The picture of Innocence has a conspicuous face. She is round-cheeked with youth, and guilelessly alert, her limpid eyes awaiting anything and suspecting nothing. She might wear white. She likely is white. She could bear a resemblance to the subject of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s late 18th-century painting, The Age of Innocence, the supposed titular inspiration for Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel by the same name.
Yet, in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, published 100 years ago this June, innocence assumes less fragile and impressionable visages. Moreover, its invocation is arch, and a little bit melancholy. Wharton sets the novel in 1870s New York City, a milieu her contemporary readers would have regarded as far-flung and antique, sundered by dozens of years and, most acutely, by the psychological chasm of The Great War. For Wharton’s characters, travel to London or Paris is an expected luxury, unfettered by political unrest. Gentlemen wear gardenias in their buttonholes and, once engaged, they take daily strolls to the florist, where they order decadent floral arrangements for their fiancées (this was expected gallantry). The telephone, invented in 1876, abides as a topic of speculation rather than a realized item of convenience; in fact, it seems a contraption better suited to the fantastical devisings of Edgar Allen Poe or Jules Verne.
From the perch of post-war modernity, one could receive Victorian manners and frames of reference as quaint, dare I say, innocent. However, Wharton harbors no interest in a glossy, rose-hued history of gentility. The world she renders is chilly, sleek, and stridently solipsistic: it is as devoted to its own aggrandizement as it is to its rigorous self-surveillance. But if everybody is watching each other, their undergirding motivations are frivolous and sly. After all, the well-to-do’s most corrupt machinations are attentively greased and diligently ignored—until, of course, someone’s trespass makes the morning papers. New York society knows precisely how to tilt its head so that its gaze excludes any inconvenient contradictions.
Wharton’s narrative unfolds amid this paranoid and laboriously urbane atmosphere, and it centers upon one of its finest byproducts. Protagonist Newland Archer is a wealthy young man whose material advantages nourish his coddled and dilettante lifestyle, not to mention his overconfident ego. At the novel’s start, he is newly engaged to May Welland, a naive and impeccably bred socialite who Newland is eager to cultivate according to his specifications (“We’ll read Faust together,” he daydreams). Of course, Newland’s smug satisfaction demands an impediment, and Wharton promptly delivers: On the night of the couple’s betrothal, May introduces Newland to her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, a glamorously unorthodox expatriate who has fled her husband and whose return to New York has scandalized its gossip-ravenous aristocrats. What follows is not surprising: Newland and Ellen fall in love and, over the course of the novel, must grapple with the simultaneous, insistent tugs of desire and duty.
On a surface register, The Age of Innocence is a story of luckless love and marital disillusionment. But it is moreso a vibrant ethnography of privilege, one that lays bare the delusions we propel and absorb in the name of civility or familial convention. In this context, we can easily read Wharton’s evocation of innocence as searingly ironic: after all, many of the novel’s characters are complicit in some brackish intrigue. And yet, the novel posits another variation of innocence entirely, one that is not a quality of age or happenstance or—above all—guiltlessness, but rather of meticulous and emphatic choice. Assiduously preserved, this iteration of innocence encompasses its disciples with the plush warmth of a velvet lampshade, willfully obscuring their sight, and only emitting the vaguest aspect of the person concealed—so comfortably—within.
Gradually, imperfectly, Newland apprehends the societal deceit and evasion pulsing through the “hieroglyphic world,” in which he lives, “where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” But the narrator delivers this explication, not Newland, and it arrives early in the text when our protagonist is still blissful and clueless. Wharton focalizes her novel through Newland, but his vantage point is just barely eclipsed—and ironized, as Sarah Blackwood notes—by a third-person narrator hovering over him. Blackwood identifies this interstice in perspectives as a “sliver of light” which “illuminates much in the novel”: namely, it indicates to us how poorly Newland reads the women who comprise New York’s tight corral of high society. Addled by patriarchal ideology, and seduced by his own ramshackle assessments of character, Newland’s perceptions of both May and Ellen are always askew. The former is not nearly so oblivious as he believes, and as for the latter: he is too dazzled by the erotic novelty she represents to see her clearly.
Now and then, however, the novel indicates that Newland has attained a certain clarity: it is through his interactions with May and his pathologically snobbish mother-in-law, Mrs. Welland, that he reconsiders the shape of innocence, discerning a sharp, prismatic twist. In Mrs. Welland, he encounters it as something implacable and militantly enforced. After Ellen, her niece, yields to the teeth of familial influence and decides not to pursue a divorce from the brutish Count Olenski, Mrs. Welland expels her relief in a private conversation with her son-in-law—who, in fact, was the one to finally convince Ellen not to commit this terrible act of infamy. As Mrs. Welland declares her gratitude—imagine the headlines!—she reveals, nearly in the same breath, that Ellen’s reasons for separating from the Count are unknown to her. In fact, she has expressly asked to be spared the details, lest she be disturbed by their unpleasantness. Newland discerns in Mrs. Welland’s callousness a prevailing strategy of selfish preservation, one that he fears his wife, May, will claim as inheritance: “[A] life-long mastery over trifles had given [her features] an air of factitious authority. Traces still lingered on them of fresh beauty like her daughter’s; and he asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.”
These are damning words, and based on Mrs. Welland’s testimony, they seem grimly accurate. Aware that the Count has threatened Ellen with blackmail, Mrs. Welland’s paramount concern is suffocating any breath of scandal without being exposed to a whiff of it.
“I verily believe… that if the horrible business had come out in the newspapers it would have been my husband’s death-blow,” she tells Newland. “I don’t know any of the details; I only ask not to, as I told poor Ellen when she tried to talk to me about it. Having an invalid to care for, I have to keep my mind bright and happy.”
Mrs. Welland does not invite much sympathy, particularly when her behavior is filtered through Newlald’s gaze. But she genuinely believes that Ellen’s tumult will be injurious to the family’s welfare, and that it will cause an uproar just as her daughter is about to be married. Of course, her justification for ignorance registers as hollow: her husband is a pampered hypochondriac, and whether or not Mrs. Welland understands this, she does not skirt her niece’s emotional mess solely on his behalf.
Unfortunately, Newland is rather too quick to assume that May will share her mother’s inclinations, and this gnarls his view of her. After they are married, “he marvel[s]... at the way in which experience drop[s] away from her,” never considering that perhaps her unburdened affect is to some degree a performance. Still, the narrator identifies a “hard bright blindness” that May never sheds: “Her incapacity to recognize change made her children conceal their views from her as Archer concealed his... And she... died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own.” Lacking access to May’s interiority, the reader cannot know how consciously she imposes this “invincible innocence” upon herself, or whether it is a psychological reflex, as unthinking as a blink or a shiver. But she seems not to question her predilections, or her safety within them, and her family is content to enable her myopic—presumed—happiness.
For better or for worse, literary critics will always, with stalwart determination, insist upon the contemporary relevance of whatever it is we’re reading, no matter the gyrations required to draw parallels. I reread The Age of Innocence a couple of weeks before the United States erupted in protest over the police brutality seizing so many Black lives. My plans for this essay were more celebratory: after all, The Age of Innocence was the first woman-authored book to win the Pulitzer, and I am supposed to mark its centennial. The essay probably would have been a bit maudlin, too. I do love the agony of an exquisite, tortured love affair.
But the pleasure I take in this novel—in Edith Wharton—in so much Western literature—is inextricably capacitated by the invincible innocence of white privilege. To be sure, The Age of Innocence articulates the cultural mindset in which it was written, a mindset that was saturated with racism and myriad other prejudices (for the record, Wharton was no feminist). This is the sort of caveat I can largely recognize without personal ramification. Excluding what Wharton’s characters—or, for that matter, Wharton herself—might have to say about my Jewish family, my whiteness supplies me with a pair of cozy blinkers that occlude the tarnishing details. Once I turn my attention to the novel’s treatment of persons of color—peripheral, dismissive—I cannot regain my uncomplicated enjoyment of it. Nor should I. To read as a white woman in 2020 demands the agential seeking of discomfort. It requires that I hold my most cherished books to account, and to consider what made them so easy for me to love in the first place.
Moreover, it compels rigorous self-honesty: I cannot only locate myself in fictional characters when that enterprise is, at base, whimsical and validating. If May Welland is staring back at me I must resist the urge to tilt my head and look towards something more indulgent and placating.
Instead, I take the measure of Innocence. By now, she has matured into adulthood and wears a jaunty pink pussy hat and a “Notorious RBG” crop top. She floods the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag with mute black squares and tweets screenshots of her every donation receipt. When her family’s Thanksgiving dinner descends into a chorus of Trumpian praise, she falls silent. She prefers to withdraw from these sorts of conversations, rather than to provoke them further. Sometimes it is easier to love when you are innocent of the details.
Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, which was published in February 2020 by Grand Central Publishing. She also publishes frequently in such outlets as Longreads, the New Republic, Literary Hub, Pitchfork, Hazlitt, and Catapult and was previously a contributing writer at Jezebel. She lives in Takoma Park, MD.