By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Lorna Raver
Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” exposes false notions of equality in America and reflects on the human frailty and strength of men and women. Wharton lived through the turn of the 19th into the 20th century in America. She lived an adult life of luxury in New York, and later in France.
Wharton writes about American society; i.e. she exposes New York’s “upstairs, downstairs” snobbery in the early 20th century. In telling the tale, Wharton sharply defines the battle of the sexes, duplicity of romance, and folly of youth. Though writing about a sliver of wealthy American’ society in the early 20th century, Wharton’s story rings as true about men and women today as it did when she won the Pulitzer Prize.
Newland Archer is engaged to be married to May Welland when a childhood friend comes to visit relatives in New York. The childhood friend is Ellen Olenska, a 30-year-old married countess that left New York in her youth.
Newland begins to question his love for May Welland. His reasons for questioning are not clear to himself. Wharton infers the reasons are idealized romance and lust for another woman.
Archer idealizes Olenska. His idealization comes from unrequited lust. Olenska is a married woman. She is not available. Archer knows May, his fiance, is committed to him. Archer takes May for granted.
Archer’s lust for Olenska conflicts with Archer’s morals. The nature of unrequited lust is that the thought of sex becomes perfect in the mind of the inexperienced. In Archer’s mind, Olenska becomes an objectified sex object (a perfect fantasy), and May will never be good enough. Archer is psychologically prepared to abandon May and pursue a “perfect” relationship with Olenska.
Olenska, in one respect, is Archer’s alter-ego. She views Archer as a perfect companion because Archer is not available. Archer is committed to another woman. Olenska lusts for Archer but with better insight to the truth. Her life experience tells her to resist infatuation. She knows that once lust is satisfied, fantasy subsides and social reality returns.
Archer views May as a complacent woman who will be a boring wife. In contrast, Wharton shows May to be a perceptive woman who understands Archer’s and Olenska’s mutual attraction. May correctly diagnoses Archer’s false idealization and subtlety maneuvers Archer to quash the burgeoning affair with Olenska.
In the end, Wharton shows Archer to be emotionally immature. Archer chooses to keep his innocent memory; i.e. his deluded vision of romance, commitment, and love. May and Olenska are shown to understand the difference between lust and romance; commitment, and love. Archer never does. Archer never gets over “The Age of Innocence”.