The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I got into this book, I completely devoured it. While typically I shy from romance, I found myself entranced by Newland Archer’s secret love for Countess Ellen Olenska. Wharton masterfully represents the constraints society imposed on its members, and the slavish, blind devotion so many of them had to maintaining those standards. Their willingness to accept and keep male adulterers in their glittering circles, thrown against their rejection of the countess for escaping a monster of a husband, illuminates the separate standards held up as acceptable behavior for men and women. It did my heart good to hear Newland proclaiming that “women ought to be free, as free as we are,” even if his generosity of spirit mainly stems from his love of the Countess. Few people come out of this novel looking good. It was equal parts amusing and disturbing to watch the characters in the story completely reverse their attitudes and behavior towards Ellen after Newland persuades a few of the wealthiest families to accept her into their circles. Their thoughtless rejection of her at the beginning is only slightly more reprehensible than their mindless acceptance of her a few chapters later. Decisions are rarely made after rational thought. Why think? The only acceptable behavior is exactly what everyone else is doing. Someone is constantly bemoaning the collapse of society or quivering in horror over a new trend in acceptable social behavior, an attitude not unlike the one we frequently see today. It’s rarely accompanied by an articulate explanation of just how these new attitudes are ruining humanity, or why keeping these arbitrary barriers in place is so vital to the survival of mankind. Nearly 100 years after it was first published, The Age of Innocence is as relevant as when Wharton first wrote it. I wonder what she would say to us today?

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