Halfway through The Age of Innocence, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton that chronicles the life of Newland Archer and New York’s upper class in the 1870s, I had categorized it solely with the other texts I have read and watched recently that revolve in one way or another around infidelity, which I have no patience for. It does, but among other things, like the shallow social society of old New York. But no matter. Inconsequential of the ending (which was a huge surprise to me), it addresses two of my biggest frustrations.
One, believing that the beauty and adventure is meant for someone else in a different place or time or circumstances:
“…we could sail at the end of April. I know I could arrange it at the office.”
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life.
“Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions.”
“But why should they be only descriptions? Why shouldn’t we make them real?”
The beginning of winter weather is the best time, for me, to remember that a stagnant life is not really life at all. Admittedly, it is ridiculously easy for me to declare the weather as the number one justification for reading a book by my window and not venturing out. Ever. Well, until April, at least. The tea kettle is 30 yards away; what more could I need? But. I read passages like those and everything in me wants to scream at May to jump in the boat before it’s too late.
Two, living in the safety of a life prescribed. Newland’s society is filled with hypocrisy and nonsensical tradition. He senses this and understands its ridiculousness, yet very much struggles to live outside of it–of course, at a certain point in the book comes the complex moral struggle of duty and passion (a common theme is this year’s texts, as I’ve noted) becomes the forefront of the plot:
“You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It’s beyond human enduring–that’s all.”
I don’t understand why people–and these stupid fictional characters (!)–don’t choose the poetry and adventure *before* they have made commitments. Apparently, that is not the kind of drama that readers/viewers are looking for–not in 1920 when this book was published, and clearly not now. Curses. Anyway. Wharton describes what happens when one ultimately chooses the safe and the prescribed over all else:
“Outside it, in the scenes of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent minded man goes on bumping into furniture in his own room. Absent–that was what he was.”
Without the search for truth and beauty, poetry and adventure, one’s reality fades into the imaginary–and the life one is living becomes increasingly incapable of sustaining life that is truly Life–for it is now only a shadow.
Absentia is a heartbreaking existence.