Like an image made of snow

Dear Edith,

In The Age of Innocence (1920), you manage to do, on the level of writing, the same thing you set out to do on the level of content: you create a polished surface behind which we – like your protagonist Newland Archer – slowly come to find a violent, perverse undercurrent.

We are somewhere in the 1870s in New York City. Newland Archer, an upper-class lawyer, is anticipating his marriage with the innocent and sheltered May Welland. But, when his fiancée’s exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, comes back from Europe, Newland is thrown into a turmoil of passion and doubt.

Olenska is everything that May could never be. Sophisticated, worldly, authentic – and tainted with the rumours of a scandal: she fled from Europe after running away from her husband in the company of another man.

Through his growing obsession with Olenska, Newland begins to question the values on which he had been raised: inasmuch as he sees May as the perfect product of the mores of 1870’s New York society, he starts to reject her and the rules she represents; and, inasmuch as he sees Olenska as the mysterious and alluring world beyond New York, he feels increasingly attracted to her.

And so do your readers: Olenska is free-thinker, a dissenter, and a force of nature – like Newland, we are drawn to her by the constant tension she manages to create and to keep between her strong, forceful individuality and the demands of the society she lives in. She fascinates us by seeming to be constantly on the brink of bending the expectations of upper-class New York City to her wishes.

And she fascinates us even more by her deeply personal sense of morality. Like a 19th-century American Antigone, she isn’t afraid of breaking a social duty and of compromising her reputation, in the cases where obeying the social duty for the sake of appearances would correspond to breaking a more personal, deeper moral duty: although her family, terrified of scandal, forces her to reconcile with her abusive and adulterous husband, Olenska is determined to retain her independence.

One possible reading of the story is to see her as Newland’s moral compass: she opens Newland’s eyes for New York’s shallowness and hypocrisy, and for its underlying lack of true morality; she rejects to submit to what she doesn’t believe to be right, even when, for the rest of her family, the social duties would have taken precedence over the moral ones, for the sake of convenience; and she prompts Newland never to compromise his sense of moral duty, even when this means to sacrifice the thing he most wants.

According to such reading, which was also the one adopted by Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation, Olenska is the sacrificial lamb offered in the altar of Old New York society’s artifice and propriety – and The Age of Innocence is then just another story of love thwarted by a rigid society where true emotions are stifled for the sake of superficial, senseless rules. If we follow this reading, we are led to conclude that Olenska and Newland cannot find a place for their love in 1870’s New York society, so that the only place for it would be in his memories: “It’s more real to me here than if I went up”.

My trouble with this reading, however, is the fact that it seems to be too innocent a reading of your Age of Innocence. It is too straightforward for a novel so full of nuance, full of unsaid, half-known truths. Instead, we have to remember that the story is told from Newland’s perspective – and it may be not entirely reliable.

It’s from his eyes that we see May – first, as the innocent fiancée, the perfect embodiment of his society’s mores, the blank slate, the perfectly pliable wife-student whom he was longing to shape to his taste; then, we see May as the shallow, uninteresting woman society requires her to be, a woman that seems to be forever preventing him to reach out to the larger world Olenska represents; finally, we see May as a jealous, embittered wife and a treacherous conspirator, capable of everything to retain her husband.

The trouble with May, however, is in the eye of the beholder: can we really see her? Or are we stuck in the eyes of a man who never really goes beyond of himself, his moods, and, more notably, his conveniences? At the end of the book, we get a sense that, much like Newland, we have been mistaken about May all along. She did not lack about Newland the nuance he clearly lacked about her, by seeing her always either in black or white.

Maybe she was neither an innocent victim nor a treacherous executioner, but simply a woman trying to cope with the confining limits of what was allowed to her, burying her feelings under a series of formalities, trying to exert some form of authority over her own life while appearing never to question authority itself, and trying to maintain the illusions demanded of her (the illusion of innocence, the illusion of a happy marriage), so as to find some form of freedom in-between the heavy walls of rules, limits, and formalities. “She never asked me.” Maybe, like Newland, we have been wrong about May all along.

If we step from his eyes for a second, we can see that he is no romantic rebel, but a product of his age, through and through. And, more importantly, our Olenska is no sacrificial lamb either. Rather than a romantic heroine willing to live in a limbo so as to maintain their love intact from a distance, she may well have been just another woman trying to cope with confining limits, and playing a game of seduction as her only means of securing some form independence: rather than degraded to the condition of a mistress, or forced to go back to her husband, Olenska chooses a third path. Rather than having sacrificed love for the sake society, she may simply have done it for the sake of independence.

Neither mistress, nor wife: Olenska rejects all the female roles presented to her by New York society – and, in doing so, she is more than ever our Olenska, the woman who persistently defies convention. Aware than she is seen as a threat to May’s marriage, Ellen may be trying to navigate this situation to her own advantage, so as to convince her wealthy grandmother to provide her with money to live an independent life in Paris, away both from the restrictions of her family in New York and from the restrictions of her married life with her husband. “If I return to Europe I must live by myself”, she says to her grandmother, in what almost sounds like a business negation. Neither Newland, nor her husband – she chooses herself.

It’s more real to me here than if I went up”: rather than in his memory, Newland’s idea of their love may well have existed only in his imagination – like the romance he saw on the opera stage. To what extent has Olenska played with his false sense of himself, his aspirations, his illusions, and his imagination? To what extent such illusions have been shaped by his time and his society? To what extent has Olenka acted the right balance between a seductive and vulnerable opera heroine? To what extent the Ellen that is presented to us is a projection of Archer’s imagination, his longings, and everything into which he had been shaped by the society he lived in? To what extent has Ellen played with all of this?

Newland is so intensely a tame and naïve product of his society, that he is not only incapable of making any sacrifices for freedom, but also he takes freedom itself for granted. Once we dare to step outside Newland’s false moralism and outside his distorted sense of self-importance, our Olenska only grows in nuance and complexity. Who is the lamb of whom?

But, if it is certain that Newland is trapped by the society he lives in, so are May and Olenska. And the fact that Newland only perceives the extent of his entrapment in the very end may simply be the expression of the fact that, differently from the women of his time (to whom limits would have been like a second nature), as a man, he simply was not used to thinking of his existence as limited – until he had to learn this the hard way.

And this is the fundamental nuance (and the brilliant social critique), that Scorsese has missed in his reading of your book. Not only his adaptation relies too heavily on your text, through the use of an over intrusive voiceover narration, but also, under the appearance of faithfully following your story, he has completely missed your point.

Despite looking like a collage of cinematic techniques, the film never manages to achieve true aesthetic independence from the book. Scorsese frequently uses iris shots to draw the audience’s eye; dissolves images into colours, to denote emotion; rises in on Newland and Olenska together, dropping out the sound so that we have the impression that nothing exists for them but each other. But, try as he may, your text is always coming first.

In some scenes, the book even manages to seem more cinematic than the film. Take the scene where Newland discovers that May is not as innocent as she seemed, for example: in the book, you manage to subtly convey his surprise and disgust at her by the image of May leaving his library with “her torn and muddy wedding-dress dragging after her across the room” – a dress as torn and stained as the illusion of her innocence was to him; in the film, the same scene happens, but, unless one has read the book, the image of the bridal dress (and what it signifies) is entirely lost to the audience.

Scorsese once described The Age of Innocence as one of his most violent films: “What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language in the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didn’t have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don’t know which is preferable.” (Source)

To me, the film never really manages to convey violence and ruthlessness to the same degree we find in your book. While you infuse your writing with an undercurrent of dread and perversity, Scorsese immerses us in a lavish setting that exchanges the sense of perversity for a feeling of superficiality and claustrophobia – and this is a feeling we already get from the opening of the film, with hothouse flowers ripening in stop motion, as in a stifling, suffocating atmosphere.

There is one scene, however, where the film achieves some cinematic independence from the written words, and finally comes into itself: at the end, in Paris, Newland is looking up at Ellen’s window as it is being closed; then, as the window catches the sun, the image blends with that of a previous scene, where he was still young, watching Olenska from a distance, by a lighthouse. The blending of these scenes conveys an interpretation of Newland’s choice in Paris as a parallel to Ellen’s behaviour in the pier many years before.

The book does not really suggest that parallel, but this is a moment when Scorsese finally takes a leap and comes into himself: for once, he uses his genius for cinema to convey a meaning that goes beyond the written word. We get a feeling that Newland wished Ellen to have turned towards him that day long ago, and perhaps also again in the present, in Paris; Scorsese makes us share Newland’s feeling that everything would have been different, had she chosen to turn to him; and, finally, we have a feeling that the movie we have been watching is the one going on inside Archer’s head, as he looks up to Ellen’s window, musing on what was and what should have been, in search of lost time. This scene is the small but undeniable gift of genius Scorsese brings to your masterpiece.

Let’s come back to the book now. What are we to make of the innocence in the title? It’s certainly ironic that the Age in the book is one of feigned innocence, where, under a thin layer of polite behaviour, we find endless machinations, hypocrisy, dirty lies, and a brutal conspiracy. But it is also a poignant title, because it gives us a sense of an Age already gone, and of Innocence forever lost. This somewhat devilish combination of perversity and longing, and of satire and melancholy, is the touch of brilliance we find in your book (and one that the film is, for the most part, missing).

Yours is a novel of innocence lost, and the loss is mostly Newland’s. In the end, it’s not so much the illusion of love that Newland loses, but rather his false sense of himself and of the people around him: his own double standards (in dealing with Olenska and May); his hypocrisy (in wanting May not to be innocent and then showing disgust at discovering she was not); his infatuation with two sides of himself (the side that wanted to be praised by marrying May and the one that wanted to escape from established norms by having an affair with Olenska); in short, his naiveté in thinking he was an exception to the social codes of his time.

Much more than a book about lost love, yours is a book about the loss of “the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience” – yes, you are ruthless and cruel to your Newland; but, in exchange for his innocence (and ours), you offer him (and your readers) an unsuspected pearl: the gift of knowledge.

Yours truly,

J.


The Fair Toxophilites, by Spencer Gore, 1872

“’Nice’ women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern. But here he was pledged to defend, on the part of his betrothed’s cousin, conduct that, on his own wife’s part, would justify him in calling down on her all the thunders of Church and State.” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

*

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends’ marriages – the supposedly happy ones – and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgement, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

*

“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, The Age of Innocence

*

“And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.” ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence


About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 1996, 304 p. Goodreads
  • The novel was initially serialized in 1920 in four parts, in the magazine Pictorial Review, and then released as a book later that year.
  • The book takes its title from the painting A Little Girl by Joshua Reynolds (1785)
  • The novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • My rating: 5 stars

6 thoughts on “Like an image made of snow

  1. I think that all of Wharton’s books, at their core, have the same theme of the violence that society’s inexplicable and fundamentally meaningless rules and roles do to the decent people who must live with them. Whether the character follows the rules, or casts off the rules, her characters of character are all ultimately doomed. It’s the ones who completely lack any sense of decency – such as Undine Spragg – who seem to thrive. Although, I suppose, those people are in a different sort of prison, right?

    Liked by 1 person

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