Tag Archives: Edith Wharton

Review: The End of the Age of Innocence

9780312176778-us-300It wasn’t easy being a woman at the turn of the century, being a woman who couldn’t vote, being a woman through World War I, being a woman through the Great Depression. But that’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton did. Not only did she survive, she thrived, writing fascinating literature and doing great journalism. She also made charitable work her main focus through the Great War.

I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not picked up the book The End of the Age of InnocenceEnd of Age is a non-fiction book that details the life of author Edith Wharton — who wrote The Age of Innocence —  during the years of World War I, a particularly exhausting time in her life. As an avid fan of The Age of Innocence, I felt it was only fair that I give the author of my favorite book the attention I felt she deserved, and that’s exactly what happened when I read this book.

Included in it is every detail about her personal and professional life during those years — who she flirted with, who she traveled with, how she wrote about the war for newspapers, and how she fought to keep as many charities running as possible to help those in need during the war. The book also explains how the war years influenced her writing during and afterwards.

The book starts off simply enough, explaining what it’s about to lay out. But the execution does not live up to the introduction. The book is so detailed, it’s almost too detailed. It seemed to name virtually every single person Wharton came into contact with over the years, and the intricate web of people, their roles and accompanying organizations was impossible to maneuver. While the book promised to explain how Wharton’s experienced influenced her writing, it did so in just a few pages at the very end. That was the section that most intrigued me. I looked forward to reading some literary criticism that would dissect the ways in which WWI crept into The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth. Again, the book does that, but without very much detail. The beginning of the book was so dense and boring, I’m not sure it was worth it for the short section at the end to which I had most looked forward. The book is, of course, highly regarded for its in-depth look into Wharton’s life, but it was a little much for my taste.

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Review: The Marriage Plot

Recap: It’s 1982, and three young adults have just graduated from Brown University. They are now entering the “real world.” The Marriage Plot is told in sections split up between these three main characters. It starts on graduation day and then takes us backward through their college experiences, and forward into the year after graduation.

There’s Madeleine, the heroine and Victorian literature enthusiast. She’s beautiful, smart, and moves in with her boyfriend, Leonard, after college. Leonard is a brilliant, handsome guy, studying science under a fellowship at a lab on the Cape. Leonard’s brilliance becomes more and more shadowed, however, by his severe case of manic depression. There’s also Mitchell, Madeleine’s close friend, who has been in love with her for years. Constantly pining for Madeleine, Mitchell sets out on a post-grad journey across Europe and Asia, as he considers attending grad school for religion and tries to define his own religious beliefs.

Analysis: The novel’s title itself, The Marriage Plot, makes it seem like this is a book about love. But this is not a story about love. This is a coming-of-age story. Maybe it was my poor reading, but the whole time I kept wondering “Who will Madeleine end up with?” It wasn’t until the conclusion that I realized a) that’s not the point of the story and b) it’s obvious from the beginning that only one ending makes sense.

This “obvious” ending is clear because of the direct parallels author Jeffrey Eugenides makes between The Marriage Plot and great literary pieces of our time. Throughout the novel, Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell often reference authors like Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and James Joyce, and their works. The references are heavy in the beginning of the novel, during the characters’ pretentious college years. As they continue to pop up throughout the book, it becomes clear that these classic stories influence Eugenides’ own storytelling.

I am by no means an expert in classic literature, but here are a few examples of what I mean. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the characters do not end up with the ones they love; they often end up quite sad. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story about a man who tries to identify his religious beliefs. Knowing how these stories end, it’s possible to predict how The Marriage Plot will end. Eugenides therefore not only mentions these works in his novel, but borrows plotlines directly from them.

If you’re a literature enthusiast, you’ll understand the book well. If you’re not, it’s still worth a read for its realistic tales of college life and the difficult period afterward.

MVP: Mitchell. He’s the nerdy loner you root for throughout the book. Madeleine gets the most attention and pages in the book, but is somehow the least developed character. The story about Mitchell’s religious journey is virtually discarded at the end of the novel, but his overall arc is still the most interesting of all the characters.

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Review: The Age of Innocence

Recap: New York City in the 1870’s is nothing like the Manhattan we know today. And that’s what Edith Wharton shows us in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. An American fiction classic, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, an upstanding New York lawyer who comes from a family of wealth and aristocracy. Archer is set to marry the lovely, fair, and innocent May Welland. But when May’s “foreign” cousin Madame Ellen Olenska returns to New York after her marriage fails in Europe, things get complicated.

Because Ellen Olesnka wants a divorce, she is black-labeled as the scandalous member of the family. On top of that, her time spent in Europe makes her “different” from the other women in New York. While most are embarrassed by her, Archer is intrigued. Their relationship quickly falls into the realm of flirtation when he is asked to deal with her divorce. But because divorce is so vehemently frowned upon, he encourages her to stay married to her husband but to continue living away from him in New York.

As their relationship progresses, so does Archer’s insistence that May move up the date of their wedding. In 19th century New York, the only thing people discuss more than divorce is an affair, thereby making Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland the talk of the town.

Analysis: The Age of Innocence is a classic story of expectation versus desire, and this is mostly due to the setting of the novel. In 1870’s New York, there are certain things that are expected from members of the high society. For instance, marriage, children, trips to Europe and the opera, and dinner parties. But Archer’s relationship with Madame Olenska opens his eyes to a world where people make decisions based on what they feel, rather than what they’re expected to do.

Madame Olenska is the woman he most obviously loves. He admires her strength, beauty, and passion. But May represents what’s expected of him: a nice New York girl who’s beautiful, has done no wrong and comes from a good family. As tempted as he is, the story does not turn out the way a modern day love triangle story would. In that period of American history, avoiding scandal was a priority.

So it seems that the story’s setting itself is its own character in the novel. The time and place directly control the characters’ actions. But because we live in modern times, it also makes the story suspenseful, thrilling, and above all, romantic, in the most heartbreaking of ways.

MVP: Madame Olenska. She’s the only character in the novel who truly shows strength and bravery. Yes, she’s “different” from the other New York women, but it’s because she’s willing to stand up for herself by getting out of a bad marriage and befriending those who she legitimately likes, rather than those who come from good family backgrounds. She speak her mind, when everyone else’s mouths and minds stay shut.

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