The Age of Innocence is basically a love triangle. Newland Archer is a wealthy lawyer of upper-class New York society, who is engaged to be married to May, a member of the same society. Ruled by well-laid conventions, Newland believes him to be happy and content and eagerly awaits his impending marriage. The meet of Ellen, May’s cousin, and his closer association with her that follows make him see the dull and empty life that he is forced to live which is tightly controlled by convention. Newland eventually falls in love with Ellen, but convention and duty require that he should surrender his love and freedom.
I didn’t take to the character of Newland Archer initially. His cowardice and inaction really bothered me. Even when May offers him that he may break the engagement if there is “another woman” whom he desires to marry, he does not grab at the opportunity. Although he constantly lamented over his lost opportunity to love and live freely, it is his own inaction that brought him misery; and not only to him but to May and Ellen. But later, on reflecting on his character, I realized that I cannot judge his character by modern convictions. Given the time period in which the character is set, nothing was surprising in Newland’s cause of action. The conventions by which they lived were a second religion to them from which it was almost impossible to deviate.
May was the representation of family, duty, and convention. She is described as pretty, socially perfect but one who lacks imagination and room for growth. But I felt that she was severely misunderstood, especially by Newland. While she puts a socially acceptable face outwards, underneath lives a strong, intelligent, and artful woman who goes to greater lengths to secure what is hers.
My sympathy was with Ellen who was an innocent victim of fate and convention. Her character represented the universal “unconventional women”. She was always portrayed in soft, kind, and truthful light with a mind of her own, and I believe, she is Ms. Wharton’s heroine.
Through the main characters of Newland, May, and Ellen, and supported by several interesting supporting characters, the story is a true portrayal of the lives and way of living of New York upper-class society. Being herself part of that society, Ms. Wharton draws a truthful account of it, satirically portraying at the same time, their rigid conventional ways of living. The story concludes with the final chapter being set thirty years later, which shows how the people have slowly managed to unchain themselves from these strict bonds. This chapter was a breath of fresh air.
The writing is beautifully detailed, and the psychological portrayal of the characters is cleverly done that it was easy to connect with the story and its characters from the very beginning. Her writing is easy-going yet graceful making it both a quick and interesting read.
This is my second reading of Wharton’s work and I loved it. To me, The Age of Innocence is a story of an “age of innocence” where people were kept within strict social rules where imaginative and passionate living is neither heard of nor sanctioned.