Part I of Age of Innocence sets up Newton Archer as a high-Societyman struggling to identify his place in a stifling, hypocritical and often unfair Society. By Part II, Archer has identified the Society of New York, and recognizes in it its weaknesses and flaws; strengths and promises:
"It was the old New York way, of taking life 'without effusion of blood'; the way of people who dreader scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than 'scenes,' except the behavior of those who gave rise to them." (272)In understanding this, Archer is then faced with a decision: conformity or noncomformity. He must choose between his place (and his duty) and his whimsy (and illicit love).
It is an eminently familiar situation: that battle between what we feel we must do and what we wish we could do; the contest between who we are and who we thought we would grow up to be; the struggle between making ourselves happy with what we have and longing after what we might have had.
"His days were full and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.Archer's tale is sad but not without hope; he is disappointed, and somewhat disappointing, but not to an extent that he becomes despicable. He, like so many others, has set out to do what he believes to be the right thing, and upon making his decision, is resigned to living with it. He does not buck (too much) or complain (too often). In that, he is actually rather stoic. Though it is tempting to view him as weak, does it not take some courage to give up a dream in the face of responsibility? And to accept the consequences that accompany it?
Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbably that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery." (281)
Despite some readers' disappointment with the final pages (and at a risk of giving away too much), I believe Archer's actions are instead a perfect reflection of his character: steadfast, courageous, dutiful, aggravating.
Bottom line: Wharton's Age of Innocence is the kind of novel that has sat on the edge of my consciousness for some time without me ever really focusing on it. Now that I finally have, I find it is also the kind of novel that is eminently quotable, easy to relate to, and transcends the both the era in which it was written and the era about which is what written in that perfect way that those books we deem "classics" tend to do.
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