Jan. 8th, 2017

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

It's Edith Wharton, of course it's fantastic.

Everyone in the book is terrible, and Wharton's marvelously honed condescension shows how little respect she has for most of the characters in the book, but she nonetheless manages to conjure empathy for their position: New York high society is constructed on a certain kind of order and its members are trained from childhood to be committed to making the hard choices required to uphold that order. The techniques they've established are so robust that even the dullest members of society understand their role in holding up the edifice.

What really struck me is her portrait of Newland Archer, who has enough intelligence and has had enough exposure to the arts and to other forms of society that he knows how toxic the rules of New York high society are, but he nonetheless can't escape its straitjacket, because of his own faults. Because he can't see May or Ellen or Janey as people rather than as women, because he likes it when society compliments him and dislikes it when society insults him, because he finds the order of New York society attractive in spite of himself.

You spend most of the book groaning at Newland Archer's fatuousness, and you strongly suspect he's never going to overcome it. But you also resent him a little in the small places when he does half-heartedly resist. Ellen knows full well that there's no version of Archer who will ever actually be emotionally available to her. She knows that whenever he teases her with the hope of rejecting New York's rules, it is just a tease. She has seen 'the Gorgon' and it has opened her eyes, to borrow Wharton's marvelous metaphor. Still, in spite of this, Wharton recognizes that Archer is by many standards a good person. He is a good father, an always appropriate husband, a loyal friend. Sometimes he is even able to stand, however briefly, against society.

I also really enjoyed Wharton's descriptions of the opera and of its place in New York society. The modern Met is a very different kind of institution, especially the way I experience it, but I liked how Wharton engaged with it, with the repeated performances of Gounod's Faust with Christine Nilsson as the diva, holding new meaning each time it's experienced, even if many of the attending were barely paying attention. "Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiar setting of giant roses and pen-wiper pansies, the same large blonde victim was succumbing to the same small brown seducer."

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