No one … could understand
why Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the
eccentricities of a husband who filled the house with
long-haired men and short-haired women…
But there they were,
set in their ways,
and apparently unaware that they were
different from other people.
– from The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
The reward for conformity
was that everyone liked you
– Rita Mae Brown
Slice of Cake:
the Pulizer Prize for Literature was—for the first time—
won by a woman:
Edith Wharton for her novel The Age of Innocence.
Edith Wharton in 1877 1
The Age of Innocence was written when Wharton was in her 50s,
after she had established herself as a strong author
with publishers clamoring for her work.
She set the novel in the New York City of her childhood—
during the Gilded Age of the 1870s.
Happy 157th birthday
** Edith Wharton ** *
“Ah, ah—so you kicked over the traces, did you?”
– the matriarch Catherine Spicer
in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Been thinking this week about conformity and originality.
In the early chapters of The Age of Innocence,
Archer Newland celebrates the conventions that he and
his fiancée, May Welland, were born into.
As he entered the [theater] box
his eyes met Miss Welland’s, and he saw that she had instantly
understood his motive, though the family dignity which both considered so
high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so…
And the fact that he and she understood each other
without a word
seemed to the young man to bring them nearer
than any explanation would have done.
– from chapter 2
Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more than her resolute determination to
carry to its utmost limit that ritual of
ignoring the “unpleasant”.
– from chapter 3
But soon there are hints of another attitude toward convention:
The old lady received him with unusual warmth… and when
he told her that he had deserted the office without leave,
and rushed down to St Augustine
simply because he wanted to see May,
she gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee with her puff-ball hand.
“Ah, ah—so you kicked over the traces, did you?
And I suppose Augusta and Welland pulled long faces, and behaved
as if the end of the world had come? …Ah, these Mingotts—
all alike! Born in a rut, and you can’t root ‘em out of it…
Not one of them wants to be different; they’re as scared of it as the small-pox.
Ah, my dear Mr Archer, I thank my stars I’m nothing but a vulgar Spicer; but there’s not one of my own children
that takes after me but my little Ellen….
Now, why in the world didn’t you marry my little Ellen?”
– from chapter 17
As Archer is drawn to Ellen, he finds himself changing:
There was something about the luxury of the Welland house
and the density of the Welland atmosphere,
so charged with minute observances and
exactions, that always
stole into his system like a narcotic.
The heavy carpets, the watchful servants,
the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks…
the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding
one hour to the next…
But now it was the Welland house,
and the life he was expected to lead in it,
that had become unreal
– from chapter 21
And later still, here is how Ellen reacts to convention:
She had grown tired of what people called “society”…
she had found herself, as she phrased it, too “different” to
care for the things it cared about—and so she had decided
to try Washington, where one was supposed to meet more
varieties of people and of opinion…
“…All sorts of new and crazy social schemes. But, do you know,
they interest me more than the blind conformity
to tradition—somebody else’s tradition—
that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to
have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country…
Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble
just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”
– from chapter 24
Yet Archer and Ellen are both trapped by conventions.
“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—
since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him:
the word was one that women of his class fought shy of,
even when their talk flitted closest about the topic…
He floundered. “I want—
I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—
categories like that—won’t exist…”
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh.
“Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked;
and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on:
“I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake
at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left,
but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”
– from chapter 29
This is 100-year-old prose and it is beautiful—but it’s also subversive.
Edith Wharton’s stories rarely have a standard romantic or happy ending. Her characters are not always punished when they don’t follow conventions—nor always rewarded when they do.
What I admire most about Edith Wharton’s writing is her insights into how soceity works to define and control women and men. She beautifully exposes just how restrictive those definitions—and how subtle those controls—really are.
And it isn’t just shame, or a fear of standing out as original. In The Age of Innocence, Newland and Ellen decide to follow convention as a sacrifice—because they believe that to do what they truly want will harm people they care about.
And isn’t that still true today?
Society today seems to allow for more freedom and originality. But who is free to do as we truly want in life?
Should we kick over our traces more often?
If so, who or what may be harmed in the process?
Thank you for reading! Here’s a pony.
This is 4-year-old Aamun Hurmo,
who on this day—
for whatever reason of her own—
opts not to kick over her traces.
“Half Cup More”
I could never remember which was which
when it came to Edith Wharton novels;
Her book titles seemed undescriptive and easy to forget.
Then I figured something out:
Her book titles give ironic clues to her plots.
In The House of Mirth (1905),
Lily’s descent to homelessness is not mirthful.
In The Age of Innocence (1920),
Newland’s long-standing marriage is not innocent.
And in The Custom of the Country (1913),
Undine successfully flouts every custom
through several countries.
The writer Jonathan Franzen 2
said that Edith Wharton’s novel
The Custom of the Country
“sounds the death knell of ‘the marriage plot’.”
Franzen also compares
its main character, Undine Spragg, whom he calls
the “almost comically indestructible Undine”
to Wile E Coyote
It made me proud to be an American.
Hope this is helpful to you, too.
Be composers: Compose your own lives
and in so doing, you will
compose your community and the world.
– Maya Angelo
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you. .
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
I found the photo of Edith Wharton
in Smithsonian Magazine on line. October 19, 2015
The brilliant writer Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction
titled “Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy”
for Three Novels of New York,
a compilation of Edith Wharton novels
Penguin Books (2012).
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2023