Reading Edith Wharton


Why did I ever avoid reading “social” novels? I wonder if maybe I let some terrible adolescent male impulse to avoid “stories concerning manners” (or maybe “stories in which dresses are described”) get in the way of literary satisfaction. Regardless, after an extended tour of the salons of Proust’s Paris cured me of my youthful aversion to the “social” novel, I thought I might consider Edith Wharton’s drawing rooms next – despite hearing mixed reviews from people who were forced to read Ethan Frome in high school, and considered paralyzing themselves in sledding accident to avoid discussing it in class.
Well, I’m glad I did. I ended up being rewarded with the Age of Innocence: a pleasant (if not completely satisfying) and gently ironic send-up of the mores of early Gilded Age New York. 

Despite working within some pretty narrow confines (will the hero escape his stilted social position, and fly free?) Wharton manages to generate a great deal of interest by manipulating the reader’s distance from the hero, Newland Archer. From the start the reader feels as if they – as well as Wharton – have one over on the hapless socialite, and it’s this manipulation of readerly sympathy (which increases as the book goes one) that gives the story its torque. 

The reader’s position is further complicated by the addition of the Countess Ellen Olenska. Wharton is even less clear about the Countess’ position (love-lorn beauty, or callow life-ruiner?) than she is about Archer’s, which has the effect of drawing us into Archer’s world; since his confusion over the Countess is also ours, we end up sympathizing with him, despite ourselves. A lovely use of poles (one character as fixed position, the other as free-floating cipher, object of endless contemplation) to provide a flow of energy. 

All of this is a long way of saying that Wharton is excellent at tilting sentimental conventions to the point of uncertainty, first in one direction, then another, providing the reader with a satisfactory sense of moral dislocation – not that much bad happens, really: which is one of the reasons the novel lacks bite. 

Unfortunately for Wharton, once the story finishes, and the ambiguity is over, it’s hard not to return to the initial position of laughing at Newland, with his bourgeois preoccupations; he doesn’t quite have the gravitas for tragedy, and Wharton’s irony is too gentle to provide the satisfactions of true satire. Not that it isn’t a touching ending; just a mite flat for my tastes.

That being said, I hear her other books are tarter, and I’m saving a space on my bedside table for the Custom of the Country. (Excellent bedside reading, by the way, especially while drinking a hot toddy.)

Currently taking suggestions for further reading of well-developed evocations of social class and mores!

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