A shining light touches ‘chill minds, rigorously averted’

On an afternoon like this in 1920, The Age of Innocence would just have begin to come out. It appeared in four installments between July and October. People might have read it in a magazine at a cafe table in the sun. And sitting over a café au lait and unwrapping a sugar cube might have seemed like a forgotten luxury.

The world was beginning to recover — but France had been at war for five years. Wharton had been working with women who had lost husbands, children who had lost fathers, families who had lost entire towns, veterans who had lost almost everything. Paris had been under bombardment. The trenches had come within 40 miles of the city. In Wharton’s adopted country, almost 2 million young men died. The war destroyed farms and farmland and food systems, cities and towns and roads, families and jobs.

A global pandemic had claimed more than 20 million lives. Europe was facing economic and political collapse. From here, Wharton sits in a house outside Paris, and she looks back to New York in the 1870s. This is the high society of her childhood, and Newland Archer, the character who takes the narrative point of view, is bred from it.

He feels the influence of the small circle of elite, wealthy New Yorkers. Wharton describes them repeatedly as narrow, moneyed, dull — “chill minds rigorously averted.” And at counterpoint, he feels the influence of two women.

Newland is on the verge of committing to a woman from the same circle. She seems cool and athletic, socially adept at following the script their clan sets for her: May Welland, a name suggesting springtime, young buds and melting snow.

On the eve of their engagement, her cousin, Ellen Olenska, returns to New York. She was once part of Newland’s world by birth, but never fully part of it. As a girl, she was alive in a way her relations uneasily admired and dismissed. As Wharton describes her, she is passionate, creative and honest. She always appears in bright hues — yellow roses, crimson merino wool. Her parents traveled the world, and when she was young she had a brilliant joy and energy, “high color and high spirits.”

She was fearless and familiar and full of questions, and she learned expansively. She could dance a Spanish shawl dance and sing Neapolitan love songs to classical guitar …

She was fearless and familiar and full of questions, and she learned expansively. She could dance a Spanish shawl dance and sing Neapolitan love songs to classical guitar, play the piano in quintets with professional musicians, and draw from a model.

Her parents died long ago. Now she has returned to New York, trying to leave an abusive marriage. While no one in the city will speak of “unpleasant” acts directly, Wharton makes clear that Ellen’s husband has wasted her resources, publicly humiliated her, bullied and openly scorned her, damaged her emotionally and physically.

And she has no means to support herself. Under French law, Napoleonic law, she has no legal rights at all. Her husband owns her property and her children and her body. If her family will not take her in, she has very few ways to survive.

But she has the same brightness and originality, and courage. When she moves back to New York, she lives in a neighborhood of writers and musicians, and she stays there against her family’s persuasions. She talks directly about the pain and freedom Newland’s clan dismisses of skates around with euphemisms.

“Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among these kind people who only ask one to pretend.”

And she makes him feel. For a few minutes she can move him to an honesty new to him. Standing in her simple living room, by the hearth with a cloth draped over the wall and a few chrysanthemums, he sees details. He notes her skill, remembers odd fragments of poetry and scientific research and connects them in new ways.

When he is with her, his mind sharpens, as long as he allows it. Ellen transforms the people and places around her. Her name means a shining light.

Wharton describes her in a dance of intelligence and creativity, desire and innocence. She is a girl playing a Spanish Romany song when she is barely out of her teens because the music is beautiful. She is learning to paint the human body like one of the ardent women artists who came hundreds of miles to Paris in those days to study and learn the real shapes of a human body — and scandalized their families, though male artists drew from models the same way with impunity.

Wharton calls out this kind of double standard. In his most honest moments, Newland is blunt and direct: “Women ought to be free — as free as we are.”

Ellen brings out moments of intelligence and passion. We see Newland reading in his study, shaking with the beauty of a painting. He loves poetry and reads Ruskin and knows the histories of Kentucky cave fishes with blind eyes.

He chafes at a job that never calls on his skill or accomplishes any tangible good. He defends her independence. He challenges the hypocrisy in his peers, that Ellen’s husband can sleep around and treat her savagely, and society will shrug it off — but they will condemn her for leaving her husband, or defending herself, and even more for having any sign of desire or will of her own.

The night they meet, Newland is shaken into thinking about his own life. We see him thinking of marriage. He wants a “passionate and tender comradeship” with his wife. He sees, in that moment, that to share in that kind of companionship with him, May would have to fully enjoy her own mind and body.

He also sees that the society they are part of will not let her. She would need “the experience, the versatility the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess.” He sees clearly what he would need to do to have the kind of companionship he wants. “He suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken.”

And then he turns away.

This pattern returns throughout the book. Newland feels an impulse to integrity. He acts on it. He feels strongly. That feeling frightens him, and he recoils — he runs scared.

That tension returns when New York society rejects Ellen and he defends her, and when she asks him (as a lawyer) to help her get a divorce, when she tries to settle in New York and asks for an honest friendship … and when he comes to Paris, finally, to look for her there.

When he turns toward her, he acts with confidence and insight. He stirs compassion and forms alliances. He analyzes the weaknesses in his society and proves that he can assess them accurately, and he sees clear paths to change them. He feels sensory stimulation. Mentally, emotionally, physically, he acts aware and electrified.

When he turns away, his language and his thoughts become angry and exasperated, colorless and trite, and he becomes angrier at himself because he knows it. But he retreats. For him, elite New York society feels safe.
Some readers argue that Wharton feels the same. She came from that elite realm, and at Newland’s age, in her 20s, she married to suit her family. But she is writing from Paris 40 years later. She has divorced her husband. She has made a life and a career as a novelist. She has defied her family, left the country and made a new circle of friends among creative minds. She has traveled, won independence and survived a war.

She has lived very much the life she imagines for Ellen Olenska. And when she looks back at Newland’s New York, her language and her descriptions back up Newland’s assessments in a clear pattern.

‘ver and over, she describes his New York as cold and dull and empty. It numbs and confines. It is precise and inflexible. Crystalline.

Over and over, she describes his New York as cold and dull and empty. It numbs and confines. It is precise and inflexible. Crystalline. “A woman should wait immoveable as an idol.” Newland sees his fate sealed in hideous green and yellow stone. He rebels against “sameness, sameness, sameness.” The whole of New York is dying of inanition. Newland sees his relations as the family vault. When he makes his marriage vow to May — the Mount’s executive director, Susan Wissler tells me — Wharton opened that scene in her original drafts with a line from a burial service.

At least twice, Newland almost walks away. He stands on the edge of it. He holds to a purpose long enough to feel the pull and the shape of Ellen’s world. He walks into a lighted room and feels the warmth around him. He is shaken with it. He opens to it. In those moments, it can seem possible that he can sustain her kind of life.

But to share her world, to live in it, he would have to have courage. He would have to meet her as an equal. He would have to recognize in her the maturity and experience and strength and laughing delight that he wished for in May.

His first clear chance comes early. She appeals to him for help in the divorce. He could help her to win free of her husband. In her own rare moment of honesty, May offers to release him from the engagement. When he comes to Ellen’s few rooms, in the place she is trying to make for herself in New York, in their original brightness, their talk of music and transformation, he is caught in tension. He opens to her in confidence and generosity, and retreats into an irritable anger and a lack of resolution.

When he jerks back from the firelight, he is turning away from honesty and passion into a world that smothers him.

That isn’t morality. It’s fear.

And let’s be clear, for him, having a fling with Ellen would also be an act of fear. He would not be defying his New York conventions — he would be forcing her into them. In some conversations I have had or heard, scholars and readers have talked about Newland marrying Ellen and Newland having an affair with her as though they would be the same thing — but the book makes very clear that they are not. And Wharton in her own life and experience has felt the difference fiercely.

In his more honest moments, Newland is bitterly furious against the kind of man who keeps mistresses. He recognizes that a woman in this position has no choice, no independence, no legal rights. The arrangement is entirely for the man’s benefit.

In this kind of relationship, in Wharton’s time and for a woman of her class, the man can easily dominate the woman. He can end the affair at any time and leave her without a word. He can wreck her reputation permanently without any cost to himself. Polite New York society will take his side, as long as he is discrete. They will discard her without a thought. She will have no resources and no recourse.

This pattern is a convention in Newland’s world, one he openly sees and openly despises. He knows clearly that having an affair with Ellen would fit them into that mold. He also knows it would be meanly selfish. He would gratify his own desire, destroy his wife’s trust, self-esteem and name, and he would destroy Ellen’s relationships with her family, the only resource she still has to keep away from her husband.

Wharton makes it scathingly clear — Newland is reduced to arguing with himself that he is unlike the men he condemns just because it’s different for me, a hypocrisy so barren Wharton sets it in a museum among the archeological remains of Troy. Ellen and Helen are the same name in a different time and place. As Newland tries to persuade Ellen, and she resists him, they are looking at the evidence of the destruction Paris caused when he took Helen by force.

Wharton knew how this felt. Anne Schuyler and Nynke Dorhout at the Mount will talk about her experience of an affair, her short-lived relationship with Morton Fullerton, and her bitterness at his facile dismissal.

Marriage has its own risks, and Wharton knew this too — Ellen’s legal husband has legal control of any resources she may have had, including her body, as Wharton’s husband did.

At the same time, when Newland is young, marriage offers the possibility of the kind of ardent companionship he longs for. The kind of mature experience, shared passion and creative life he imagines, only exists on terms of equality. He knows it and says it himself.

The kind of mature experience, shared passion and creative life he imagines, only exists on terms of equality.

For him to meet Ellen on an equal footing, he would have to be open with her. She would have to trust him. She has been burned before. He would have to earn her trust. He would have to share his life fully with her, and the only way to do that, when they are young, is for him to marry her, and to face the world as she has to face it.

If he had chosen to fight for her when she asked him to, he might have had that chance. The possibility is there. If Newland were only a chill mind rigorously averted, he would never have burned for her, and she would never have seen anything in him. She would never have invited him in or appealed to him for help.

When he turns from her, she turns from him and makes a new life in a new city. But she seems not to have forgotten him completely. His second chance comes late. He is close on Wharton’s age when she was writing the novel, and the war has swept away the last fragments of the New York where he came of age. He and Ellen are both free now. They have no family or social claims left to keep them apart. After 30 years, Newland’s son convinces him to come to Paris to see her. Once again he has the choice to climb the stairs to her sunlit room.

She is living a rich life in many ways. And once again he feels it.

“He thought of the theaters she must have been to, the the pictures she must have looked at, the sober and splendid old houses she must have frequented, the people she must have talked with, the incessant stir of ideas, curiosities, images and associations …”

Again, he has time to wait before he sees her. He comes to the Louvre, into a place she often comes.

“For an hour or more he wandered from gallery to gallery through the dazzle of afternoon light, and one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his soul had been too starved …”

He becomes aware of emptiness and hunger and a universe of ways to fill it. Again he has a moment of strength, standing before a Titan, saying “But I’m only 57 —” he has time and life and promise, and he stands at a moment where he could walk ahead into a different future. He wants, and he knows what he wants. He is famished.

He is wanting. Again the action hangs on a —

“And then he turned away.”

Newland has no external pressures to face now. Only internal pressures. He has come across the ocean, and he balks at the door. I have heard people argue that Wharton condones it, even that she approves, that he keeps his idealized daydreams, and they are better than any real companionship he could have achieved. Newland makes that argument, sitting in the insubstantial dark. But does Wharton believe that?

‘For an hour or more he wandered from gallery to gallery through the dazzle of afternoon light, and one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his soul had been too starved …’

In a story she wrote years earlier, The Fullness of Life, another character in paradise has the choice between a companion who knows her, soul to soul, and her lumbersome husband, who dismisses the beauty that sustains her. Here the narrator chooses a familiar lack of intimacy, like Newland, and the choice feels anguished — the soul sitting in ‘an innermost room’ alone, waiting for a companionship and vibrancy that never comes.

Wharton wrote that story in her 20s, when she was struggling with a failing marriage. She wrote the Age of Innocence at 58, in another country, in a different life. She had left her husband, made a career, become known internationally for her novels, and drawn about her a circle of friends rich in conversation. Her memoir, A Backward Glance, is built on friends and conversations and makes clear how deeply that intellectual life sustained her. She has made the kind of life for herself that Ellen has made.

Newland walks through Paris in a late afternoon golden haze. And then he sits on an empty bench in the shade. He will not come up at all. The book ends in a closing of shutters, a last extinguished gleam. Wharton often speaks in what is not said aloud, in implications and descriptions, clothing, gestures and silences, and what she shows in the silence here is thickening darkness, absence, refusal. And then Newland is alone.

It is a movement into emptiness. It is a movement against the life Wharton chose for herself. And every unspoken element in the scene protests against it.

There seems no reason now that Newland and Ellen could not have a relationship, friendship, love, passion. In these later years, after the war, Newland’s children grown, they could have defined their relationship for themselves, more flexibly than in the past. They would have been bound only by the depth of their feelings for each other and their sense of fairness, and their courage.

Newland walks away. But Wharton herself has known other choices and made other choices. She has beauty and creativity and different kinds of friendship.

In A Bakcward Glance, she writes in glimpses about Walter Berry, her editor, close friend, travel companion, the man with whom she shares her later years, the man who lies buried beside her in a French cemetery. She seems at some points in her own life to have stood at the edge of a — … and retreated, or seen him retreat from her. And she seems to have held that sadness to her.

So she may feel the want of the one thing Ellen does not have. Ellen has friends, but she has no one to share her life and passion. By what we have seen, Newland is the closest she has come to love. But then she too is only 57, and she has choices still to make.

As they explore the Age of Innocence this summer, the Mount has left me with a question to explore. In the virtual exhibit celebrating the Age of Innocence’s centennial, Schuyler quietly mentions that Wharton had plans for a sequel. Newland is walking alone back to his hotel. Ellen Olenska is sitting invisible behind her shuttered window. The light is dying over Paris. Where do we go from here?

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