In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a compelling look at the mores of the upper class in 1800’s New York City and particularly how such mores dictate and limit lives, particularly women’s. The story follows upper class Newland Archer, who is torn between his demure and incurious fiancée and the independent and worldly-wise Countess Olenska. Countess Olenska has fled Europe, leaving her brutish husband behind. She comes to New York to establish a new life, including trying to secure a divorce, and her autonomy, tendency to speak frankly, and refusal to comply with empty social niceties enchants Archer, even as he is initially wary of her.
Olenska and Archer’s world is a restricted one. Conversations are superficial and people are expected to abide by myriad social expectations. Women’s behavior is highly regulated, even in such minor matters as refraining from crossing the room at a gathering to speak with others. Olenska defies any attempt to curtail her freedom, speaking as she wishes, going out to any gathering she is interested in, and refusing to return to her husband, even under great social pressure.
Archer is a somewhat naïve romantic who is entranced with his new fiancée. However, as time goes by, he finds himself drawn to Countess Olenska. At first he is somewhat perturbed at Olenska’s flaunting of conventions, but in time he finds himself fascinated by her, and eventually they fall passionately in love. Olenska is a great contrast to his fiancée, whose emotional life he describes thusly: “It was wonderful, such depths of feeling could co-exist with such absence of imagination.”
Wharton sketches her characters with great skill and depth. Countess Olenska is a compelling figure, both independent and fragile. What starts as a character study of a mysterious woman evolves into an in-depth look at an intelligent, passionate woman at odds with a society that is stratified by class expectations. Archer first comes off as a bit foppish, but in his encounters with Olenska, he becomes increasingly critical of his class, and his enchantment with his ingenuous fiancée begins to wane. Initially he is somewhat bewildered by his own actions when it comes to Olenska, sending her lush roses after a only a few social encounters. He finds himself ever more drawn to her, and his traditional views of society start to change as he witnesses a woman who is attempting to live on her own terms.
I found Olenska to be a tragic, charismatic character who is also brave and defiant of her station. She is seen through Archer’s eyes, and as the veils fall he begins his own private rebellion against societal constraints. His passion for Olenska is both transformative and sad, as the forces against both of them are relentless and in Archer’s case, ultimately immovable. Towards of the end of the novel, Archer notes:
It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes,’ except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.