Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This niche book is just o.k.  I found it rather predictable.  From the beginning, I thought it an updated and Americanized imitation of Jane Austen and what I like to call the "society" novels.  I haven't ready any Henry James, and my extremely well-read wife tells me that this Wharton novel is more in the Henry James tradition, than in the late 18th/early 19th century British novel tradition.  That may very well be, but still … it's all of a piece with the theme of stifling upper society, semi-aristocratic conventions that stifle passion and love and oppress women.  It's an even greater indictment of this elite environment that the novels seeking to capture its dimensions are basically all the same.  You read one of these stories and you know all you need to know about it.  Any others are just minor variations of the theme.  How dreadfully boring to live in such an environment.  At least Jane Austen, writing some 100 years before, has a bit more humanity in the pages and characters of her stories, as well as moments of surprise that, while not altogether unexpected, are at least simply and refreshingly presented.

When it comes to engaging the richness of the dilemma of social conventions on the lives of women, nothing captures the tragedy of this better than Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina."  And while Wharton's novel was mainly about Newland Archer, it was also just as much about the social and financial oppression of both May Welland and Ellen Olenska.  And Wharton's Ellen Olenska is a pale comparison to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Now don't get me wrong: I very much liked the Ellen Olenska as a character crafted by Wharton; but my empathy for her and the injustices she suffered didn't nearly touch the depths of emotion in me as did my profound sense of empathy for the character of Anna Karenina.  But, I digress …

This Wharton novel, celebrated (mostly) as a triumph at the moment of its publication, won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Did it deserve this award.  Sure.  It's not a bad novel.  And, to give Wharton some credit, she has a wicked sense of humor and cleverness that peeps through on occasion, especially in the beginning chapters of the novel.  And she is, undoubtedly, very erudite.  So, yes, on these grounds perhaps the novel is Pulitzer-worthy; but I just found the story itself to be weak soup.  In fact, I would say that Booth Tarkington's "Magnificent Ambersons" or even Margaret Ayer Barnes's "Years of Grace" (two other Pulitzer winners that deal with wealth, status, and society, to much better capture the complexity and uniqueness of an "American" version of these themes. And as for a picture of New York society, I'd say even Ernest Poole's "His Family" captures the United States's quintessential commercial city in a much more interesting and complete light.

Anyway … Yes, I liked the novel well-enough.  Yes, I'd rank it Pulitzer-worthy.  But, no, it's not the best of this genre, nor is it the best of the Pulizter winners.  Folks should read it because it's achieved status as a classic of American literature (and does represent one kind of writing); but don't just rest on Wharton for the great literature of her day.  Dig into the literary weeds a bit, and read some of her more obscure contemporaries (and perhaps even her not-so-obscure contemporaries), and I think you'll be surprised at how mediocre this work stands relatively and how lacking it is in capturing the best of what American literature of the day had to offer.


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