Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Age of Innocence

“Not to understand the doer is to have no certain knowledge of what has been done, or why it was undertaken” – Philip Wylie, The Disappearance

In the last chapterWarning! I am about to spoil the ending of a book published in 1920! of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence Newland Archer, after the death of his wife, has traveled to Paris, where his true love Ellen Olenska, who he has not seen in over 30 years, resides. When Archer arrives he finds himself paralyzed, only able to look up at Ellen’s window on the fifth floor:

Archer sat down on the bench and continued to gaze at the awninged balcony. He calculated the time it would take his son to be carried up in the lift to the fifth floor, to ring the bell, and be admitted to the hall, and then ushered into the drawing-room. He pictured [his son] entering that room with his quick assured step and his delightful smile, and wondered if the people were right who said that his boy "took after him."

Then he tried to see the persons already in the room--for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one--and among them a dark lady, pale and dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it. . . . He thought she would be sitting in a sofa-corner near the fire, with azaleas banked behind her on a table.

"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

On its own, this passage is powerful enough, a tragic ending for the reader who has been hoping against hope that true love would finally triumph and Newland and Ellen would be united. But a little more insight into Wharton's possible source for this scene truly makes this passage tragic. Wharton named Archer after two characters in novels by her good friend Henry James: Christopher Newman (The American) and Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a LadyDiscussed in depth here.). In fact, a character in The Age of Innocence says to Archer, “You’re like the pictures on the wall of a deserted house: ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman.’”.

Wharton goes even further than referencing James’ work. In his wonderful examination of The Portrait of a Lady and its relation to Henry James’ lifePortrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece., Michael Gorra describes this heartbreaking story:

“[James] had once stood at dusk on a city street, watching “for the lighting of a lamp in a window on the third storey. And the lamp blazed out, and through bursting tears he strained to see what was behind it, the unapproachable face.” James had stayed there for hours, wet from the rain and repeatedly jostled by the hurrying crowd, ‘and never from behind the lamp was for one moment visible the face.”

The similarities between this story and Newland Archer’s vigil seem so clear that one assumes James told this story to Wharton as well. We do not know for sure who James was looking for in the window. Perhaps it was Paul Zhukovsky, a Russian who James had developed “a most tender affection for”As described in Gorra's book. as Colm Toibin in his fictionalized version of James’ life, The Master, speculates. Whoever it was, it is almost a certainty that it was someone James loved, a love that due to the social norms of the day was doomed to be unrequited. In this wondrous passage Wharton has not only captures the emotion James must have felt standing there, paralyzed in the rain, but has passed it along to us, her readers. For three hundred pages we have yearned for Newland and Ellen to finally be together. And we, like Newland, like James, are left wanting.

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