Virtue as Vacuity 15 February 2006Posted by VARANGALI in Arts, Relationships, Reviews, VARANGALI.
The Age of Innocence is an exercise in ironic nostalgia. While ridiculing the hypocrisy, strictures, and sense of entitlement of turn-of-the-century New York aristocracy, Edith Wharton ends her novel with a modern world that is free of such twisted morality, but also devoid of passion, noble restraint, and appreciation of the human experience.
Couched in the first unappealing context is a tale of awkward love, with rough edges and misunderstood silences. While married to the “ideal” woman, Newland Archer is drawn to her cousin Ellen Olenska, who appears unaffected by the petty proprieties of aristocratic New York. Although rebels in spirit, Newland and Ellen are ultimately guided by a simple morality based on the very real consequences of human interactions. (A synopsis of the novel can be found with Cliffs Notes.)
The Age of Innocence provokes discussion by raising questions but rarely suggesting any answers. After savaging the strictures of old New York, Wharton leaves us with a gem of an observation that love, in fact, may be diluted by the modern freedoms we now enjoy (Love and Freedom, 1/18/06). Similarly, she not only questions those who pretend to be virtuous, but also the very virtues themselves.
“Archer felt irrationally angry. His host’s contemptuous tribute to May’s ‘niceness’ was just what a husband should have wished to hear said of his wife. The fact that a coarse-minded man found her lacking in attraction was simply another proof of her quality; yet the words sent a faint shiver through his heart. What if ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?”
May is virtuous by contemporary standards: she is modest, humble, soft-spoken, and kind. Yet these virtues form but a veil to hide the vacuity of her character. Intelligent enough to see through the hypocritical morality of her time, she has neither the desire to do so, nor the will to do anything but adhere to it herself. Yet the partially gender-segregated structure of society, combined with her evident virtues, make her an ideal spouse.
As we celebrate the moral superiority of our gender relations over the decadence of the West, perhaps we should take a page out of Wharton’s playbook: let us incessantly question that which we hold dear, lest it slip away.