The Age of Innocence is a classic love triangle story. A young man is engaged to a respectable young woman. But then he realizes his true love is with another woman — one whose mystery and independence break him out of his unreal upper-class life, and irresistibly attract him. Alas, they are not fated to be together.
Maybe these problems sound familiar to you. Feeling stuck in a relationship out of obligation; feeling like your life isn’t really real life.
One more thing: the young man is a moron.
Our protagonist is Newland Archer, a young(ish) man in high-society 1870s New York, a society rigidly ruled by symbols:
There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier [to the opera…] But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was “not the thing” to arrive early at the opera; and 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.
At the beginning of the book, Newland is newly engaged to May Welland, an accomplished young woman from another prominent family. She has a, hmm, athletic, robust build. Regardless, she has been raised the right way, and will serve him well in high society. This is the girl he’s “supposed” to marry.
Then there’s Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin. Ellen is a controversial figure in Newland’s circles: she has abandoned (although not divorced) her husband Olenski, a Russian count. She fled with the count’s secretary and took him as a lover, but arrives in New York a year later, alone. Worse, once she arrives, she takes up residence in a lower-class neighborhood with artists and writers, and associates with whomever she pleases.
Newland finds himself increasingly drawn to Ellen, who represents a more “real” life than the one that he would have with May. But by the time he understands his own feelings, it is too late to break his engagement with May. He considers fleeing to Europe with Ellen, but when May becomes pregnant, he decides to give up.
This could be just a tragic twist of fate, things happening at the wrong time, but let’s consider a more interesting possibility: that it’s inevitable, indeed, that it’s what he really wanted all along.
What does it mean for something to be “real”? Just like “free,” it’s a word that implies some other, opposite state. If we’re free, we’re free from some kind of bondage; and if something is real, it’s in contrast to something unreal or fake.
So what does Newland think is unreal or fake? The world of symbols that dominates his society.
In what sense is Ellen “real,” then? Newland often observes that Ellen is surprising. “Each time you happen to me all over again,” he says to her. She does and says things that aren’t “the thing,” and she acts in ways that that don’t fit neatly into Newland’s world of symbols.
But if realness is something that surprises us, then what would it mean for a life, or a love, to be real? As we’ve described it, reality isn’t a property of a person or object, it’s something that happens in a moment. We say that something “gets real” when it intrudes on our orderly conception of the world, but then we tumble to a new conception, and we are no longer surprised.
So when Newland becomes increasingly occupied by the “reality” that Ellen represents, something perverse happens. “Reality” itself becomes a symbol to him. We see Newland fantasizing about the concept of reality, as a special, private space he is uniquely sensitive to:
Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance. “And all the while, I suppose,” he thought, “real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them …”
At the very end of the book, thirty years have passed; he has lived a full life with May, and after she passes away, he finds himself standing outside Ellen’s apartment in Paris. She still lives alone. They could finally be together. But:
“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say
Strange to say, he’s 100% correct. Newland’s “reality” is a calcified symbol that might not survive an encounter with flesh-and-blood Ellen. His “reality” is the exact opposite of real.
Equally important to understanding Newland is his relationship with May. He thinks of her as hopelessly conservative and stuck in traditional New York ways, but is this really how she is? Or is it just what he wants to believe?
He demonstrates this a few times, subtly — for instance, he shows more interest in indoctrinating May into his beliefs about poetry, rather than cultivating whatever instincts she has. But this happens most pivotally in the book’s central scene.
Newland goes to May to ask her to move forward the date of their wedding. And she says:
“I’ve wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged … pledged to the person we’ve spoken of … and if there is any way … any way in which you can fulfill your pledge … even by her getting a divorce … Newland, don’t give her up because of me!”
They are nominally talking about Mrs. Thorley Rushworth, a character so minor I won’t bother describing her further. But the reader might very reasonably suspect that she is, consciously or unconsciously, alluding to Newland’s relationship with Ellen.
The text of the book, which follows Newland, never considers this possibility — because for Newland, this is actually unthinkable. If May can comprehend his love for Ellen, then what would set it apart, make it more “real” than his interactions with May and the rest of New York society? He needs May to be ignorant, so that he can set his enclave of “reality” against her.
If we recognize something of ourselves in this, what should we do?
One solution is: nothing. Although there is something sad about Newland’s life, once Ellen leaves New York and drifts into a corner of his thoughts, his thirty years with May have many very real joys. He raises three children who all seem charming and independent. He has many of the petty successes in business and public life that we enjoy in our daily lives. He feels that the world has become better than when he entered it.
But suppose it is unacceptable to us that his “real” love is never consummated, and that he never comes to love the reality in his relationship with his wife. Then what else is there?
The only other idea I have is to cultivate that mysterious quality X —- which has elements of sensitivity, good taste, awareness, and courage, but is not just any of those —- which lets us go out there every day and faceplant into reality. Repeatedly.