Over the past two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Although the story takes place in 1870s New York, the criticisms of society’s restrictions are still very relevant today.
Newland Archer’s censure of the hypocrisy, unspoken rules, and shallowness of the world around him make this a timeless novel. Despite the difference of 140 years, the aristocratic forcefulness that Newland deals with is not that different from the peer pressure that plagues high school and the work world today. People’s preoccupation with how others with perceive their actions still causes them to deprive themselves of what they want most in the world, whether it’s a massively caloric slice of birthday cake, sharing their feelings with the man or woman of their dreams, or simply an hour of alone time. It is sad how deeply this notion of sacrificed happiness is ingrained in our world.
However, the romantic attitudes of the characters of The Age of Innocence differ tremendously from those of people today. Newland and Ellen, forever separated from each other by their respective marriages, survive their loveless marriages by relaying on the happiness that they receive simply from being in the same room during a dinner party and by spending time alone every few months. Their ability to use the joy of a few brief encounters to carry on with their unfulfilling lives for months or years at a time is a stark contrast to modern society’s need for instant gratification. Today the idea of living in hopes of a brief encounter seems inconceivable because people want their desires to be fulfilled as soon as humanly possible.
The other remarkable, foreign aspect of Newland and Ellen’s romance is that throughout their two years of mutual temptation, their romance remains almost purely emotional with only two kisses to fulfill their physical yearnings. In today’s world where most rap songs revolve around “getting some” and no movie with a PG 13 rating is complete without a steamy love scene, the willpower and resistance that Newland and Ellen maintain out of their respect for May is admirable. The fact that Newland was willing to “marry one woman because another told him to” truly attests to the rare intensity and sanctity of their love.
Although the movie beautifully brings to life the elegance and luxury of high society New York, the film lacks much of the complexity and emotion that Wharton manages to infuse into the lengthier novel. Director Martin Scorsese dazzles viewers with the opulent lifestyle that the characters in The Age of Innocence lead, but the film conversion of Edith Wharton’s magnificent novel lacks the subtler nuances of society’s unspoken judgements.
I highly recommend that anyone in search of a good book picks up a copy of Edith Wharton’s emotionally trying, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence. Consider watching the dazzling movie afterwards as a supplement to more clearly visualize Newland Archer’s world, but don’t rely solely on the movie to grasp the universersal themes in this incredible love story.