Dog-eared by Darcie Hart Riedner
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Poetry and art are the breath of life to her
Edith Wharton can be celebrated as the first woman author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Wharton’s novel takes place in 1870’s New York and exposes the less than exemplary aspects of upper crust society. A synopsis on Amazon.com explains:
“Newland Archer, Wharton’s protagonist, charming, tactful, enlightened, is a thorough product of this engagement to the impeccable May Welland assures him of a safe and conventional future, until the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska. Independent, free-thinking, scandalously separated from her husband, Ellen forces Archer to question the values and assumptions of his narrow world. As their love for each other grows, Archer has to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies.”
Wharton herself was no stranger to elite society, and the novel would have caused a bit of a scandal since it was thought to have autobiographical undertones. Wharton was the author’s married name. She was in fact born Edith Newbold Jones, the daughter of a wealthy banking family. In fact, one explanation of the colloquial phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originates from other wealthy families of the day trying to maintain a lifestyle similar to Edith’s family.
By the time she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, Wharton had already produced an astonishing volume of work including eleven novels, eight short story collection, seven nonfiction books on gardening, travel and home decorating and two books of poetry. Two of her best known works, prior to The Age of Innocence, were published during this time period. The House of Mirth was published in 1905 and Ethan Frome in 1911.
Wharton’s House of Mirth is also set in New York society and the author again exposes its duplicitous nature. House of Mirth tells the tale of Lily Bart, a naïve young socialite whose poor choices lead to her being completely ostracized by friends and family resulting in her ruin personally and financially. Bart’s choices are unwise but the outcomes are often compounded by the treachery of those around her, whom she unknowingly trusts.
Ethan Frome is one of a few of Wharton’s novels with a rural, rather than urban, setting. Its plot maintains the same tone, however, of the expectations of society and the limits those expectations place on choices for happiness and fulfillment. Ethan Frome is trapped in a loveless marriage to Zeena unable to break free and be with the woman he truly loves; Zeena’s cousin Mattie. A rash decision by Ethan and Mattie changes the course of all of their lives, a decision which might not have been necessary if the couple were not faced with the constraints of society.
Wharton’s novels are unflinching examinations of the best and worst in all of us-especially when outside influences dictate our decisions and thwart our desires. The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome are available for free download at Project Gutenberg.com or as a free audio book at LibriVox.com.