|Edith Wharton at 22, 1884|
That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas....
What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends' marriages—the supposedly happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, Ch. 6
In The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton makes the risky choice of creating central characters who largely forfeit our sympathies. Both Lily Bart (in The House of Mirth) and Newland Archer (in The Age of Innocence) are self-centered, superficial, and self-defeating. Like most of the people around them, they are trapped by the hypocritical mores and rigid unspoken rules of the New York social world. What makes them figures of tragedy is that they can see clearly the bars of the gilded cage in which they are imprisoned and the emptiness of the goals for which they are struggling. But ultimately neither has sufficient imagination or moral strength to find a way out.
Lily Bart—an unmarried woman nearing the critical age of 30—passes up a chance at true companionship with Lawrence Selden, a man with whom she shares intellectual, emotional and aesthetic sympathies. But he lives in what she considers genteel poverty (he has to work—as a lawyer; what could be more déclassé?), and spends much of his time with disreputable writers and artists. Both Lily and Selden recognize that she would not be happy without a husband who could provide her with social distinction, an unlimited budget for clothes and jewels, and a splendid house to decorate.
“...You despise my ambitions—you think them unworthy of me!"Their mutual retreat from this moment of emotional honesty is only the first of a series of misjudgments that have momentous consequences for Lily. Running afoul of both men and women who play the game far more cynically and ruthlessly than she does, Lily finds herself in an increasingly compromised position as the social vultures begin to circle...
Selden smiled, but not ironically. "Well, isn't that a tribute? I think them quite worthy of most of the people who live by them."
She had turned to gaze on him gravely. "But isn't it possible that, if I had the opportunities of these people, I might make a better use of them? Money stands for all kinds of things--its purchasing quality isn't limited to diamonds and motor-cars."
"Not in the least: you might expiate your enjoyment of them by founding a hospital."
"But if you think they are what I should really enjoy, you must think my ambitions are good enough for me."
Selden met this appeal with a laugh. "Ah, my dear Miss Bart, I am not Divine Providence, to guarantee your enjoying the things you are trying to get!"
"Then the best you can say for me is, that after struggling to get them I probably shan't like them?" She drew a deep breath. "What a miserable future you foresee for me!"
"Well—have you never foreseen it for yourself?" The slow colour rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was as if the effort of her spirit had produced it.
"Often and often," she said. "But it looks so much darker when you show it to me!"
He made no answer to this exclamation, and for a while they sat silent, while something throbbed between them in the wide quiet of the air.
But suddenly she turned on him with a kind of vehemence. "Why do you do this to me?" she cried. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?"
—The House of Mirth, Ch. 6
Like Lawrence Selden, Newland Archer affects bohemian attitudes, suggesting scandalously that women should be allowed the same sexual freedoms as men, and inwardly denigrating his beautiful fiancée May Welland as unimaginative and conventional.
But Archer does May an injustice: she is actually far more perceptive and understanding than he is, and is willing to grant him the freedom in reality that he only extends to her theoretically. Their moment of truth comes when, despite her demurrals, he persists in urging her to marry him right away:
"Is it—is it because you're not certain of continuing to care for me?"May is here offering Archer a chance to honestly reveal what she has already guessed: that he's fallen in love with another woman. What May doesn't suspect is that the woman is May's cousin, Ellen Olenska, who has come to New York to separate herself for good from her dissolute European husband. But Archer shows himself to be a prisoner of the conventional opinion he professes to disdain. He conceals the truth of his illicit love from May, as he had earlier advised Ellen not to expose herself (and by extension, himself and May) to scandal and social ostracism by divorcing her husband. His choices ultimately destroy the happiness of everyone involved.
Archer sprang up from his seat. "My God—perhaps—I don't know," he broke out angrily.
May Welland rose also; as they faced each other she seemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity. Both were silent for a moment, as if dismayed by the unforeseen trend of their words: then she said in a low voice: "If that is it—is there some one else?"
"Some one else—between you and me?" He echoed her words slowly, as though they were only half-intelligible and he wanted time to repeat the question to himself. She seemed to catch the uncertainty of his voice, for she went on in a deepening tone: "Let us talk frankly, Newland. Sometimes I've felt a difference in you; especially since our engagement has been announced."
"Dear—what madness!" he recovered himself to exclaim.
She met his protest with a faint smile. "If it is, it won't hurt us to talk about it." She paused, and added, lifting her head with one of her noble movements: "Or even if it's true: why shouldn't we speak of it? You might so easily have made a mistake."
He lowered his head, staring at the black leaf-pattern on the sunny path at their feet. "Mistakes are always easy to make; but if I had made one of the kind you suggest, is it likely that I should be imploring you to hasten our marriage?"
She looked downward too, disturbing the pattern with the point of her sunshade while she struggled for expression. "Yes," she said at length. "You might want—once for all—to settle the question: it's one way."...
Her face had taken on a look of such tragic courage that he felt like bowing himself down at her feet. "I've wanted to say this for a long time," she went on. "I've wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged...pledged to the person we've spoken of...and if there is any way...any way in which you can fulfill your pledge...even by her getting a divorce...Newland, don't give her up because of me!"
—The Age of Innocence, Ch. 16
Edith Wharton was herself a product of the New York social world that she portrays so unsparingly. She also had a troubled marriage that ended in divorce, and conducted a passionate extramarital affair. Perhaps only someone who had experienced the crushing weight of social convention and the remorseless surveillance that enforces it could have written so incisively about those who are simultaneously its victims and perpetrators.