This novel surprised me. I honestly did not know what to expect and kind of took a shot in the dark by choosing this book. This book’s only quality that recommended itself to me was that it was not poetry. And it worked! I enjoyed it a great deal and am glad I chose it as one of my optional choices.
Hands down social commentary and satire – that is what I am going with. I find it interesting that Wikipedia says that Edith Wharton wrote this book as an apology for what apparently was a much harsher book, The House of Mirth. I have not read The House of Mirth, but it must be downright brutal because this book is dripping with irony and sarcasm as it details all of the habits and manners of the New York upper-crust. The book never comes right out and just condemns the social institution. In fact, it just politely describes it. But the descriptions are just so ridiculous and the characters are so catty and petty that there is no way the reader can take the descriptions seriously and think that the narrator is presenting these people as an ideal. And the main character, Newland Archer, is arguably one of the worst ones. He wants to badly escape a marriage that, by the way, he rushed into while his wife wanted to have a long engagement, and he constantly wishes to both be and prove that he is different from those around him. And one means by which he would prove that is if he were to run off with the mysterious yet often controversial Countess Ellen Olenska, even though his current relationship with her has already made him like so many of the men that he (and more than a few others) criticizes. The book is definitely a comment on the “Golden Age” of old New York.
As already mentioned under genre, a prominent theme is the façade of the upper class of the New York society. The book comes just short of making an outright mockery of all of their manners, customs, habits, and values. One such habit that will forever stay in my mind as one of the most humorous moments in literary history is when in a group conversation consisting of both men and women, the upper-elite discuss the proper etiquette for a woman when wearing new clothes. Apparently, in old New York the custom was for a woman to buy the latest fashions in Paris, and then come back home with them only to let them sit in her closet for at least two years before she wore them out. Certain members of the conversation were just absolutely appalled that some had decided to wear their clothes even a year sooner to that. And then there were the ones who, horror of horrors, would wear them immediately. The idea was that a woman was not to appear too ahead of the trends. Another value I found intriguing came up when one of the better families, the Beauforts, had come into financial trouble when the husband is found out to be a fraud. While everyone is unashamedly condemning him and judging him at every turn, they hate to lose his company and his house as he and his wife were like the social directors of the crew. Basically, now that they no longer had their wealth and their standing in society, their “friends” now needed a new place to party.
Another prominent issue in the novel is that of marriage and infidelity. At least two of the elite male characters are known and despised for their reputations of having mistresses while being married (Beaufort being one of them), yet they are still invited to all of the social gatherings. Also, one of the main conflicts in the novel is the subject of Ellen Olenska’s divorce to her husband who is still back in Europe. The popular opinion is that she should go back to him and not seek a divorce, mostly because the scandal would just be too great. The only two people who seem earnest in not having her do it are Newland and the Countess’ grandmother. But Newland is against it only because he wants her for himself, despite the fact the he is also married. The novel goes back and forth with Newland and Ellen professing their love for each other, but then realizing that is cannot be. And right when Newland decides that he will leave his wife (spoiler alert!) it is revealed that Ellen will move back to Europe to live and still obtain a divorce from her husband. Maybe I’m just not that romantic, but I for one am glad they did not end up together. I just cannot root for a man who is married to a perfectly fine wife but wants to run away with her cousin because she is new and exciting and mysterious. It also does not help that he condemns Beaufort for the exact same thing he is attempting to do.
One last thing that comes up periodically throughout the book is the comparisons between New York and London and Paris. Two key observations that stick out: one is that there is no point in people having immigrated to the New World searching for freedom only to make the new country exactly like the old one. The second observation is that people, on both sides, never completely understand the customs of the other. We go to other countries, see how people on the other side of the world do things, and then we go back and tell our friends about it only to get almost everything completely wrong. We don’t intend to really, we just don’t understand as much as we would like to believe we do.
Wharton lived in this world of 19th century East Coast America and saw its dramatic change by the end of World War I…to be fair though, something that big would dramatically change anything. The title is most certainly ironic as none of these people are innocent. Sure, they can pretend to be on the outside quite easily, but it is only hiding the manipulations they are attempting to pull off on the inside. The book could also be called a panorama as it gives a broad view on old New York upper-society in general and all of its intricate operations.
Okay, I have avoided it as much as I possibly could, but next week I must work on some poetry. I will most likely attack Emily Dickinson for next week, and then I’ll move on to Walt Whitman the following week, since they share a spot on the M.A. exam list. Fortunately, Dickinson’s poems are incredibly short…but that doesn’t mean I’ll understand them any better.