Immortality and Myth in The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton’s books are considered, by some, merely popular fiction of her time. But we must be careful not to equate popularity with the value of the fiction; i.e., we must not assume that if her books are popular, they are also primitive. Compared to the works of her contemporary and friend, Henry James, whose books may seem complex and sometimes bewildering; Wharton’s The Age of Innocence appears to be a simplistic, gossipy commentary of New York society during the last decade of the 19th century*. Instead, it is one man’s struggle with the questions of mortality and immortality. Wharton’s characters, settings and the minutiae of social rituals, manners, speech habits, dress and even flowers help her expose the mortal and immortal. But her adroit contrasts and comparisons with mythology elevate her fiction to the heights of sophistication.
It is Newland Archer who is caught in the struggle man feels between living an ordinary and mortal life; or what his society consider an extraordinary and immortal life. It is he who is tested, who is tried and convicted by his society. It is he who gives in to the immortal manipulations of his wife, family and friends. It is he who gives up his chance for freedom, for love, and to be mortal. Wharton’s skill raises her characters to the level of myth for they, like the Greeks, are unforgettable and hence immortal.
Looking at the book as a whole, Edith Wharton’s New York society of the late 19th century can be weighed against the society of Greek (and Roman) mythology. They are both mortal and immortal. She utilizes mythology to present us with a sophisticated comparison of New York society and the pantheon of the Greeks in the age of antiquity.
As the myths tell us, the Greeks were constantly involved in societal conflicts and intrigues; these intrigues are similar to Wharton’s New York society with its bickering and manipulation. Urns and wall paintings tell us about the mythical characters’ predilection for a sensual life; this compares to Wharton’s characters’ penchant for their own hedonistic life of carousing, sexual cavorting and dizzy social calendars of parties and operas. The Greeks, mythical and real, were masters of architecture and decoration, which to this day, attest to their immortality. Wharton pays great attention to the mansions and embellishments of the New York houses. Her society attempts to be immortal in its own buildings; and by amassing ornate bits and bobbles from ages past and paintings and decorations, the society feels it will live on forever: Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the botron d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the...