Whenever the subject of Newland Archer comes up, all 17 of my brothers simultaneously look down, shake their heads and mutter "poor bastard." That pretty much sums things up. Newland Archer is a poor bastard. He is, as many of you are, torn between his affections for two different women. To complicate matters the two women are cousins, members of a very well to do and influential New York family. May Welland is a young, respectable (i.e. a virgin), beautiful girl. Her every move reeks of compassion and innocence and it is only as the novel progresses that we begin to see how cold and calculating she is and lose all sense of pity for her. Her rival is the Countess Olenska, less young, less fresh (i.e. a strumpet), less beautiful woman. She is ruled by her passions and her independence and steadily gains our respect as the novel progresses. Unfortunately, Newland Archer is a tool and chooses May.
The novel opens at the opera, where Newland gets his first glance (since childhood) of Ellen Olenska. She has returned from Europe in disgrace. A failed marriage, a possible - no, probable - affair with the man who helped her escape her unhappy condition. She has lost much of her money, she lives in an unfashionable section of the city and she - gasp - is dressed inappropriately for the occasion. Later, she is held in contempt for visiting social climbers and other disgraced people, because she enjoys their society. Her family initially rallies around her but soon deserts her because she can not follow the rules of proper society. And, darn her, she just will NOT return to her husband so that they can forget about her.
Soon after this moment, Newland announces his engagement to May so that the Countess may have the support and protection of the Archers as well as May's family. He is continually thrown against the Countess and soon he begins to like it. She is everything that May, apparently, is not. She has traveled, is well read, and has had thoughts and feelings of her very own. While May strikes Archer as a blank page that he will get to fill in, the Countess is an equal and therefore interesting. When sparks start to warm his desire, he marries May. Poor bastard.
I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn't read it. Let's just say that May isn't the innocent flower that she appears. Oh, yeah, she's a virgin but she's no pushover. She has a steel core and will tolerate no one messing with her perfect world, including her about-to-stray husband and her hussy cousin. May needs a good spanking but no one's man enough to hold her down. Especially her husband.
One of my favorite images from the book is captured on this edition's cover. (This is not the edition I read though. Mine had a crappy movie cover that completely missed the point of everything) May Archer, nee Welland, is frequently compared to the goddess Diana - virginal, athletic, with classic beauty and aloofness. You will remember that Diana was the archer in mythology, goddess of the hunt. A perpetual virgin, Diana killed any man who attempted to sully her in any way. She showed no mercy and no heart. This is also a perfect description of young May Archer and is underlined by her triumph at an archery contest which occurs half way through the novel. Diana is also, for some reason that I don't understand, the goddess of childbirth and this also reflects in May's character.
After reading The Age of Innocence, I want to know more about Edith Wharton's life. I'm intrigued by the fact that she also had an unhappy marriage and ended up leaving her husband. But, alas, this is all I know. Perhaps Steve or Sam could bring another layer of understanding of the book for me. Especially since my reading will definately include more of Edith Wharton's books. Soon, I hope.