|Winona Ryder played the innocent spouse May Welland, opposite Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer and Michele Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska, Archer's obsession.|
The Age of Innocence (1920)
by Edith Wharton
I completed by undergraduate studies in the mid to late 1990s. At the time, the study of literature was heavily overlaid by "isms" with "post-modernism" being particularly prevalent at the graduate level, and women's studies/feminism being more popular at the undergraduate level (probably because most undergraduates weren't sophisticated enough to grasp the intricacies of post modernism while women's studies/feminism was both comprehensible and popular. Post-Modernism and Feminism weren't the only isms that were important in the study of literature during the 1990s. My own Professor, Charles Larson, was a specialized in the literature of post-Colonialism, with a particular interest in Chinua Achebe, who I had actually read in HIGH SCHOOL, in English class.
The 1990s were a particularly rich time for the role of high level theoretical discourse in the study of literature, and my sense is that three decades of dwindling funds for the humanities at both private and public universities has dampened the enthusiasm for isms and literature. That said, it's hard to see how anyone can separate the subject of "Women and Literature" from the subject of Literature itself, which is so thoroughly dominated by women as subjects, authors and audience members to make any non woman discussion of literature seem almost ridiculous- to me anyway.
My sense is that feminist discussion of literature focuses on the most negative and easily critic-able aspect of the domination of women in literature: their role as subjects for male authors. Particularly in the 19th century, the example of a male author writing about a young, marriage aged woman is so pervasive as to be cliche. More interesting is the relationship of female authors to their female subjects, and this is where Edith Wharton, and the Age of Innocence comes into play.
Edith Wharton was the last female Author who fit into the "classic" mode of literary novelist exemplified by The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen: She was not an experimental modernist, and wasn't a feminist in the conscious, modernist usage of the term. Even as Wharton was winning the Pulitzer Prize for this Novel, avowedly modernist authors like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf were laying the foundation for the kind of relationship between female subjects and their authors that would characterize modern literature.
Does this render The Age of Innocence somehow irrelevant, or unworthy of the attention of a contemporary readery? I would say not- in fact- The Age of Innocence is actually a pleasurable read, something that becomes increasingly rare as literary Modernism begins to fragment narrative structure and play with the conventions of the literary novel of the 18th and 19th century.
The Age of Innocence is a bit of a summation of close to a century of marriage and property 19th century style English novels. Written in a time and place that are as far from the rural English nobility of the mid 19th century as those nobility were from the Middle Ages (but in less then a fifth of the time as they were separated from the Middle Ages); The Age of Innocence wittily guides the reader through the landed aristocracy of New York City in the late 19th century- but bracketed by an enclosing narrative that takes the reader to "the present"- complete with long distance phone calls and automobiles. That bracketing effect firmly links the Victorian past to the Modernist present, without fully dwelling in either area.
The story of The Age of Innocence is plotting 101: Guy marries younger woman but yearns for older woman, but the style and detail of Wharton's writing do make it an enduring classic.