Tuesday, June 22, 2010

76. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I wanted to read The Age of Innocence as one of my classics because I had a vague idea of the plot and it sounded interesting. I always like reading about New York City society and its rules and regulations. For some reason, this setting always gets me -- whether it's Gossip Girl or The Age of Innocence, I'll try it.

The rustle of silk, the glitter of diamonds -- here is New York society in all of its Gilded Age splendor. May Welland is pure and delicate, a vision of young American womanhood. Her fiancé Newland Archer is a dashing and wealthy young man. All of New York is abuzz with this perfect match. And then, into the midst of this very dignified and decorated world, the mysterious Countess Olenska, a scandalous divorcee, makes her entrance. Archer, upon his first sight of the beautiful Countess, is thrown into a whirlwind of passion and doubt over the woman in his life. Bowing to society's power nonetheless, Archer marries May, but the Countess never leaves his innermost heart. Highlighting the problematic nature of one of America's most glamorous eras, this is a human drama full of the lofty dreams of which society approves and dark desires that may never be brought into the light of day.

Pot summary taken from DailyLit.com.

This is the second time that I've tried the site Daily Lit.com. You can read about the first time here. It was a little smoother this time -- I preferred subscribing via e-mail because it was easier to request the next installment immediately. This is my fundamental problem with subscribing, though -- I can't read a little bit at a time. Especially when I'm enjoying something or if it's difficult to keep track of the characters. I prefer to read more at one time, which is why I don't think DailyLit is right for me. At least I tried it. I finally downloaded the book for Kindle on PC (for free!), re-read what I had read sporadically via e-mail, and finished it. It seemed like I was reading this one for forever!

As I think I've said in most of my classics posts, this book was surprisingly readable. Maybe I just have bad memories of English classes? I always expect "classics" to be boring or difficult to follow. Definitely not always the case! Although I had a hard time keeping everyone straight -- unlike with Pride & Prejudice, the Wikipedia entry only helped so much because in the book characters are referred to in different ways, not always their full names, and there are multiple generations, so there's more than one Mrs. So-and-So, etc. I really needed a Mingott family tree. I started taking notes on the family members, so I could keep track of them, but reading them over now I have to say the notes are pretty pathetic:

old Mrs. Manson Mingott
her daughter-in-law Mrs. Lovell Mingott and her daughter Mrs. Welland = sisters-in-law
mentioned two daughters, one married or Italian marquis and one married to English banker, they don't visit...
Medora Manson - Ellen's eccentric aunt who raises her after she's orphaned -- was Medora married to the Italian??
her daughter May Welland

(I gave up after a while.)

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. I did! This story isn't really about what happens, per se, but Archer's observation of his world and how it changes after he meets Ellen. Some people may find it slow-moving or boring for this reason, but I didn't. The writing is well-paced and kept me turning the pages (or clicking through to the next screen, rather). I have to say that I don't feel sorry for May in that way that I expected to -- I think Little Miss Innocent knew the score and could take care of herself. I feel more empathy for Archer and Ellen. I'd be hard-pressed to expand on that very much, I just remember thinking about that when I was (finally) done reading. 

I was curious to see how a movie adaptation would work -- so much of the story takes place inside Archer's head. It's not like he even had a confidant, really, to discuss things with. So I had Colin rent the movie for me and immediately saw how they solved for that problem -- a narrator. So simple! I'm not sure why I didn't think of that. I don't have much to say about the movie, except that Mrs. Mingott had three pomeranians. Love. 

At some point, I'm going to read another of Wharton's novels, The House of Mirth, because according to the Wikipedia entry (linked to above), "Wharton considered this novel [The Age of Innocence] an 'apology' for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth." It's true that The Age of Innocence is pretty soft in its judgment of society, so I'm intrigued to read the brutal criticism of it in The House of Mirth

I'm going to wrap this one up with some quotes that stood out to me while reading:

"Yet there was a time when Archer had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance."

(this is after noticing that Lefferts was watching for violations of protocol at the wedding and recalling the argument over showing the wedding gifts at the breakfast that ended after Mrs. Welland cried and said she would just as soon turn reporters loose in the house)

Archer then reflects:

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them..."

"There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free."
(during their honeymoon, as Archer gets to know his wife, he relaxes into his old attitudes toward marriage)

"...he was struck again by the religious reverence of even the most unworldly American women for the social advantages of dress."

he comes to think of it as armor, defense and defiance of the unknown

"It surprised him that life should be going on in the old way when his own reactions to it had so completely changed."

"His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen."

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