Monday, June 18, 2012

The Age of Innocence, or: Maria Cries Her Eyes Out

I finished reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence while on my lunch break. I sat at the counter of a coney island restaurant in downtown Detroit (quite possibly the least romantic place on the planet to read such a romantic story), and I cried into my plate of uneaten fries, wondering how a novel to which I already knew the ending could evoke such an emotional reaction, and thinking, “Now this – THIS is a prize worthy book.” I’m pretty sure the waitresses thought I was crazy, but because they are sweeties and I eat there often they just brought me some extra napkins and pretended not to notice my blubbering. I left a particularly good tip.

Plenty of books have made me cry, notably Where the Red Fern Grows, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  (If you happen to also have read all three of those and none of them elicited a single tear, I suspect you may be a robot. Or lack tear ducts. Either way, you may not enjoy this book. But I digress.) Where the Red Fern Grows is the first book I can recall having an extreme emotional reaction to. I believe I was eight or nine when I read it. I finished it sitting on my bed, alone in my room, and my mom – undoubtedly curious as to the cause of my little sobs – knocked at the door to see what was the matter. Being an avid reader herself, I’m sure the scene of my bawling over the final pages of an open book was explanation enough, and she just closed the door and let me finish. I wonder if she remembers that?

At any rate, this list of tearjerkers, which now includes Wharton’s winning novel, has a distinct pattern. They are all tragedies in which a noble sacrifice is made by a beloved character (even a canine one, as in Red Fern), and in most cases the sacrifice is the character’s life. Wharton’s hero, Newland Archer, also gives his life – but instead of giving up the beating of his heart, he gives up a woman who makes his heart actually beat. I’m not sure which one is worse.

The start of the story finds young Mr. Archer newly engaged to May Welland, who by all accounts is an excellent for match for him. At least on paper. They come from correspondingly elite families of New York's 1870s high society. They are both very well-bred young people. He is handsome, she is pretty. In selecting her as his future wife he's doing just what a young man of his position ought to do. And, were it not for a certain twist of fate, Newland Archer might have been perfectly happy spending the rest of his days married to May Welland, perhaps occasionally feeling the slight ache one feels when something is missing but the missing thing cannot be named. Perhaps occasionally feeling a pull of boredom from some outward unidentifiable force. Yet mostly happy in the end. As fortune has it - or misfortune? - his oblivion is permanently disrupted by the introduction into his life of Countess Ellen Olenska (oh my!), his future wife's married cousin, who has just returned to New York after escaping a disastrous union to a Polish count.

Naturally, Newland falls passionately in love with Ellen, despite not really being at liberty to, and naturally she reciprocates this passionate affection, despite being even less at liberty to (being a married woman and all). He marries May because he knows both that it is what he should do, and that he cannot have the woman he really wants for a variety of complicated reasons pertaining to duty and honor and family and reputation and a bunch of other malarkey. For two years he struggles with this passion, this glimmer of a more fulfilling life, but he and Ellen never share more than a handful of emotional conversations and two kisses, and when he is just about to wreck it all and convince her to run away with him to Japan it is only learning of his wife's pregnancy that pulls him back to reality, and sends the Countess Olenska off permanently to Paris.

There are many elements of this story that make me sad. Although the Countess Olenska's history is never fully revealed, we are simply left to trust others' interpretations of her situation, she is too kindhearted and loving a person to suffer the terrible fate of an abused, abandoned and lonely woman. Several times it is suggested that had she never married the Count Olenski, she would have made Newland a perfect match. If only! May is portrayed through most of the book as dutiful, demure, and completely unaware of her husband's deepest feelings, which is a type of tragedy all its own; but then at the very end it is revealed that perhaps she knew all along, and in that knowledge she becomes even more tragic. After all, ignorance is bliss. And lastly there is poor Newland himself, who, in settling for a woman he does not truly love, in choosing duty (or as I like to call it, boring sex) over passion (probably really way a lot hotter sex), provides all lovers with a very important lesson. Depending on the type of lover you are, the lesson will be different. And of course it isn't really all about sex, since he and the Countess never consummate their love, but come on. Hot sex > boring sex, every day of the week.

I won't give away the very ending because that's the especially tear-jerking part, and you, dear reader, should definitely read this book. I truly loved it, and really, I'm not surprised by how much I loved it. After all, I have a thing for tragic love stories.

God, I'm so predictable.

Of the three Pulitzer-winners we've read so far, this is the first book that I feel is truly exceptional. Next up is Alice Adams, by our old pal Booth Tarkington.  I have low expectations, and sadly still expect to be let down. Here goes nothing!

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I really want to read this now--loan me your copy? I love getting wrapped up with the characters. And no, I don't remember your emotional reaction to Fern--no way I can remember every event that brought you to tears!! But I totally know how that feels. That might be something you got from me.