reminding us of who we are at different moments in our lives and how we should stick with our decisions. I enjoyed it. 4/5

Jun 27, 2008, 4:01 am

I just finished the audio book version which has its drawbacks in that you can't reread a sentence or paragraph. Overall I was disappointed with The Age of Innocence and I found myself frustrated with Newland Archer's lack of passion. He always chooses the soft option and I never for a moment believed he would leave May and his comfortable New York society lifestyle to be with Ellen. May, on the other hand, does take action to hold on to her man. Ellen was a bit of a shadowy character and I felt I didn't really get to know her though I admired her courage in leaving her husband and facing the consequences of her decision.

I did enjoy the glimpse of Newland's life 26 years on and the way society had changed. I don't understand Newland's decision not to meet with Ellen after May died.

Jun 27, 2008, 9:49 pm

The question of why Newland did not meet with Ellen was much discussed and debated when my book club met for Age of Innocence review last month. Many of us felt it was more precious to Newland to cling to his dreams, to his "might have beens" than to possibly destroy them with reality. There was far from any guarantee that love or passion would be renewed or he might have found her less enchanting or alluring than he felt as a young man. Perhaps just too many unknowns, particularly for a man who ultimately proved himself to be a man of his times and not a rebel.

Jun 30, 2008, 12:00 pm

Re: choice vs non-choice -- I think Archer did make a choice of family/Society when he finds out May is pregnant. It became a no-brainer for him because of his values - he could leave a wife but not a child. I also agree that the fantasy of a more exciting life was what drove him to pursue Ellen. His boredom with May reflects his boredom with Society in general. He thinks he wants to thumb his nose at the status quo but he really doesn't have the courage.

I think May was much more clever and manipulative than she appeared on the surface. e.g. telling Ellen she was pregnant before telling Archer... her sweetness and apparent pliancy were really cover-ups for a rather calculating woman.

I liked the glimpse of Archer and his children and that he seemed to have a satisfying life after all.

Jul 1, 2008, 10:58 am

I have two observations, and I feel a little intimidated to share them since I'm hardly a "critical" reader but here goes anyway.

First, I haven't seen anyone comment on the fact that folks today often "settle" for the person they are not in love with rather than risk everything to be with their lover, and that this is often done for the same reasons it was done in the late 1800s. Cultural and religious pressure being two of those reasons. For example, gay people who marry opposite gender spouses, Catholic people who feel that they cannot divorce, people where arranged marriages are expected, folks who fall in love with people in very different socioeconomic classes or of other races. I personally know people who contended with all of those scenarios. Although our society may be less insular and the rules less obvious, certainly this stuff still happens. So, I felt that Wharton's observations were still very relevant for many readers today.

Secondly, I loved the ending. I felt that it was an accurate reflection of the mellowing that aging brings you regarding the choices that you made that created your life. It also shows a certain contentment on Archer's part that I felt was bittersweet but realistic. There is also the fact that Ellen and a relationship with her was largely fantasy for Archer and that the fantasy was perhaps more satisfying than a relationship would have been. Something I think Archer himself was aware of even when in the throes of his obsession with Ellen. I remember an observation that he was already disdainful of Ellen when he began thinking of her as his future mistress rather than an object of impossibilty - "It seemed to him that he was speaking not to the woman he loved but to another, a woman he was indebted to for pleasures already tired of...'She'll come,' he said to himself almost contemptuously".

I hope this makes sense...

Jul 1, 2008, 11:12 am

And what does the ending teach us, other than cheap sentimentality plays well - Archer and May lived happy fulfilling lives despite the fact he had contempt for her, and she knew he only stayed because of the family.

Jul 1, 2008, 11:32 am

I got the sense that they settled into a comfortable and overall satisfying life together, that contempt shifted to content. True, it wasn't the passionate exciting life he was fantasizing, but those relationships don't last for the most part! Perhaps he initially only stayed for the family, but his feelings evolved into much more.

Jul 1, 2008, 12:56 pm

Right, teelgee. Sometimes life evolves in a particular way for less than stellar reasons, but that in no way necessarily invalidates the life itself. Things aren't that static or black and white in anyone's life. Watching someone bear a child, or parent said child through illness and rebellion or live through the death of their parents or any of the million other things we can assume May and Archer navigated has real meaning that can overcome what amounts to a temptation that lasted a few months. And vague occasional dissatisfaction or what "might have been" fantasies and reflections on the wild feelings of one's youth in no way completely negates the value of comfort, satisfaction and contentment that a marriage may bring.

Jul 1, 2008, 12:59 pm

Maturity, that's what I was going for.

Jul 1, 2008, 6:40 pm

>25 nancyewhite:-29 I first read this book in college, back in about 1986. Here it is, 22 years later, and I have a very, very different perspective on this book. Now that I'm in my mid-40's and have been married for 17 years, I see the book's ending as far more realistic than my idealistic 21-year-old self did. nancywhite - I think you make a lot of good points about how we all settle to some degree, and that it's not necessarily always a bad thing. I think that's why I found the ending somewhat satisfying - life wasn't perfect for anyone, but each person seemed to find some meaning along the way.

I find it interesting, also, to compare The Age of Innocence, written closer to the end of Wharton's career, to The House of Mirth, which was her first novel. Now, I personally really dislike The House of Mirth for several reasons, not the least of which is that Lily Bart is (to me) one of the most unappealing heroines in literature. (And for some reason I've read the book twice!) But, two interesting comparisons can be made between the books. One is that Wharton's writing gets so very much better (and more "modern") over time. The other is that Wharton is far, far less judgmental in The Age of Innocence. She lets the reader make their own decisions - and as we can see from this discussion, she leaves things ambiguous enough so that each read can make very different decisions.

Jul 3, 2008, 5:14 pm

Just finished Age of Innocence. I peeked at this thread when I was only about half way through with book 2, so I had a heads up on the ending, but I don't think the spoilers ruined anything for me.

I was never good in school at interpreting and analysing the books we were assigned, so I'm probably missing something obvious but here goes: What does the title mean? Does "age" refer to the period of time (1870's) or the chronological age of the main character(s)? Likewise, whose innocence? Society's, or one or more of the characters? I've been pondering these questions ever since I finished book 1. Here is what I think: I agree with the general tone of the comments above - life doesn't always turn out the way one expects, and that doesn't mean it isn't a good life. On the contrary, I expect most of us are happier with our lives as they actually are than we would have been if we'd gotten our adolescent fantasy lives. I don't think there is such a thing as a "dream come true". Dream = fantasy, which is the exact opposite of reality. The fact that Newland had to settle for something less than he wanted doesn't mean that he wasn't satisfied with the life he ended up with. I think the title refers to that period in everyone's life (Newland's in particular in this book) when we are young adults, still feeling immortal and invincible, just beginning on life's path and dreaming about the wonderful life we have ahead of us. At that age, anything is possible. By the time we reach our maturity, we've hopefully come to realize that that isn't true. We are no longer innocent of the ways of the world, and we come to understand that we can't have everything we want. In fact, by the time we are fully mature, we realize that we don't even want everything we want. I think that is why Newland behaved as he did in the final scene.

Jul 3, 2008, 5:34 pm

>31 sjmccreary: - i think the title is partially meant satirically; Wharton is playing with nostalgia that states that was the 'age of innocence', that things were always better in the past and showing that there was no golden age. Improper behaviour was acceptable as long as it stayed within the bounds of society - by calling the age 'innocent' Wharton highlights the hypocrisy.

Jul 3, 2008, 5:46 pm

#32 the good old days weren't always good?

I see your point. This is why I never did well in school - I could never come up with more than one point of view without help.

However, what hints did Wharton give us to support your statement? I'm not challenging you - I recognize that many of you are more scholarly than I am, and I want to learn what to look for so to be better able to understand the whole of an author's message.

Jul 15, 2008, 7:00 pm

Finished. I cried through the last chapter.

Mar 11, 2009, 5:44 pm

BBC Radio 7 will broadcast The Age of Innocence next week, March 16th-19th; you will also be able to listen to the broadcasts here.