The Age of Innocence’s high drama unfolds in its characters’ souls

“Modern fiction really began when the ‘action’ of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1925 book, The Writing of Fiction. “And this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the 17th century, wrote a little story called La Princesse De Clèves, a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface.”

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading The Age of Innocence, that little plot summary will feel familiar, as will the preoccupation with the soul. The book, though famous for its ironic detachment – Wharton described viewing the people in 1870s New York society through “the wrong end of a telescope” to make them appear “small and distant” – it plunges us deep inside the hearts and minds of her characters. We feel their emotion. We see the world as they see it.

When we are introduced to Newland Archer, arriving deliberately late at the opera because it is “not the thing” to arrive early, he is presented as an anthropological study. “What was or was not ‘the thing’ played as a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”

Yet within a page we find ourselves not so much observing Archer as looking through his eyes. We scan the opera boxes with him, we think what he thinks about members of the audience. And we share in his shock when he sees the “slim young” Countess Ellen Olenska, soon to be the subject of his hopeless love.

From then on, Archer’s world becomes ours. We share his dilemmas. We worry about his destiny. We too are caught up in the question of whether he should give in to his love for Ellen, at the expense of his fiancee May.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic:

I don’t see Newland Archer as tragic … I don’t see him as wrong. Wharton presents to us a deeply flawed world. But whereas a lesser writer would have stopped there, Wharton shows us how an honourable person, totally apprised of those flaws, might die for that world nonetheless. The subtle point beneath all of this is arresting: Wharton turns the camera toward us and asks ‘Are you so much the genius that you can say you’d have done anything different?’

It would be possible to write thousands of words about the decisions Archer makes and the way he treats Ellen and May. Is he right to stand by the mores of his world? Will his decisions bring him a happy life? Or does he remain unfulfilled, unsatiated, always wondering what would have happened if he’d done things differently? In short, it’s all action in his soul.

But even as Wharton shows us the world through Archer’s eyes, she also makes us understand that there’s plenty more that he doesn’t see. While we’re obsessing over his choices, it becomes apparent that the most important ones are being made by other characters.

A telling example of this comes when Archer has his first opportunity to be alone with Ellen. He approaches her, standing on a pier with her back to him, and thinks: “She doesn’t know – she hasn’t guessed. Shouldn’t I know if she came up behind me, I wonder? … If she doesn’t turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I’ll go back.”

We are then told:

The boat was gliding out on the receding tide. It slid before the Lime Rock, blotted out Ida Lewis’s little house, and passed across the turret in which the light was hung. Archer waited till a wide space of water sparkled between the last reef of the island and the stern of the boat; but still the figure in the summer-house did not move.

He turned and walked up the hill.

When I first read that passage, I gasped. It felt so poignant, so significant – and yet, so arbitrary. It was all Archer’s choice. But when the two wouldn’t-be lovers meet up later, Ellen asks Archer why he didn’t approach her; she had known he was there, but decided not to turn. Really, it was her call.

Likewise, Ellen must make far harder and more complicated decisions than Newland. Should she take the financial rewards of returning to her abusive husband? Or risk exile from the New York tribe by refusing her husband’s overtures? Should she allow Archer to love her? And therefore crush May? Speaking of which, May’s own decisions are barely noticeable at first, given that Archer himself doesn’t pay any attention to them. For him, May’s internal life is almost irrelevant. It’s only when she informs him that she has persuaded Ellen to set sail for Europe and leave Newland’s orbit forever that we realise how many choices she has been making – and the exultations and agonies that she must have been through – and we realise that this book has more soul than we ever might have thought.

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