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The Age of Innocence

Ellen Olenska

Author: Edith Wharton
First Published: 1920, in the Pictorial Review

The first chapter of the Age of Innocence is one of those magical first chapters that contains the entirety of the book within it. In fact, it holds a single sentence that contains the entire book:

He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation.

For that is nearly everything that this book is about: Newland Archer’s insufferable dawdling, his dilettantism, the dilettantism of everyone around him, the constant delay of his own pleasures, and satisfactions never to come.

It is one of the most heartbreaking stories ever told.

Wharton presents an archaeological inventory of the Old New York Society into which she was born. It’s the early 1870’s, a time when everything—and everyone—has an exact and prescribed seat at the lavish dinner table of social custom. The relentless detail of Wharton’s novel produces more than just gorgeous prose; it constructs the fine bars of Newland Archer’s gold and crystalline cage. Every item, every word, every mood, every temperature is an essential part of the magnificent social structure that shackles him in velvet chains from which he can never escape.

You can open The Age of Innocence, point to any random paragraph, and immediately find evidence of this delicate, filigreed ironwork. The details and descriptions of Newland Archer’s world are Wharton’s foundation, walls, and ceiling. But there is one paragraph in particular that linguistically unites all of the themes of this great book—the imprisoning details, the social imperatives, the unconquerable addiction to those imperatives, the pain of a life suppressed:

There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious. But now it was the Welland house, and the life he was expected to lead in it, that had become unreal and irrelevant, and the brief scene on the shore, when he had stood irresolute, half-way down the bank, was as close to him as the blood in his veins.

This paragraph appears at the end of Chapter 21, after Archer has spotted Ellen Olenska on Granny Mingott’s pier. He plays the game that he so often plays with himself—the game whereby he delays his own pleasure. “If she doesn’t turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I’ll go back.” Of course, she doesn’t turn, and he does go back. It’s the same cowardly march to his own execution that he can’t help but repeat, over and over.

Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence is my favorite book-to-screen movie of all time, not only because of its visual splendor, but because of its absolute fidelity to Wharton’s original text. It has been dismissed as slow and boring by many, but to me it is probably the greatest film adaptation ever done of one of the greatest novels ever written.

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