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Thoughts Whilst Reading The Age Of Innocence

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I’m still reading the book and still enjoying it, but there’s something I’m in two minds about: Newland’s musings and inner upset – to be polite about it – over May’s personality. Expect free-writing going forward…

May Welland, Newland’s fiancée and later wife, is very much a device for Wharton to look into the way New York society women behave; by using a young woman she is also able to explain how it comes to be, the ‘creation’ of a society woman if you will.

At the beginning of the novel it’s particularly good – it’s fresh, it’s a vibrant narrative, and there is something both strange and poignant in the fact that Wharton spreads her ideas via Newland. Using a man as the person she speaks through makes for an interesting contrast to other narratives – he wants a partner with more agency and independence of thought and bearing – whilst at the same time that it is a man brings irony to the situation as Newland is obviously far freer than May would ever be.

But as the novel continues and Newland continues to think of May’s character, Wharton’s commentary starts to lose its effect. Newland’s freedom has something to do with it, but more than anything else I’m finding the fact that he is effectively complaining but doing nothing about it difficult. Of course one shouldn’t expect Newland to be actively trying to change May – that would be wrong – but in all his goings on about how she just repeats what those who brought her up taught her to say, he never really does much in the way of trying to give May space to become more independent. He has a few thoughts – particularly when he realises May may expect him to become like her hypochondriac father – but there’s never any action. To Newland, May is who she is – a dull, robotic (not that he uses that word), same-as-any-other society woman and that’s that.

Of course that Newland loves her cousin, the very different Ellen Olenska, understandably affects his lack of action in that he should really have not married May and left her when she gave him the chance. (I found that scene very interesting, the way we see that May is obviously a lot ‘more’ than Newland thinks – I wouldn’t have minded a companion book wherein May finds someone who likes her.) But it is difficult to listen to him going on about May’s limitations. And in a modern context, thinking of the way he’s treating her that likely wouldn’t be an ‘issue’ in Wharton’s time, it’s even more difficult.

I’m hoping to watch the 1993 adaptation after I finish the book and the way Wharton/Newland speaks of May I’m kind of expecting Winona Ryder’s May to be a literal robot.

I do think there’s something to be said in that Wharton keeps the theme of May’s sameness carrying on throughout; whilst the author herself likely got bored of all the limitations placed on women, nay, people full stop, in her society, at the same time that she herself was different… surely she must have thought that many women would have felt restricted, and the addition of Ellen to the cast suggests this.

I’m pinning my hopes on Wharton going for some sort of big reveal at the end wherein we see that May’s not at all boring. Particularly considering the irony of the title.

Away from that, I’ve just been surprised by Newland’s sudden wish to kill off May – sudden surprising violence that made me picture him in a dusty room in black and white a la Mrs Danvers – and I’m rooting for Ellen finding some socially appropriate way to tell her family to mind their own business.

More names would have been useful; for a while I thought Catherine the Great was indeed the Russian empress and there are lots of Mingotts to remember. The whole product is a great commentary of New York society from someone who lived it – I do wonder if that’s why Wharton decided to travel so much, to get away from it all.



February 21, 2018, 11:45 pm

I loooved the 1993 adaptation, though I haven’t read the book. I think the movie captured the themes in the book rather well. Winona Rider wasn’t a robot. She was secretly manipulative, and brilliant: sweet, but with her own devious agenda, which is what I think Newland finds upsetting in May but can’t quite put his finger on. I found the ending revelation devastating, but I don’t think you’ll find it so having read the book in advance and knowing what happens and who was manipulating whom.

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