Monday, January 19, 2015

Book 61-The Age of Innocence (96th Book)

The Age of Innocence is the 61st book of my Novel 100  challenge and the first book I read for the challenge in 2015. I found this book easy to read, but lacking in interest. The story flowed well and the characters were interesting, but I wasn't wowed by the book. I was, however, quite interested in the theme which was a retrospective on New York in the 1870s.

The Age of Innocence details the lives of Newland Archer, May Welland and May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Newland is engaged to be married to May when her much more unpredictable cousin Ellen appears on the scene. Newland has started to have unconventional views about the social mores of New York Society and he finds these mirrored in Ellen's thoughts and lifestyle.  Here are a few of the things that he thought: "Women ought to be free-as free as we are." and "marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted sea." Although May is everything society would want for him, he is attracted to Ellen for her unpredictable nature. The affair is never to be carried out however, and the novel follows Newland as he grapples with his own beliefs and the society that would hold him back.

I found this novel very intriguing because it is about unconsummated love. I was reminded of a paper I wrote in university on courtly love in the middle ages. Courtship amongst knights and ladies of the time was seen to be at it's highest ideal if it was never consummated. Knights would fight wars and win battles in the name of their chosen lady, but their feelings were supposedly devoid of physical desire. Some of the knights had never even met their chosen lady and only corresponded with them through letters. This novel follows along those lines because even after May dies and Countess Olenska's estranged husband has passed away Newland prefers to hold on to the ideal of his attraction for Ellen rather than the consummation of it. "I can't love you unless I give you up." The novel closes as Newland sits on a park bench outside of Ellen's house while his son goes in to dinner  with her.  He slowly walks away as a servant comes out to close the blinds.

According to Daniel S. Burt in The Novel 100 readers of Edith Wharton's time did not pick up on the ironic nature of the novel and were convinced that Newland did the right thing in conforming to society's views and marrying May. It is clear as a modern reader that Wharton meant for the novel to be a scathing and ironic depiction of New York in 1870. It is interesting how novels are seen as time goes on. This was one of those rare novels that did well in it's own time and continues to do well today.  Although it has lost some of its meaning as time has gone on it is still represented as a classic novel.

I am little nervous about book 62, "The Good Soldier" since I am not a fan of war. The thing I like about this challenge is it is forcing me to read things I would never have picked up.

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