The Age of Uninnocence

by dhaaruni

One of my favorite books of all time is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Interesting fact: I wasn’t sure if Wharton was a man or a woman for the longest time and I still don’t know at the time I’m writing this and can’t be bothered to look it up. But I saw this post on Tumblr about how the woman of color is often the love interest who understands the protagonist better, but who’s openly morally ambiguous and presented as the “wrong choice” and often ends up dying. In other words, Marvel’s Daredevil, with Elektra Natchios and Karen Page. I got to thinking about women who are always the wrong choice, who don’t get the guy, and I settled on Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1993 film.

But Ellen Olenska is someone to write home about. She isn’t described as beautiful but attractive in the way one can’t help but care about her, a divorcee in a time when divorce was entirely unacceptable for a woman, and in my opinion, one of the most memorable characters in English literature. Alana Massey wrote about what it’s like to be a Winona in a world made for Gwyneths and Ellen is the Winona in question while May, Archer’s fiancé, is the Gwyneth. But as Massey realizes, life isn’t exactly easier if you’re a Gwyneth but merely different. I’m not a Winona or a Gwyneth because I encompass ideals from both sides of the debate, I’m a Dhaaruni, but if I had to choose, I guess I’d be a Winona, dark haired and lissome, and entirely the wrong choice, or so it seems.

I don’t regard myself as particularly a bad choice romantically, but I feel that in the past, I’ve often been regarded as such. “I’m the girl you’ll die for/She’s the girl who’ll die for you” in the terms of both Marina Diamandis and Dhaaruni Sreenivas. I mean let’s be real, I’m an Ivy League educated, etiquette class attending rich girl with long pretty hair and flowy tops and bright pink nails. Not really a dangerous choice. But there’s something to me that drives people away and I’m well aware of it. I’m sharp in more ways than one and well aware of it, slightly too thin for it to be natural, and inclined to lash out when I’m hurt, all qualities that aren’t ideal in a good wife. My friend Ben used to say that as men grew up, I’d become more and more attractive as a partner because of what I had to offer to them, a real brain and a wholly empathetic persona but I’m still waiting for that day. I used be wholly stressed out that I wasn’t girlfriend material despite spending far too much of my life as a girlfriend, but I’ve grown to not embrace it exactly but come to terms with it. I’m a person like no other and I’m okay with who I’ve grown up to be, good wife or not.

Society is an important subject in The Age of Innocence. I’m not entirely society obsessed because I’ve never been good at fitting into it but it’s always fascinating to me. Wharton writes,

“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 […] quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents’ tent.”

In other words, Wharton attempts to take an anthropological outlook on New York society. It’s so incisive and insidious, and feels impossible to escape because of its power but Archer almost does it for his love for Ellen. Gossip Girl takes on The Age of Innocence in the form of a school play in Season 2, and it’s entirely apt. The modern adaptation of being constantly watched by an unseen force, unable to escape society’s pull and ultimately, the choosing of love over what’s dictated. That’s what makes Gossip Girl work at least to a point, the unconditional love between Blair and Serena especially but also between Chuck and Nate, and the prioritization of each other over what society expects of them. Anne Boleyn chose love and got her head chopped off for it and her daughter Elizabeth I remained unmarried for her country but Blair Waldorf chooses love again and again, and survives for it because she’s stronger than what is expected of her. I mean, it’s not a perfect metaphor because Dan Humphrey is no Newland Archer but the point remains sound.

The love in the novel is real though, especially between Archer and Ellen but it’s eternally destined to fail because of the time and place where they live. “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?” But I was asking the entire time, why not? I cried while reading The Age of Innocence because it made no sense to me when I was 16 why they couldn’t just be together. I’m older now and wiser, I get it but it doesn’t make me any less disappointed. It’s entirely romantic to me, that they can’t be together and Wharton writes better love scenes involving a kiss on the wrist than any romance novel writer with sex and hands everywhere galore. “I swear I only want to hear about you, to know what you’ve been doing. It’s a hundred years since we’ve met-it may be another hundred before we meet again.” I mean, I can’t imagine loving somebody that much, or well, I can but pretend I can’t because it hurts too much to think about it. Either way, I think that it’s a perfect novel to read as a couple if only to give thanks that in this modern age, we’re not constrained by society in that manner, or are we still?

We live in a society that prioritizes male preferences over female needs and that won’t change for a long time. I mean, one day love may prevail but on the whole, I don’t have faith in it. I will take on the position society has dictated for me and so will they, the men that I have the misfortune to fall in love with and that’s just the way things go. But sometimes, I hope, I pray, I anticipate that there could be more to it all but I don’t really have faith in it, at least not anymore. I’ll keep you posted though.