It is no coincidence that Edith Wharton opens her novel The Age of Innocence on the stage of the Academy of Music in NYC with the opera singer Christine Nilsson appearing in a scene from Faust. Wharton juxtaposes this scene containing the actors and the set of Faust with the milieu that makes up the lives of her featured New Yorkers, creating an awareness in the reader of the performative quality of New York society in the late 1800’s. New York society implicates itself into the act of performance by creating alter stages where they perform their own constructed vision of reality.
The curtain “had just gone up on the garden scene” and Newland Archer “could not have entered at a more significant moment.” Wharton reminds us of the design of Restoration Theatre houses where off-stage stage action is as dramatic to the audience as the actions performed on-stage. The construction and relationship of stage and seating in this space is perfectly conducive to both dramas being played out. The construction of theatre space presents Newland with a line of “double” vision: “Directly facing him was the box of the old Mrs. Manson Mingott” where May Welland sits within his view. Newland’s gaze simultaneously takes in the action on stage as well as the action off stage as he gazes on the Mingott box. Actress and young girl are connected through Wharton’s descriptions. Madame Nillson, with her “”large yellow braids” is echoed by May with “her fair braids.” During the moment of attempted stage seduction when Nillson has “downcast eyes,” May also “dropped her eyes,” echoing the actress once again. Madame Nillson appears “pure and true as his artless victim” and Newland notes as he watches May watch the scene, that “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about,” tying the actress and young woman together as innocents. While the actress is acting the part of an innocent, May is a created innocent, part of a “circle of ladies who were the product of the system” who memorize lines given to them. New York society life is showcased to be of theatrical importance with high stakes.
Newland notes that, “No expense had been spared on the setting.” The set is described by him as “covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses...” It was “this enchanted garden.” The fantasy-like quality of the set underscores his fantasizing about his honeymoon with May where “We’ll read Faust together.” He realizes that he is “confusing the scene” with the literature he is now seeing enacted.
The movement from the theatre to private home is almost seamless and underscored by Mrs. Beaufort attending the performance despite the fact that, minutes later, she and her husband will be hosting a ballroom party. She slips out of her box just before the performance ends, “she rose at the end of the third act, drew her opera-cloak about her lovely shoulders, and disappeared, New York knew knew that meant that half an hour later the ball would begin.”
The Beaufort house is similarly described in theatre set terms as “a vista of enfiladed drawing rooms (the sea-green, the crimson, and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lusters reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of the conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.” Like the set of Faust, the color green dominates and the garden replicating decor is noted. The candles echo the stage lights.
Flowers tie the Academy of Music stage, the actress, the Beaufort house and the young women of New York society together. On the theatre set, “falling daisy petals” punctuate the silence that occurs when “the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song.” The girls wear flowers on their heads that replicate those worn by Nillson in her photos. The host, Beaufort, “told the gardeners what hothouse flowers to grow for the dinner table and the drawing rooms.” Newland, “never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his bottonhole” notes that on May’s breast, “ to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia.” These cultivated flowers placed around the house and also on the persons of the girls act as artificial set dressings as much as the flowers on the set of Faust.
The dresses of the young women are drawn in descriptive terms similar to the description of Nillson’s costume. Nillson wears a “muslin chemisette” in “white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle.” At the ball, “the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts.” This is in contrast to the person who is not wearing the correct costume, Ellen Olenska, in her “Josephine look,” who cannot attend the ball because of this impropriety.
New York society, through its own performative gestures, cultivates an artificial life similar to a stage set with actors playing parts. The society members create their own stage where performances of individuals, couples, and families enact a uniquely New York drama. And, “This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded.” The opening performance ends “as they floated away on the soft waves of the Blue Danube.”
Reading The Age of Innocence is like watching an expensively and beautifully-made film. Through the use of skilled description and incredible attention to detail, the people, events and domestic life of upper-class 1870’s New York are brought to life before our eyes.
In her novel Wharton pays scrupulous attention to the details of the world she is describing – the food, the clothes, the furniture, the architecture and, indeed the whole paraphernalia of day-to-day life. Much of what is described – the Jacqueminot roses, the Maillard bonbons , the hot canvas-back ducks – is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. However, this unfamiliarity, far from being unnerving, underlines the fact that we are being introduced to a unique world, governed by social rules and codes understood only by those carefully-schooled and cultivated ‘insiders’ (including the author) who are part of it and who understand its nuances. The reader tends to remain an ‘outsider’.
There is also very sensitive use of the symbolic meaning of objects. The fact that Newland Archer regularly presents May Welland with lilies-of-the-valley, and Countess Olenska with yellow roses, speaks volumes about the differences between the two women: the innocent purity and emotional inhibition of the first (his fiancée) as opposed to the sensuality and emotional warmth of the second (the woman he would like to be his lover).
The attention to outward appearance, however, is not at the expense of a masterly understanding and portrayal of what lies under the surface of the characters’ behaviour. In particular, the cryptic (yet subtly revealing) communication of Newland and May as man and wife, designed to avoid the revealing of true feelings and motivations which might cause unpleasantness and be bad ‘form’, is especially well done.
It could be argued that the central event of the novel – the playing-out of the relationship between the members of the ‘eternal triangle’ of husband, wife and (potential) lover – is both clichéd and overworked. However, in Wharton’s hands the nature of the conflicts which are aroused comes across in a particularly forcible and very poignant way. There is no moralizing on the part of the author/narrator, and the reader is not encouraged to see behaviour in terms of black and white; right or wrong. We become very acutely aware of societal constraints and the paralysing effect they may have on personal and emotional freedom. However, we do not simply lament these restraints and perhaps wish (as we so often do) for the more passionate relationship to come to fruition. Instead, we are led to ponder the fact that shackles exist in all societies (not just in 1870’s aristocratic New York) and that they often serve to maintain a stability and orderliness which is not without its virtues. At the same time, we are also led to ponder the fact that emotional freedom and open communication (aspects of relationships which were to gain much greater prominence in the decades following the publication of The Age of Innocence in 1920) do not necessarily lead ultimately to a sense of greater happiness or personal fulfilment.
All in all, Wharton’s novel is a skilfully crafted one which allows the reader to observe a unique section of society at a particular point in its history, and the accuracy and richness of her portrayal means that we are left with a sense of having had privileged access to an exotic and alien world.
Reviews from the Internet
‘Age of Innocence’ is a subtle look at life in Gilded Age New York – Exquisite in its details, painful in its beauty. (E.A. Solinas – www.amazon.com)
The Age of Innocence is one of the best social commentaries I have ever read, and I recommend it to all. (A Customer – www.amazon.com)
A beautifully tragic story about lost love. The Age of Innocence is a haunting and moving work. (Matthew Menjou – www.amazon.com)
Her characters [Wharton’s in The Age of Innocence] are, in their way, perfectly-sketched creatures with behaviour and motives as nuanced as their manners. The problem is, they’re all pretty dull and not terribly deep.(Inverarity - http://inverarity.livejournal.com/82106.html)