Posted by: holdenlee | April 2, 2013

Morals of The Age of Innocence

Today at the MIT literary society we discussed The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Below is some of the discussion ingested with my own thoughts and tangents.

If you haven’t read the book, you can read the SparkNotes summary.

The Age of Innocence

Why is the time period in the book “The Age of Innocence”? In the late 1800’s, upper-class New York society kept strict social mores that allowed its members so little room for freedom that they couldn’t help but be “innocent”; it insulated itself against outside influences (frowning upon writers and artists, even those who need to work for a living) so that it stayed “innocent.” Newland Archer, who yearns to open up his mind, rebels against this type of innocence that he finds in his wife:

He did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!

But as we the story progresses, we see the villainy of innocence. Not everyone is content to keep within the social norms, and in order to keep the semblance of innocence, people have to pretend that these transgressions do not exist. Thus, growing up in such a society one can hardly keep the innocence of the first kind above, but learns to talk in ways that communicate the existence of such transgressions without ever acknowledging them. Even though May suspects Newland’s affair with Ellen, she continues to act the part of a perfect wife and treat Newland with the utmost respect.

A Core Message

Newland does not have the courage to break out of society’s role for him–and the semblance of innocence that society has given him–and so, he marries May and continues his affair with Ellen in secret, an affair that is never consummated. He wavers between trying to actualize his fantasies with Ellen, and rationalizing to himself that he should continue along the route that society established for him, so he never breaks free.

As his path becomes more and more set, his fate seems inevitable.

But the last chapter of the novel zooms forward several decades to a changed society, one more tolerant of free love. His own son marries the daughter of a failed banker–something which would be seen as disreputable in his generation but is perfectly acceptable now. A decision to marry the one you love–which Newland rationalized to himself as impossible–was a given for his son. Just when one is convinced Newland could not ever have found happiness, we see now that the could have–but he didn’t.

What the core message of the book? It does more than just chronicle upper-class New York society in the 1870’s. It has a deeper message that cuts across time, and cuts into more than romance: People choose a route to success and happiness pre-established by society, and then try to mold their own sense of happiness to match that route. When they fail to break against the bounds of society to follow their own dreams, they write their own tragedies.

Of course, a novel about a romance is perfect for this message because you can only marry one, right?

But then what can we do?

We left the book and tried to address the message in The Age of Innocence.

The natural question is, how do we break against the bounds of society (or imagined bounds) to follow their own dreams? How can we do what feels right for us, if it goes against established rules?

By having courage. Newland Archer had a dream he wanted to follow, but he just lacked the guts to carry it out. It’s important to act sooner than later too–often inaction makes it harder to act in the future.

But this doesn’t seem to be very helpful. How can an average person find this courage?

I think two things really help. One is something like The Age of Innocence–any story which traces out the consequences of inaction (or on the flip side, shows the success of action), sharpens our ideas of the importance of decisions to conform versus stand out–where formerly we might rationalize to ourselves a decision to conform because of a lack of courage. To me, this is the power of this novel. Second is just examples from bold people around us: if we have a hard time doing something brave, but we see someone else do it, just like that, it suddenly seems a lot easier. Sometimes it could just be a clearly and confidently articulated statement.

Bringing it home (these are mostly my own tangents)

How is our society now compared to society back then? Have we really loosened the rules of society?

I do think that it’s a lot more acceptable to talk about taboo topics in our day and age. But conventions are always going to exist (and conventions need to exist), so we are always going to need the courage to go against convention if need be.

I talk about “society” but really, it doesn’t have to be something as grand as that. We aren’t immune from needing to put ourselves out there, just because we don’t have any major conflict with the rules of society. For example, how much do people keep their mouth shut and not ask questions during class just because they feel an expectation to not ask questions? And what if time you don’t ask a question and rationalize it to yourself (that was a dumb question), you’re making it harder for yourself to really learn, just like every step Newland took to conform made it harder for him to be with Ellen?

Sometimes, just seeing the decision laid out, clearly and concisely, helps.

This was from an actual conversation I was involved in:

A guy I didn’t know (S.): Hey, (asks me a question).

(some back and forth between me and S.)

R.: (was listening) You didn’t know Holden but you asked him about (…)?

S.: I ask people questions all the time. The potential gain is much greater than any awkwardness it might incur.

It’s worthwhile to evaluate what kinds of decisions we rationalize away just because they “conform,” in some way, and don’t think of what might be better. And when we notice these decisions, we can either be caught in a fierce self-battle where neither side wins, or we can shift our view and find a way out. The actions themselves might not be hard–compare Newland’s agony versus his son’s decision–it’s the act of breaking against expectations that is hard. After all, who sets the rules? They’re continually enforced by everyone’s expectations for each other.


  1. Thanks for writing this.

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