Age of Innocence: Was Wharton Critical of New York in the 1870’s or was she admiring of it

Edith Wharton was brought up in an upper class, socially prominent New York family, where the two most significant aspects of education were modern languages and good manners. She is renowned for her infamous novels exploring matters of rigid mores in aristocratic societies like The Age of Innocence. Choosing Newland Archer as the protagonist of the book, she was able to express her ideas through him and through the voices of other characters. Although the diction throughout the book is very sarcastic and somewhat mocking, due to her experiences in World War I, she started missing her quiet childhood in New York and thus making the characters sound naive and narrow-minded. She was missing the peaceful times when everything wasn’t complicated by the war. She was missing the ‘age of innocence’.

“Centuries and centuries; so long, that I’m sure I’m dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven” (Wharton, p.14)

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One night at the opera, Newland Archer meets his fiance’s first cousin, Countess Olenska, who has recently fled to New York from an unhappy marriage to a Polish count. On their first meeting, she strikes him as being very inappropriate due to her flippant expression of nostalgia and unseemly references to their New York childhood. Living in Europe has isolated Olenska from New York traditions and therefore making her unfamiliar with its customs. However, as opposed to making her feel superior to her old family and friends, she wants to rekindle her relations and respect for the values of the ‘age of innocence’, of her childhood, which seem to her as a salvation from what she has faced and been exposed to in Europe. She would like to cast off her previous life and try become just like everybody else.

Edith Wharton has felt that same nostalgia for her childhood many times. She wrote in her memoirs:

“When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be pored. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an vintage too rare to be savoured by a youthful palate.” (E. Wharton)

It was in this apologetic and nostalgic mood that Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence. After the four long years of World War I, for which she became active in relief work, she found herself wondering if the exhausted and dreary post-war world was worth the sacrifices that it demanded. She discovered herself looking back at the peaceful New York of her childhood that she had once found so pretentious and stultifying and wondered if she had not, in her critical youth, undervalued it.

Edith Wharton had put in a lot of her own voice and personal experiences into Countess Olenska.

“It was you who made me understand that under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison.” (Wharton, p.180)

Countess Olenska and Newland Archer are having lunch and are discussing intimate matters of their relationship. Archer asks Olenska why is it that she will not go back to Europe and she replies that it is because of him, which makes both characters feel slightly uncomfortable.

Although Newland Archer is the main character in the book and most of Wharton’s voice is expressed through him, she still related a lot of her ideas through Olenska, with whom she has a lot of things in common. Both, Olenska and Wharton have been the foreigners, travelling all over Europe and reminiscing about their childhood in New York. Wharton feels that in her childhood, that then seemed so dull, there were many great things that she took for granted and if she knew it then, she would have never underestimated them. The calm and settled life that she lead when she lived in New York doesn’t even compare with that of Europe. Olenska is also, very determined to be accepted into the society that she had once been taken away from, and is committed to becoming a ‘complete’ American.

Wharton tried to tell the reader that it is hopeless to look for heaven on earth, as it doesn’t exist.

“…Where is this country? I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations…and its wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

(Wharton, p.216)

Although both are equally in love, Olenska knows that she cannot build true happiness on the ruined life of May, who is not only married to Archer but also carrying his child. While Archer is distraught about being trapped in a loveless marriage, he still cannot walk out on a pregnant wife and therefore, they both must agree that the renunciation of the relationship is their only solution.

When recalling her childhood years, Wharton remembered being highly critical of the local society and thinking that moving to Europe, she would find some place less prejudiced by pretentious New Yorkers. However, she realized later on in life that New York wasn’t as dull as she had once thought. For Archer and Olenska, the value of renunciation has been taught to them, not, after all, by Europe with all its art and history, but by the same society of New York that they both found so restricted and limited.

In my opinion, Edith Wharton was more admirable of New York in the 1870s than critical. She may have been more critical in her youth and undervalued the innocent and naive ways of life, but after many years of living abroad and experience with the war she realized how good life was in the ‘age of innocence’.