The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.
"I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--categories like that--won't exist. Where we shall be simply two beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter."
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. "Oh, my dear--where is that country? Have you ever been there?" she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: "I know so many who've tried to find it, and ,believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous."
When I began The Age of Innocence, I was surprised by how different it seemed than Ethan Frome, a book which I loved (and is reviewed here by Brent, Liz, and Carlton). That book was set among the working classes of Starkfield, Massachussetts, and I recalled it as rustic and plain, while this is a quintessential "novel of manners", set among the socialites of nineteenth-century New York City. As different as New York must seem from Starkfield, so the prevailing tone of The Age of Innocence seems as if it belongs to a different place completely.
And so I had to laugh a little when I realized that Wharton had essentially recycled the plot for Ethan Frome--just as Ethan Frome falls in love with his wife's cousin, so Newland Archer, the protagonist of The Age of Innocence, falls in love with the Countess Olenska, the cousin of his fiancee/wife May.
But Olenska is not like the young and naive Mattie, and May is nothing like Frome's domineering wife Zeena. May is a beautiful and genial, and above all else she is highly regarded by New York society, a tightly knit cabal of the independently wealthy who live by a rigid and unspoken set of rules. It is this social code that provides the conflict for the novel; when the Countess Olenska returns to New York to escape an abusive relationship with her husband, a Polish nobleman, the luridness of her situation and her ignorance of society's intricate directives cause something of a scandal. Archer begins the book as aghast as anyone, but as he befriends Olenska at May's behest, her idiosyncrasies--like her fondness for artists and writers, and others who exist outside of society's boundaries--begin to endear her to him, and the two fall deeply in love.
There is no way for me to judge the accuracy of Wharton's depiction of New York society, but I've read that it reflects the realities of the time intricately. Beneath her carefully mannered prose is a subtle but effective satire--for instance, note the way that the socialites name their children after other "great families." Archer is named after the Newlands, but has a cousin named Vandie Newland; there are Thorley Chiverses and Rushworth Thorleys and Sillerton Jacksons and Emerson Sillertons, and more, ad nauseam. All these families are intermarried, and the combined effect is of something strangely incestual, a context reaffirmed by the bond between Archer and Olenska, who upon Archer's marriage becomes his cousin.
All this shows how pathetically small New York society is, and how isolated; when a doubly-named socialite chastises another for visiting the home of a figure on society's fringe, this cabal shows itself to be tightly, laughably isolated. The social strictures provide a sort of insulation, a comforting straitjacket, and turn human interaction into something of a perverse show:
In reality they all lived in a kind of heiroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs...
Though Countess Olenska is in many ways characterized by her naivete with regards to society, she expresses a paradoxical incisiveness that provides a strong contrast:
"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himself pompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influence in New York society. Unfortunately--owing to their health--they receive very seldom."
She unclasped her hand from behind her head, and looked at him meditatively.
"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"
"For their great influence; that they make themselves so rare."
He coloured a little, stared at her--and suddenly felt the penetration of the remark. At a stroke she had pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He laughed, and sacrificed them.
Wharton's writing is highly constructed, subordinate, and ornate, and when she stops to write a sentence simply, it often has tremendous power, as it does here: "He laughed, and sacrificed them." Reading it over, I think perhaps this is the moment when Archer, though he fails to realize its significance, falls in love with the Countess Olenska. In a single fell swoop, she has analyzed the van der Luydens, chieftains of the social rigeur, and deflated them. This is the sort of insight that only an outside observer can bring, and Olenska remains eternally on the outside. With a laugh, as if it were nothing but a trifle, Archer follows her beyond society's boundaries.
And yet we see what she says in the first passage about that country where they can love without labeling: It is a fiction, and those who seek to find it end up only at--what a beautiful turn of phrase--"wayside stations." New York, she seems to say, is one preposterous social apparatus in a world of them, and though she and Archer love each other profoundly, where can they find freedom?
As with Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence is a novel of frustrated love. Archer proceeds to marry May in the middle of the book, and though he continues to see Olenska every now and then, the consummation of their relationship never seems to be any more possible. In this way, The Age of Innocence is heartbreakingly cynical, as it seems to suggest that society, no matter how pointlessly constructed or cruelly arbitrary it is, remains an eternal victor over one man or woman's heart. There is a scene toward the book's end, where Archer and Olenska escape for a moment's respite into the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
His mind, as always when they first met ,was wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made her herself and no other. Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles--made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothing matters... any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guess at under a magnifying glass and labelled: 'Use unknown'."
"Yes; but meanwhile--"
Even in the way that it affirms the here-and-now as precious, this absolutely broke my heart. In fifty years, what will it matter that you wore the right dress at the right party thrown by the right host, when the woman you love remains forever inaccessible?
As strangely similar as this plot is to that of Ethan Frome, it seems that the parallels end there. Frome is a hen-pecked weakling with the heart of a child who falls in love with a child; we pity him from a distance. Archer and Olenska are adults who love with great foresight and consciousness; it is easy to put ourselves in their place and despair. For that, I think, it is the better novel.