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Defector Reads A Book

Come Discuss ‘The Age Of Innocence’ With Us, But Don’t Cause A Scene

Cover image: Vintage Classics

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our January/February DRAB selection was Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocencewhich the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I love this book, more than any other book, and every time I return to it I feel a greater urge to whack Newland Archer in the head with his copy of Idylls of the King, or whatever. 

Kelsey McKinney: A confession from me: I thought I had not read this book before and 200 pages in, I realized I definitely have! I can’t remember how I felt last time, but I too loved this book and also want to smack Newland Archer. Maitreyi, why do you want to smack him?

MA: The more closely you read it, the more you notice how often he is the dumbest, most clueless person in the room. 

Barry Petchesky: Yeah, the moment at the farewell dinner, when he’s been so convinced that he’s been deftly pulling off this would-be romance with Ellen without anyone finding out about it, and he realizes that, oh shit, all of New York already thinks they’re lovers. You dumbass!

KM: One thing that really impressed me about Wharton’s close third-person on Newland Archer is that often he is coming to these realizations that are absolutely banal (What if women had rights? What if society is actually bad?) and then trying to pass them off to the women around him who have clearly thought 6 steps ahead of him already. It’s incredible writing! 

BP: I’m going to say here that I sympathized with Newland throughout. Maybe this is because I’m a dude or maybe because I’m old enough to have regrets or maybe because I’m a huge dumbass, but his predicament felt very realistic to me. And I wanted a happy ending for him! I just do not know what a happy ending could even look like here.

KM: I don’t think he’s unsympathetic at all! I think that’s part of what is so devastating about this book: that at every turn the choice he makes is maybe the only one he has available to him and it just never works. 

MA: Oh, I think you’re right to sympathize; that farewell dinner realization is a little funny, but also so shattering. If you don’t feel some sense of secondhand embarrassment for him—or just tortured!—you have no heart. 

BP: The thing is all three of the main characters are highly sympathetic, with May and Ellen even more so than Newland, because they’re fully trapped within this society’s rules, and do not get “do-overs” like the men of this world do when they fuck up or fuck around.

MA: Yep. Kelsey, you mentioned the close third-person on Newland. Wharton pulls that off while also writing these two incredibly vivid women. We’re kept at some distance from them—we’re never in their heads the way we are with Newland—but between the narration and even other tiny cues Newland himself doesn’t pick up on, the reader still gets to know them really well. 

KM: Yes! I was really stunned especially by the scenes with May. The one in St. Augustine in particular, I thought did this very well. At the end of that confrontation Wharton writes:

“She flushed with joy […] And he understood that her courage and initiative were all for others, and that she had none for herself. It was evident that the effort of speaking had been much greater than her studied composure betrayed, and that at his first word of reassurance, she had dropped back into the usual, as a too-adventurous child takes refuge in its mothers arms.

This was the moment when I was like BOY, SHE’S PLAYING YOU!!!!! Because the tight third shows us how cocky he is here, right after a scene where May has told him more or less that she is aware he is rushing to get married because he’s in love with someone else. And then no less than five minutes later he’s like, “This poor little fawn. She is so gullible” 

BP: To answer my own question from earlier: I may just be a dumbass. Because until you said this just now, Kelsey, I had thought Newland’s reading of May in that scene was an accurate one. Both of you have read this book before, but do you remember if you picked up on May’s maneuvering before Newland did?

MA: Ha, I do remember the pregnancy scheme blowing my mind. (As long as I live, I will never forget the wonderful line about May’s eyes, “wet with victory,” when she tells him she sort of lied to Ellen.) So I think you’re right, that a lot of it comes through on a second read. Boy, May is much smarter than she lets on. There are these amazing moments, especially in the back half of the book, where Newland and May share some innocent conversation or glance, and narrator Wharton swoops in to tell you everything that isn’t being said. And they coincide with Newland’s increasing disenchantment with May. He comes to see her shrewdness as a form of dishonesty, right? When he tries explaining away his Very Important Supreme Court Business that is no longer happening, “it did not hurt him half as much to tell May an untruth as to see her trying to pretend that she had not detected him.” He hates that he doesn’t have the upper hand in their interactions. She has him figured out, much more so than the other way around.

KM: I definitely did not pick up on this scene before. I was like “poor stupid May.” Which is part of what I think is brilliant about Wharton’s work here. Because she knows the end, there are all of these small foreshadowings that Newland isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. On second read, they were all glaring to me. 

BP: It’s very funny to me that Newland so clearly wants to live in this idealized world he’s constructed for himself, rather than actually confront it as it is. He deludes himself about May and their power dynamics, and I might argue that he is more in love with the idea of Ellen than with Ellen herself. The book’s ending seems like confirmation of that, anyway. “It’s more real” to him when he doesn’t go up to see Ellen again after 30 years. “It,” in this case, can probably be read as “everything he ever felt for her.”

KM: Oh I absolutely agree with that, Barry. This is a classic What if my boring perfect wife were COOL AND MYSTERIOUS? line of thought. He doesn’t actually bother to know Ellen or to ask her questions about herself. Even in the dreaded full-of-allusion chat he has with her as her lawyer, he doesn’t ask her questions directly. They have about as much communication as he has with May, which is to say, he sends them both flowers.

BP: There’s a great line from Newland’s son, who tells him, “You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath.” 

MA: And as for loving the “idea” of flouting convention, he’s much more comfortable asking Ellen to take society’s heat—to not return to her husband, to live her bohemian life—than he is being in that position himself. 

KM: And that is after he asked her to NOT divorce her husband! I found that scene so infuriating because he was the one who came and took her family’s side and told her she couldn’t divorce her husband even though she wanted freedom!

BP: He convinced himself there that he was looking out for her interests in not being ostracized by society. I don’t know that I buy that. What do you think was really going on?

MA: There’s something attractive about danger you can experience at a remove. I wonder if he was chasing that feeling more than anything.

KM: I think that 1) Newland Archer is a momma’s boy who is easily persuaded by his mother and sad virgin sister to do basically anything. And 2) this is a man who before May was sleeping with a mysterious older woman! I assume he does not trust himself if Ellen were to be divorced, not to blow up his entire life for him. It’s about self-protection in my view. 

BP: Let’s talk the momma’s boy thing, specifically: Who holds the power in this society? Men or women? On the face of it, men get to sleep around (once) and go out and have fun and order their wives around, and the wives have to just sit at home and be innocent and virginal and empty-headed. But at one point Newland “felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.” Does Newland have any actual agency, and is the “age of innocence” actually his?

MA: The novel (conveniently) announces what it’s about in the first few pages: “What was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.” Newland and his destiny are ruled by “the thing,” so I don’t know if anyone holds much power. Like, even the men vs. women question is interesting. We know that the women of the book are bound by all sorts of horrible codes and strictures, but I think Wharton does well to show that men are harmed by them, too. The title always rang ironic to me. It’s a cynical, brutal age, and no one is exactly innocent. (Not sincerely innocent, anyway.) 

KM: Barry, I think this question is a really difficult one to answer. I’m spinning my wheels a bit going back and forth, so I hope you will answer your own question too! I felt like more than anything this is a novel about how power is rapidly slipping away and this group of rich, fancy people are desperately clawing to keep it in their grasp. I viewed the title as a kind of nostalgic name. This book was published in 1920, just after World War I, and I imagine it as Edith Wharton kind of saying, “Oh, we were all so innocent back then, unaware of what’s to come, not knowing that our sway and power is about to evaporate.” To me, the most powerful people are the two aging matriarchs: Mrs. Manson Mingott and Mrs. van der Luyden. They kind of control the social world and try to manipulate it, but their stars are also fading. The social power vacuum is what makes it feel, to me, like everyone and no one has power. 

BP: I think you’re both right, and I think upon reflection that the “innocence” of the title is both this little society in a bubble that’s fully unaware that it can’t last, and the characters themselves, with no notion of how the world works but also no agency to really move within their bubble because of the strictures of “the thing.” An age of ignorance and immobility, certainly, and if you were being a little caustic about it, you could call that a kind of innocence. That said, if I were a rich 1870s New Yorker I’d still probably choose to be a dude.

MA: I was actually thinking about this, Barry. 1870s New York would be scandalized by your DraftKings habit. A same-game Rangers-Blues parlay—nearing Julius Beaufort levels of speculation, I’m afraid. 

KM: Barry creating a vicious gossip mill like Lawrence Lefferts because he demands to live alone with his cat!!! Maybe the greatest truth about this book is that it sucks to be everyone lol. 

BP: Yeah, I mean, life is a series of unfulfilled dreams and if you’re very lucky you make it through without one of them fully consuming you for the rest of it. I think that’s a pretty timeless concept. I hope Edith Wharton had a happy life (I will not look this up).

MA: I think she had an extremely unhappy marriage and upbringing. 

KM: The fact that Edith Wharton’s childhood home is now a Starbucks is just a cherry on top of this novel. All of this hobnobbing and drama over who gets to go to whose house on what day and who is allowed to enter “polite society” and eventually everyone can go into your former formal sitting room and order a frappuccino. That’s beautiful. 

BP: Well look, that’s what she gets for living [ugh] above 14th street. So tacky.

MA: Is Starbucks fare much worse than Mrs. Manson Mingott’s warmed-up croquettes from Philadelphia? 

KM: I do love the absolute drags on people early in this book. Wharton should have put a key in her archive to who all of these people were modeled after!! I want to know which of New York’s polite society were serving cheap, flat Champagne. 

BP: Maitreyi, I want to talk about that. Usually in society novels, there’s so much sumptuous description of food and clothes and recreation, and while I tend to glaze over it, it often exists to hammer home just how good the good life is. And I did not feel that here! There was a lot of description of fashions, but this rich-people life did not seem all that great to me. Not necessarily “empty,” but more of an oh, this all sounds kind of boring thing.

MA: The roasting of the food and clothes is great. I should say that “Wow, Newland is even dumber than I remembered” was not my only reread revelation; I was basically crying with laughter when the Archers had Sillerton Jackson over for dinner and he was lamenting the state of the shad they served him. I’m definitely with you on tuning out material description more often than not when I read, but I think it’s one of the things Wharton writes best. Maybe because it always feels like she’s in on the joke, but those details mattered to Wharton very much. Edmund Wilson has a good line about her, that she’s “the poet of interior decoration.” She even wrote a whole book about furniture!

KM: There are so many awful dinners in this book, just miserable affairs with people who are dull and quiet and not fun. That’s Wharton’s bias clearly because she makes the parties at the Struthers sound incredible and every dinner with the van der Luydens sound like having your teeth cleaned. 

BP: I think Sillerton Jackson would be great on Normal Gossip, though.

KM: Sillerton Jackson is a genius. He knows that to get the best gossip, you have to be silent about everything and love only gossip for gossip’s sake. 

BP: Who are the characters in this book you’d actually enjoy hanging out with? I think Sillerton Jackson and Ellen, and unfortunately Beaufort probably knows how to have a good time.

MA: Maybe because I’m Team May, I would not want to hang out with Ellen. Janey Archer seems cool. Mrs. Archer, too.

KM: Ellen would absolutely drive me crazy. Ellen is absolutely like a manic pixie dream girl construct where she does all of these annoying things (like show up without announcing she’s coming over and ruining people’s plans) and then is like, “Oh, haha I’m just European, I’m just so quirky.” I just don’t buy it. I’m like there’s no WAY you don’t know that living in this house and being seen out with Beaufort is causing problems for literally everyone trying to help you. 

BP: Wow, I’m legit surprised at these Ellen takes. Did I fall too hard for Newland’s conception of Ellen and ignore actual Ellen?

MA: At this website, we HATE Ellen Olenska. 

KM: I don’t hate her! I just think she would annoy me! Throwing carnations around her sitting room and everyone’s like, “Wow! she’s so different!” They have vases in Europe!  Unlike Sillerton Jackson, who seems like he would just tell me lots of good gossip for hours. 

BP: I’m glad we all learned from this DRAB that I’m an idiot and have terrible taste in women. But let’s talk Ellen’s European-ness, because that’s what’s so often cited as the reason she just can’t “fit in” in New York. But to my eye, American high society here doesn’t feel like much other than a weak carbon copy of what they considered European high society to be?

KM: Barry, calm down. Unfortunately, we are allowed to like different things. Yeah, I too found this very interesting since now if someone told me they were a descendent of a Duke in Europe I feel like everyone in America would roll their eyes. But there seems to be this remaining reverence for Europe and this concern that America will be seen as a land of divorces and early dinners, which like…. IT IS!

MA: Yeah, what they don’t like about Ellen they chalk up to foreignness, but also all these New Yorkers crave some proximity to Europe and feel more worldly for going to the opera, where “the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences,” and traveling and reading the books they do and admiring the art they do. 

BP: But they try to keep their distance by waiting one or two seasons after buying the new fashions in Paris before wearing it!

MA: Another all-time Newland line is him reminding Ellen “that in our country we don’t allow our marriages to be arranged for us,” as if every single thing in his life has not been arranged for him, as if every single thing in his New York is not arranged! There are like four people any given character is allowed to marry. Half the characters in this book have the same first name as someone else’s last name. 

KM: “My marriage isn’t arranged!! I’m marrying your cousin even though I’m in love with you because I WANT TO!!!” A question I have for both of you is: how innocent do you think Archer and Ellen’s little visits actually are? 

BP: You mean, did they bone? There was at least one fade-out where it sort of left that open, and I think it was left open on purpose, but I say: no bone. And I think only like two or three smooches shown? It was a pretty sexless affair, the idea of it being more vivid and real to Newland than an actual affair would have been.

KM: Listen if Archer is willing to smooch May behind a flimsy little screen at a ball… I have questions! Yeah, I kind of did wonder what this novel looks like from Ellen’s perspective. Like was this all actually in Newland’s head? Did they ever really have something real? I like that ambiguity. 

MA: No bone. I don’t think it ever goes further than the unconsummated tryst they plan at the Met. 

BP: It’s interesting to me, when it’s said and done and he’s stuck with May for life, that Newland never feels anything like relief that he didn’t end up consummating the affair. Maybe because he wouldn’t actually have felt guilty about it, or maybe the regret of not pursuing Ellen looms still larger in his mind. Or, again, maybe the most tangible version of love to him is the idealized one he imagines, not anything he experiences.

KM: One thing that really struck me on this read is how much assuming there is in this book. So many decisions and actions and worries are based entirely on what Archer (or someone else!) assumes someone else is thinking or feeling. Even the ending, the decision to not see Ellen in this final moment when they could actually have a chance maybe, Archer makes that decision fully based on his own assumptions. No one ever asks each other what they want! 

MA: Can’t quite crown it my favorite line, because the book is full of so many good ones and the last chapter in particular is just packed with them, but the exchange between Dallas and Newland always gets me. Dallas is referring to a conversation he’d once had with his mother before they go to visit Ellen:

‘She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.’

Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sun-lit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: ‘She never asked me.’ 

Aghhhh!!!!!! Edith Wharton really did that.

KM: Damn. That line physically hurts me! 

BP: May still outwitting him from the grave!! Anyway, see you all at the van der Luydens’ at 7:00?

KM: Oh sorry. I’ve only been invited to show up after dinner. Hope you have fun, though!

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! March is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.