By Chet Yarbrough
The Age of Innocence
By: Edith Wharton
Narrated by Lorna Raver
Edith Wharton (American novelist, playwright, and designer, Pulitzer Prize winner, 1862-1937.)
Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” exposes false notions of equality of the sexes in America and reflects on the human frailty and strength of men and women.
Edith Wharton lived through the turn of the 19th and 20th century in America. She lived an adult life of luxury in New York, and later in France.
Wharton writes about American society; i.e. she exposes New York’s “upstairs, downstairs” snobbery in the early 20th century.
Newland Archer is engaged to be married to May Welland when a childhood friend comes to visit relatives in New York.
In telling the tale, Wharton sharply defines the battle of the sexes, duplicity of romance, and folly of youth. Though writing of a sliver of wealthy American’ society in the early 20th century, Wharton’s story rings as true about men and women today as it did when she won the Pulitzer Prize.
A childhood friend is Ellen Olenska, a 30-year-old married countess that left New York in her youth. Newland begins to question his love for May Welland. His reasons for questioning are not clear to himself. Wharton infers the reasons are idealized romance and lust.
Archer idealizes Olenska. His idealization comes from unrequited lust. Olenska is a married woman. She is not available.
Archer knows his soon-to-be wife, May, is committed to him and takes her for granted. Archer’s lust for Olenska conflicts with Archer’s morals. The nature of unrequited lust is that the thought or idea of sex is perfect. In Archer’s mind, Olenska becomes an objectified sex object (a perfect fantasy), and May will never be good enough. Archer is psychologically prepared to abandon May and pursue a “perfect” relationship with Olenska.
Olenska, in one respect, is Archer’s alter-ego. She views Archer as a perfect companion because Archer is not available. Archer is committed to another woman. Olenska lusts for Archer but with better insight to the truth. Her life experience tells her to resist infatuation. She knows that once lust is satisfied, social reality returns.
Archer views May as a complacent woman that will make a boring wife. In contrast, Wharton shows May to be a perceptive woman that understands Archer’s and Olenska’s relationship. May correctly diagnoses Archer’s false idealization and subtlety maneuvers Archer to quash the burgeoning affair with Olenska.
In the end, Wharton shows Archer to be morally shallow. Archer chooses to keep his innocent memory; i.e. his deluded vision of romance, commitment, and love.
May and Olenska are shown to understand the difference between lust and romance; commitment, and love. Archer never does. Archer never gets over “The Age of Innocence”.