Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is a story of Old New York manners and traditions. Newland Archer, having just announced his engagement to young May Welland, falls hard for her cousin, the enigmatic Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen's appearance in New York society is shocking. She has left her blackguard of a husband in Europe to return her own family. If Ellen expects open arms, she's in for a rude awakening. Newland himself must choose between family duty and true love. Just how will this all turn out?
As always, Wharton writes about people in a pickle. Always they seem to have extraordinarily bad timing. Always they get in the way of their own happiness. The Age of Innocence belongs to a time when societal obligation invariably supersedes personal fulfillment. At times, the novel was a satire; the traditions of the upper crust verged on ridiculous. Most of the time, I found it painful to read of the unwritten rules that couldn't be broken. The most frustrating of all was how no one ever spoke of anything 'unpleasant'. Maybe if they had, they would have had a better understanding of one another and more compassion.
Although Newland is the protagonist of the story, I found him to be the weakest character. As a man, he had more options than a woman in his place would have. Instead, he caves into the expectations of the family. He gets played, by just about everyone, but especially the women.
Women didn't have any political or financial power but they ruled Society. An invitation to the right party could make or break you. Ellen's grandmother fights hard to have her accepted, but Ellen is not really one of them. She sees the rules of Society as something not too be taken too seriously. They amuse her more than anything. After a short time, the family gets tired of Ellen. The more Ellen tries to free herself from her old life, the more her family tries to push her back in.
May is a character who is not what she seems. She appears to be all innocence, someone Newland can mould into the perfect wife. He finds that it's not that easy. May has learned the rules and manners necessary to get what she wants. He has briefs moments of realization that he's just a puppet, but it's short lived.
I'm not sure how I feel about The Age of Innocence. The writing is beautiful, of course, but I found it hard to relate to any of the characters. I sometimes felt sorry for Newland but most often found him arrogant and weak. The women were interesting but I could never figure out how they really felt about anything. In the end, I would recommend The Age of Innocence for it's view of Old New York Society and the terrific writing.