Session #19 December 2nd, 2009: The Age of Innocence

* Photo: Edith Wharton, 1915 * License: Public...
Image via Wikipedia

The next session will be on Dec. 2nd from 3:30-5:30. This will be the last meeting of the Informal Reading Group this year.

For this session I’ve chosen 2 pages from a novel by American authoress Edith Wharton, “The Age of Innocence”, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Edith Wharton wrote in a post-Romantic style, the style called Realism. The story and the characters show the tension between Romanticism and Realism.

Edith Wharton on Wikipedia (English)

There seems to be no Japanese Wikipedia entry for her, but perhaps some of you can find a good website in Japanese about her.

“The Age of Innocence” is also the title of a painting by the famous British portrait painter Joshua Reynolds. You can see the painting and read about Reynolds here.

Did this painting influence Wharton? We can discuss this in the session, perhaps.

This website tells the whole story of “Age of Innocence” in a “digested” form (in English, though).

This article writes about “Age of Innocence” and Gustave Flaubert‘s classic “Emma Bovary“, itself a novel about Romanticism.

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12 thoughts on “Session #19 December 2nd, 2009: The Age of Innocence”

  1. When I read the material in this session, I was puzzled by the line, “Polish Count must have robbed her of the fortune as well as of her illusions.” Why Archer said it to himself? This displays something in Archer’s nature of his tendency to be fond of illusion?
    If the tendency lead him to love for Olenska and brought him a life of an actual feature, it’s a little ironical.

    Illusion and dream are different; in some cases they are overlapped somehow.Can I say that dream is resource of Romanticism and illusion is product of reality? A girl of the painting by Josha Reynold, “The Age of Innocence” has faraway eye.

    1. Very interesting comment, fortune cookie. The “Realists” rejected Romanticism because (partly) they felt that it was more important for people to accept reality. (This was perhaps a result of the growing influence of science.) Ayn Rand understood that Romantics are not rejecting or avoiding reality, they want to create a new and better reality, and they are using the power of imagination and inspiration to do that. Perhaps we can say that the Realists said that, in reality, most people’s dreams don’t come true (Rand rejected that: she said, “Maybe YOURS don’t, but MINE DO!”), so it was important not to be deceived by dreams but to know and accept reality.

      However, Realists also understood the sadness and the longing and the desire of the Romantic soul. Archer is a good example. He is a sympathetic character: we can identify with him and understand him and feel sorry for him. He longs for a Romantic (and romantic!) dream, in the shape of Madame Olenska. But he cannot reach his dream. Rand would say he does not reach his dream because he is not determined enough, he is not passionate enough. But I think Wharton’s message is different: she asks many questions, such as “Is Archer’s longing real, or is it only his imagination? Does he love the REAL Madame Olenska, or what he imagines she is? And why does Archer have this longing for Romantic adventure? Is that because of the books he has read (as in Madame Bovary)? Has his education given him false hopes? Is Archer a better man because he gives up his dream? Which is real, the “real” world of other people’s opinions and traditions and prejudices and limited imagination? Or the freedom and liberty and adventure which Archer dreams of?”

      IN other words, the novel shows the tension between Romanticism and Realism.

  2. I saw the DVD of The Age of Innocence. I was chilled by the cruelty of the NY high society in 1870s, where manners and decorums are highly valued and family names are extremely important. On the surface, people are gracious, but underneath there are lots of judgments and hypocrisy. One’s happiness is shattered by someone’s malicious or even careless whisper.

    Archer and Ellen look the victims of that age on a simple level. Archer carries the weight of family pride and the propriety for his fiancee, May. If he left her for another woman, May and their child would be left miserable in the eyes of the society. My sympathy goes to Archer a little, but I see it is Archer who has made himself unhappy, and Ellen who could give him a real life, too. There is a moment when he tries to sacrifice everything for Ellen, but he is stopped by May, not directly but indirectly, and teamed-up people. (May is an interesting character to study.) After all, he gives up the thing he has wanted most, unable to defy conventions decisively.

    As to the meaning of “The Age of Innocence,” Archer, May, Ellen, and NY society look “innocent” in different types and different levels.

    1. Thank you, an innocent woman. An interesting and thougtful comment. I wonder, how has Archer made himself unhappy? And does the author think that Archer is solely responsible? In the French novel, “Madame Bovary”, the author lays (a large?) part of the blame on the “silly” Romantic ideas about love and life which the main character, Madame Bovary, has learned by reading too many Romantic novels. Is “Age of Innocence” a similar novel? Is Archer’s love for Madame Olenska made up of Archer’s own unconsidered, Romantic fantasies? Is he, perhaps, in love with a Romantic fantasy, rather than the real Madame Olenska? Does Madame Olenska know this, and enjoy teasing Archer?
      So many questions, so little time!

      1. I saw “The Age of Innocence” once again while the DVD is still at my hand. I don’t know what kind of books Newland Archer read, as details are skipped in the film. At the beginning, narrator describes “he questions conformity in private, but in public he upholds tradition.” I suppose the book he read has affected the makeup of his personality, or value sense. Newland and Ellen are attracted to each other, because they understand each other. Ellen knows that real loneliness is living among all the kind people who only ask her to pretend. Ellen understands Newland, too.

        I think Newland is in love with real Ellen, but I can’t say for sure from this point; Newland’s love for Ellen grows in comparison to May. Newland thinks Ellen could give him a real life, not the stifling life full of conformity、 and is attracted by her being herself.

        Ellen loves Newland as he is. There is a line “If we act any other way, you’ll act against what I love in you most.” I think Ellen loves him for his caring heart toward people who trust him (of course including Ellen), and his struggling in a kind of cruel society. Ellen has nothing to fear. She is just afraid of scandal for her loved ones.

        So, how Newland has made himself unhappy? It’s a difficult question. I think author doesn’t think Newland is solely responsibl, and neither do I. (I’m sorry to disclose the following.) At the farewell party for Ellen, he realizes May and his whole family planned (or plotted?) the farewell, where he learns for the first time that all the NY people including May have believed Newland to be Ellen’s lover. Only Newland hasn’t known it. Ellen decides to leave for Paris after May has told about her false pregnancy (actually not all false, pregnancy comes true later) to Ellen. In that situation, Newland has no choice. Perhaps his lack of ability to see through the reality of his environment in spite of his upbringing there. Ellen knows that and once said “We must look at reality, not dreams.”

        The same kind of things happened also in Japan. Time has passed, but I wonder whether people remain the same or has changed when we have new knowledge and technology?

        1. Perhaps it is partly because Archer is educated and intelligent that he is trapped. I have read that it is intelligent children who suffer most from the limitations that school imposes. They are intelligent enough to understand what is expected of them, and they try to fulfil those expectations. Like Archer, they struggle in a kind of cruel society.

          It is also ironic that it is Ellen herself, the symbol (to Archer at least) of freedom and romance and personal power, who tells Archer, “We must look at reality, not dreams”.

          One could also say that dreams are what create reality. According to a painter, we are all, on planet Earth, being conditioned or brainwashed into thinking as Ellen tells Archer: accept, don’t create.

          What created the reality we live in now? Is it because people accepted “reality” and not dreams that we can now fly in airplanes around the world, eat fresh strawberries in winter, live in a comfortable temperature all the year round, and carry music with us wherever we go, and can speak to friends and family, even if we are in the middle of the desert?

  3. Flaubert is like Beethoven, in the way of his description of Romanticism using the method of Classicism.
    Despite the immense story, Emma’s many layers of sentiment in “Emma Bovary” are so subjective that make us confirm the reason why decent writers and critics thought that Romanticism took a wrong turning.

  4. [ With fruit the vines that round the thatch- eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage- trees, ] Ode to Autumn by John Keats
    I associated a part of the poem with sublime beauty of the nature and the first sights of the harvest.
    This is Romanticism style which put importance on feeling,imagination and nature.

    On the other hand,
    [The peeling stucco house with a giant wisteria throttling its feeble cast-iron balcony.] by E.Wharton
    I associated this sentence with reality and old ,descend scene. This is Realism style.

    The main character, Archer is very smart, educated,imaginative and wealthy. He has much knowledge and imaginative sense according to the following sentences, ” He put together a phrase out of Dante and Petrarch.” He concluded that Olenska was less simple than she seemed.” ” His reading in anthopology caused him take such coarse view.”

    On the other hand ,also main character, May is innocent about Archer and his feeling.
    ” Southern races communicated with each other in the language of Pantmime.”

    So, this novel was titled ” Age of Innocence ” ?

    We learned about Petrarch in the key words of Poetry worksheet. Sonnet ( Petrarchan & Shakespearean ) a short poem with fourteen lines

    1. ” He put together a phrase out of Dante and Petrarch.”

      So, it is not his own thoughts. He receives his thoughts from the thouhts of others (e.g. Dante and Petrarch, and from his studies of anthropology).

      ” Southern races communicated with each other in the language of Pantomime.”

      This refers to Olenska’s maid who is Italian. Archer seems not to see real people: he only sees his own stereotypes, which perhaps he learned from studying anthropology.

      1. Both sentences express description. What I wanted to say is that I felt much more nature than I imagine in the former and reality in the latter.

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