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