Msnowe's Blog


Posted in Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, Henry James, House of Mirth by m.snowe on June 4, 2008

After less than a few days of voracious reading, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton was placed reluctantly onto my bookshelf, right near The House of Mirth, and a rather extensive collection of V. Woolf collections… Before starting to read the book, reviews were consulted, and many reviewers of the book, when comparing it to Mirth, decided that it was not, in fact, tragic. And yes, if your definition of tragedy is the rather barbaric definition that squarely says: “Everybody Dies”, well then, you’d be spot on target. There is a place and a time for the argument that death is needed to make a tragedy both painful and painfully exquisite (search Shakespeare for those examples). But sometimes, the most exquisite tragedies are in the monotony of life lived in an unwanted attitude, beyond will, yet the alternatives are beyond the reaches of possibility. Henry James was perhaps the best practitioner of such stories, with characters who may not die, but live lives of self-inflicted and yet utterly unavoidable cerebral entrapment. For the characters to veer from their rather undesirable, long-lived fates would be a breach of their own personal human condition. Edith Wharton also understood this tragic set-up that made stories so powerful.

In The Age of Innocence, the protagonist, Newland Archer, is skirting the brink of social ruin with the Countess Olenska. Archer is married to the beautiful yet (as he considers) simple-minded and society-molded May. While the reader might detect a flicker of brilliance or self-possession in May, Archer is too blinded by Ellen Olenska to notice. Ellen, married to an abusive Polish Count, has traveled back to NYC where her family remained, hoping for solace and relief from a horrible marriage. Of course, in that time, the woman, despite the amount of abuse inflicted upon her, was just as scandalized by leaving her rotten husband than the Count himself. She remains married, and so it is doubly impossible for Archer–he is married, and could never leave his wife to marry an already married Ellen. Ellen and Archer barely touch hands throughout the book–and the reader is never given the satisfaction of a loving embrace–just as the characters never get one either. A few years of Archer’s young life are spent in pursuit of a pittance of time that could be contained within the length of a longish movie, at most–and yet his entire being, his methods of thought, his actions and illusions–all surround this one object of affection. And truly, he fetishizes her with unbounded imagination, an imagination being the only real place where people of the early 1900s could freely contemplate their “heathen” natures or thoughts. The end is similar to what many misguided people consider the plot of a Jamesian novel: nothing happens. There is an epilogue of sorts, where we fast forward to show an older Newland Archer, one who stayed committed to May, and at the last refuses to see Ellen Olenska when he gets the chance 20 years after their last parting. Despite Archer’s own refusal to find what he thought was happiness and his acceptance of the mundane reality of his marriage, he still holds on to the memory of a better age, an exciting time, despite its lack of a true climax (either ideologically or sexually). It is at once the best and most horrific tragedy–one held up to the closest point of a culmination, and yet it never quite gets there, it just dissipates, as if the action were quickly scaling a cliff, only to slowly, with regret, turn back from whence it came, without getting a view from the apex. It is the wish for that resolution, that final look, that keeps the book afresh, and keeps the readers coming back. It is the Keatsian image of the lovers in Ode to a Grecian Urn, forever bidding adieu.

Let’s switch the gears a bit, from literary to the political…
To any of those who were holdouts for the Hillary campaign, you can look at her legacy (at least right now) in a similar way. It is an exquisite tragedy to her supporters, to come so close, and yet be so far away from what would have surely been the apex of her career. Women and the nation as a whole will remember her campaign as the first legitimate reach for the white house for a woman, and that’s something to say. Clinton, like Ellen and Archer, tried her luck starting with the politics of New York, and was angled out by a world that was not ready for her just yet. Many were ready for Clinton, it just wasn’t enough. So for those in mourning, at least take comfort in the fact that the tragedy was beautiful, and memorable in ways that many other campaigns in the past have not been (Howard Dean, for instance, does not conjure up any comparisons to good literature, although I’m sure some might have a suggestion–probably something post-modern, or existential).