Last month, I cheated a little bit on my Young Adult read. Car sickness, boredom and my inability to think ahead meant I had to listen to audiobooks I had already downloaded from Audible on the 12 hour car ride through flat, featureless though starkly beautiful New Mexico and west Texas. Since I wanted to be able to finish the book on the ride, or soon after I got home, the 12 hour reading of The Age of Innocence was the choice.
Though I haven’t read much Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth years ago and Ethan Frome recently), I knew what I was getting into when I started. SPOILER ALERT: Wharton doesn’t do happy endings. Laura Miller, book reviewer at Salon, wrote a great piece last year: The Tyranny of the Happy Ending. The whole post deserves a read, but this stuck out (emphasis mine):
Some aspects of the human experience can only be addressed in a tragic mode, and the truth of “Romeo and Juliet” — that the intransigence of elders often leads to the sacrifice of youth — is one of those aspects. The tragic Victorian novels of Eliot and Hardy deal with, among other subjects, the restrictions that class and gender roles impose on heroes and heroines who are capable of much more than their allotted place in society permits. Seeing the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Maggie Tulliver (in “The Mill on the Floss”) and Jude Fawley (in “Jude the Obscure”) being crushed is agonizing, but providing either character with a miraculous escape from that fate would render the novels themselves pointless. Their point is precisely that sometimes the best people will fail, and fail utterly.
This sums up Edith Wharton’s sensibilities to a ‘T.’ Reading Miller’s critique should make me appreciate The Age of Innocence’s ending and while it does take a bit of the sting out of it, my dislike for the main character, Leland Archer, keeps any sense of awe or loss at the resolution at bay. Yes, Archer was restrained by society and the time he lived, but in the end, when the restraints were lifted, he was a coward. His final act transformed him from a tragic and noble character (at least I think that’s what Wharton was going for) into a spineless weakling.
Still, Wharton is a master as depicting upper middle class New York and illustrating the mores of a group that rarely gets the attention. Think about it. When you think of fiction set in the 1870s, what comes to mind? England in the Victorian Era. There is a real dearth of fiction set in the US during that time (save The Civil War era which usually always deals with the war, slavery and politics instead of class), either contemporary (written during the time it is set) or modern (or what we would call historical fiction, now). And, what fiction there is is always overshadowed by their British counterparts, even in modern times. (It is telling that in Miller’s article linked to above, she uses only British works as examples when Wharton would work as well.) Though American history is littered with examples of us rejecting England’s religion, political structure and class structure, we have always been enthralled with their society, and the fiction that depicts it, to the detriment of our own.
I don’t mean to suggest you must read The Age of Innocence (★★★★) because of a jingoistic zeal to support American writers and setting. Or that my four star rating is a result of a fist pumping celebration of ‘Merica. Rather, you should read The Age of Innocence – as you should read any and all Edith Wharton’s novels – because she will show you an America many of us haven’t bothered to learn about, as well as make you wonder how much has truly changed in the subsequent 140 years.