Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Age of Innocence: A Review

I believe that The Age of Innocence analyzes the life choices, change and risks of exercising a gentleman’s freedom in setting his life’s course with those of women. Sounds boring, I know, but this book is anything but…

Set in 1920, Newland Archer is everything a young man could hope for; wealthy, educated, articulate and engaged to a beautiful young lady from an aristocratic, respectable family. His life is all planned out for him. Yet, he longs for more. He is intellectually hungry and likes nothing more than free expression and company where a free exchange of ideas is valued and welcome. Unfortunately, the old New York society into which he was born and in which he lives is full of convention and niceties and maintaining decorum such that life progresses predictably and the status quo is maintained. Newcomers and new ideas are not welcome and most often are squashed by the ruling “establishment”.

Enter Countess Olenska, his betrothed’s wayward cousin, who has left her husband in Europe amidst some scandal claiming her husband was abusive, and has returned to her family in New York for shelter and guidance. After meeting Countess Olenska, Newland Archer finds a passion for her through stimulating conversations, through exchange of ideas and argument. She challenges his conventions and surprises him with her unpredictable words. He sees the potential for a fulfilling, passionate lifelong companion who he can truly feel one with…where he would never again feel alone.

By contrast, his betrothed and his eventual wife, May Welland, is the innocent and guileless product of the social system in which he lives.

“he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it…”
He didn’t see how, if May were trained to be innocent, guileless and ignorant, how could she navigate her life without total dependence on him. And this subjugation and subordination was detestable. He tests May by exposing her to travel, culture and intellectual pursuits, but she falls from interest in them and refuses to rise to be Newland’s intellectual equal thus losing her opportunity to become his true love.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the verbal gymnastics that Newland Archer, May Welland and Countess Olenska participated in throughout the novel. I appreciated Newland’s desire for his ultimate freedom, yet given the constraints of his and the Countess’ social positions, neither would ever be free, even if they acted on their impulses. It is Countess Olenska that understands this, for even though she was made a “free” choice in leaving her abusive husband, social customs did not allow her back into society as a “free” woman and her daily life was forever affected by her choice.

Likewise, the power of the social customs of the day and the power of the establishment are what ultimately keep Newland married to May and having children, living a contented and “successful” marriage. I enjoyed the ending and Newland finally seeing the realization of the intellectual freedom he had been seeking through his son and the next generation. He also has the opportunity to re-open his relationship with Countess Olenska? What do you think he did? I won’t tell but it’s a smashingly good read all around.

Thanks to Allison Aller for letting me know that there is a movie and that it is full of delicious eye candy and the costumes are divine. I'm off to NetFlix...

This month I'm reading, City of God by E.L.Doctorow, continuing my second month in the 1% Well-Read Challenge.


Cathy K said...

Great review, Susan. I've put The Age of Innocence on my reading list for the 1% Well Read Challenge, too. Unfortunately, I keep getting sidetracked by other books. Let us know about the movie - I love period pieces with lots of fashion. Have you ever seen the British mini-series The House of Elliott??? I checked it out at the library once. Yummy....
Hugs, Cathy K in UT

Allison Ann Aller said...

What a splendid review! Is there an English degree in your past?
The movie is just perfectly cast. My SIL called it "The Age of Somnolence" but that is only because she hadn't read the book.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a fabulous book. I may add it to my list. The Marble Faun is being removeds from“my list coz its boring.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I forgot to preview the last message. Blogger is not letting me see the letters as I type them. I can only see them if I click on preview first. I read this book while I was in school but don't remember much about it. It might be a good idea to re-read it.

Debra said...

Good review! I think Countess Olenska was so alluring because she was such a non-conformist & as much as Newland wanted to break out of his conformist ways, I don't really think he could do it. As the Countess said, "it was in the not having each other that made the desire greater" (loosely quoted here *wink*). It's an age old attraction behavior--we want the people who are unlike ourselves and then when we get them, we get busy and make them become like us.

It was a good "listening" book and I had a male narrator so that was fitting since the protagonist was a male. Are you also "listening" to City of Gods? If so, I will download it too.

I just finished The Bell Jar and have started on Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (another author with multiple books on the list).

Elmsley Rose said...

If I read your synopses of the books, does that mean I've completed the 100 well read book list as well ? *gr*

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