Rethinking The Age of Innocence

I finally got around to watching the movie representation of the classic novel, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. First I must say that I was very impressed and pleased by how faithful the screenplay was to the original text. Nothing seemed to be overlooked or left out. There was little to no deviation from the text’s plot. There was even a helpful narration from time to time to fill in anything that couldn’t be directly expressed in the scenes. That being said, the movie or perhaps just experiencing the story a second time, allowed me to gain new insight, understanding, and perspective.

When I first wrote about this book and its effect on me many months ago, I feel I was only taking things at face value. I was devastated at the tragedy as it unfolded before me. I saw a man and woman that loved one another, were perfectly suited for one another in fact, being kept apart by life’s trivialities and the judgement of others. I saw a sad husband and wife living a lie in silence while true love withered just beyond reach. Now I’m not so certain in my initial perception.

I think perhaps one of the unspoken messages of this book was that an inner fantasy is always better and more perfect than anything in real life could ever be. I think this is the reason why Archer walked away at the end rather than go meet Madam Olenska when finally, they could have been together. It’s truly bizarre how the span of only a few months could completely change the impression this story left on me. Now instead of being baffled and angered by Archer’s final decision, a part of me understands and feels sympathy for it. It wasn’t merely that he didn’t really love Olenska, nor that he was a coward, unwilling to take that love when it was finally held before him.

Now I see Archer as a young man, believing in that idealized love, that perfect relationship, growing slowly older and wiser throughout the course of his married and family life with May. In the end, it was worth more to him to sacrifice what would most likely be a disappointing manifestation of a youthful ideal in order to keep the perfect memory he already possessed just as it was, pristine yet unobtainable. The love he shared with Olenska, sadly could never have been realized, even if they had run away together. I think Archer, after all his years, finally understood this. Perhaps Madam Olenska, in her wise, worldly way always had. She hoped against all hope, but somehow because of her life experience, was never quite as naive as Archer in believing the life in which they would be happy together could ever truly exist.

I sincerely hope that I too will outgrow this naive image of a perfect, fated love in order to more fully enjoy and appreciate the real love in my life. And perhaps even learn to enjoy that pang of regret and curiosity for what could have been when it strikes my heart, knowing that the memories I hold, the future I imagined, will always be more lovely than the reality would have been.

Why I Love 'The Age of Innocence' | by Mel Campbell | The Look | Medium

Perspectives on The Age of Innocence

I love to read classic books, especially ones written by female authors. I just recently finished reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This book was, not surprisingly, absolutely heart-wrenching like many other classic novels. It seems like none of the great works of literature ever seem to have a happy ending. Yet somehow that makes them all the more poignant and real. It allows you to empathize and relate to the characters in a powerful, emotional way. When you read a good book, it almost feels like you’re making new friends. Which makes it all the more painful when things don’t turn out as you had hoped for them.

This particular book struck me in a way that a book hasn’t in a long time. I was so moved by this great work of literature that I just had to write about my thoughts. So here is your official spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read it. While I found this book simply heart-breaking, I understand that not everyone may see it the same way. I found myself swaying back and forth between a couple different perspectives.

To me, this book was a tragedy. I desperately hoped that somehow, against all odds, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska would be together in the end. At the same time, I found myself feeling sorry for Archer’s wife, May. She was not the wicked woman some books may have written her as. She was a perfectly lovely, respectable woman that certainly didn’t deserve to be abandoned by Archer as I, nevertheless, hoped would happen. And in the end she isn’t. Although it could be argued that his love alone for another woman was a betrayal. Still, he remains faithful to her and their family until the end of May’s life.

Some may think this book did have a happy ending. Instead of cheating or leaving his wife, Archer did the “right” thing. He stayed. He did what society expected of him. He honored his commitments. But at what cost? He really had no good options. Either he abandoned his family and his wife to pursue passionate love, or he sacrificed that love for the sake of others and to live his life as a sham. In the end he chose the latter, and honestly, I’m not sure if that was the right decision or not. I can’t say what I would have chosen, myself. Perhaps his love for Ellen was only so passionate because it was forbidden and out of reach. Maybe if he had thrown everything away for her he would have found only disappointment and resentment rather than true love.

The most upsetting part of the story for me was that I saw my own life within it. It sounds wretched and narcissistic to say it out loud, but I saw myself as Ellen and my ex boyfriend as Archer. (Perhaps in a desperate attempt to console myself for not being the one he chose in the end.) My ex chose to stay with his new girlfriend, as I see it, primarily because they had an accidental child together. Even though he had expressed to me just how much less compatible they are than he and I were. Luckily for me, I’ve found someone else to love and be with. I’m not sure if Ellen ever did. However, my heart broke for Archer as it does now and then for my ex. What a wasted life. What a sad, phony existence, to have sacrificed such a love. I foresee him as an old man some day, filled with regrets and “what ifs.” Then again, who am I to say. Perhaps we are both better off this way.

The Age of Innocence | Book by Edith Wharton, Colm Toibin | Official  Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster