The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
Fiction — Classic Literature
Scribner Paper Fiction, 1982
(In lieu of a formal review, I am going to use the February prompt of the classics challenge from November’s Autumn to put down my thoughts about this book in the form of a letter, written from Newland Archer to Countess Olenska.)
February prompt (level 3): Try writing a short (four sentences +) note or letter as the character, addressed to you, another character, the author, anyone.
By the time you read this, I will be back in New York. I know you expected me to pay you a visit with my son, and I feel as though I owe you an explanation for my absence. I think you already know why I decided not to see you, and I think that you are probably in agreement with the explanation I’m about to give. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I will post this letter once it has been written–maybe even this small communication will ruin something that we’ve held onto for so long. If I do send this to you, and if you are reading it now, I ask only that you not respond. So much between us went unsaid–and if I’m correct, many things didn’t need to be said for us to understand each other–that I feel all of those saved up words demanding to be let out in some way. This is the best I can do for them now.
High society in our old New York was a funny thing, wasn’t it? We couldn’t say the things we wanted to say, and in some cases, we were expected to say exactly the opposite of what we really meant, all in the name of tradition and propriety. My marriage to May Welland was the result of my caring too much about my position within that society. Oh, I talked a lot about breaking traditions, and thinking for myself, and wanting a wife who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and admit to the silliness of it all, but in the end, I cared too much. I was weak. May was the very epitome of old New York’s high society, and she also represented everything I hated about it. There was a time, before we were married, that I thought I saw a flicker of that independence in her personality–I thought that once she was out from under her mother’s thumb she wouldn’t hesitate to be vocal about her disdain for the hypocritical propriety that surrounded us all. Unfortunately, I was wrong. She was too devoted to them all to say or do anything that would upset them. As it turns out, so was I.
She gave me a way out, you know, before we were officially wed. What a fool I was. I could have walked away right then and there–and maybe I would have attracted some temporary scorn, although given enough time, I believe it would have passed–but I panicked. I swore, like the dutiful, high society gentleman should, that there was no one else. I gave myself to her and told her that there was no other person I wished to be with. I have suffered with that lie for all of these years, and I think I deserve every bit of that suffering.
That is another falsehood, actually. Did I really suffer? Well, yes and no. Marrying May and being faithful to her forced me to stifle my objections to the society we belonged to, and oh, how I’ve suffered with those people and their pious hypocracies. It forced me to clamp shut my jaws when I witnessed the way they treated you and pushed you out. I will always regret not standing up for you in the weeks before your final departure from New York. It was only at the last minute that I understood that it was all a well-devised plan to come between us, and through my spinelessness and my silence, they were the victors. For that, I apologize, and I hope you have already forgiven me. I am sure that your life has been better in France, that you were relieved to return to a place that would allow you the independence that you demanded and deserved. I only wish that I had been brave enough to join you. As the French say, though, c’est la vie.
On the other hand, I always felt that my feelings and thoughts for you were my true reality. I had built up within myself a kind of sanctuary in which you throned among my secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of my real life, of my only rational activities; thither I bought the books I read, the ideas and feelings which nourished me, my judgments and my visions. Outside it, in the scene of my actual life, I moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent–that’s what I was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about me that it sometimes startled me to find they still imagined I was there. In this way, I probably suffered less than I deserved. We were always together, if only in my innermost thoughts, and that sustained me. I learned to live physically with the people around me, while at the same time living with you inside my mind. At some point, I realized that I had built you up–us up–so much, that any relationship we might have would pale in comparison to this reality inside my mind. I had imagined too much for us, the pedestal too high. How could we possibly attain such a lofty goal? And how foolish would it be for me to think that you have held me so passionately in your heart and in your thoughts through all of this time which has passed between us? No, that would be too proud of me. I would have held nothing against you if you had turned your back on me as I did to you all those years ago.
And so, I turned away instead of walking up those stairs to the fifth floor to be reunited with you. I thought it best to remember you the way you were–to remember us together as we were that day in the park. So much was left unsaid–the story of my life, it seems–and maybe it was better that way. Was this selfish of me? Maybe. But in my heart, I believe you feel the same way, and I think I have saved us both from more regret and heartache. If I am wrong, this is just another mistake for you to forgive, if you so choose. Just know that I will always wonder what my life could have been like had I broken away from everything I secretly stood against, to join you across the ocean for a new and freer life. You will always be my secret reality.
Yours in heart and mind,
(Click here to learn more about Edith Wharton.)
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