I suppose The Age of Innocence has a nicer ring to it than The Age of Social Constipation. This novel is a 200-page social anthropology of Old New York, a chronicle of “the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease,” so if masturbatory dithering about individual desires versus tribal norms is your thing, maybe this book deserves a place in the canon. I read this while trapped in the middle seat of an airplane, which was very thematically appropriate, and if I ever yearn for that middle-seat feeling, I know I can always reach for this book.
Set in 1870 or so, the story centers on Newland Archer, a young man who has all the privileges and burdens of belonging to one of the best families in New York society. Newland is such a bore that it took several chapters before I processed that he is, in fact, the main character.
Or is he? The book opens when Ellen Olenska causes a stir by appearing in public, and Ellen is the breath of fresh air that threatens to awaken Newland. And then there’s his betrothed, the fresh and innocent May Welland, whom Newland continually underestimates. The book is really about these two women, both of whom are very interesting, but we only see them through Newland’s eyes, and Newland only thinks he’s a keen observer of human nature.
I can see what the conflicts and great thoughts are supposed to be (the pointlessness of Newland’s restraint when it turns out that everyone thinks Newland has been having an affair all along; all the people who thumb their noses at the rules and are totally invited to parties; May Welland as a skillful player and courageous person who achieves the life she wants while following the rules to a T), and Wharton’s text is peppered with goodies such as “fierce spinsters who said ‘No’ on principle before they knew what they were going to be asked” and random quotables such as “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.” On the whole, however, it’s (intentionally?) airless and the cast of characters is rather hard to keep straight. I can track the families and cousinships in Gone With the Wind and A Game of Thrones, so I blame Wharton for writing characters who read as White Man #15 and Rich Matriarch #2 I tried to grade on a curve since it’s an older book, but upon fact-checking it turns out that this was published in 1920, so there’s no excuse for its lack of narrative pull.
In conclusion, I can see why the Scarlet Letter-toting set might like this book, but frankly I don’t give a damn. On these themes, I’d throw this out of the canon and replace it with The Outsiders.