About a decade or so ago I had seen on TV for the first time the 1993 film adaptation of this novel that starred Michele Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis. It had made a deep impression on me, especially the performance of supporting actress Wynona Ryder, who played May Welland. After that I saw TV repeats of it a few more times, which left me ever more bewitched. Last week, I finally came round to reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The power of Wharton’s beautiful prose, along with the pathos of a tragic-ending love story plotline, made it a sublime reading experience.
What the author brings into the novel, set in 19th century New York, is much more than pathos of forbidden love. Her clear-eyed insight into the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of high-society New York in what was called the “Gilded Age”, which insight her upper-class up-bringing had chanced to cultivate, gave that much more emotive profundity and even raison d’etre to the storyline.
During the reading, I had that nagging feeling that the author seems to treat the devious and cold-hearted May Welland and her lot with too much leniency. Then I found out from Wikipedia that Wharton meant for The Age of Innocence to be an “apology” for her earlier novel The House of Mirth, which had been much more critical and brutal about the same theme - how social dogmas restricted individual freedom. It just goes to show how unforgiving and oppressive certain moral fetishes can be, under the guise of preservation of family/social traditions.
I don’t know if I’m the odd one out here, but the one character in the novel whom I admire is the joyously obese Mrs. Manson Mingott, if only because she is as generous and non-judgmental in her compassion as in her appreciation for food.
Lastly, I just have to say that I love the satirical ring to the title name. Allegedly the title was inspired by a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was originally named A Little Girl and later changed to The Age of Innocence. It makes me think that the story’s protagonist should be May Welland rather than Countess Ellen Olenska. Welland’s innocence is the “invincible” kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.