The writing! I can’t remember the last time I read a book in which the author created such a vivid atmosphere with just a few poignant sentences. I thought it was masterful: subtle, yet very observant and witty. Seemingly effortless, Wharton conveys the stifling constraints that the upper crust of Old New York society imposes on itself—meaningless rituals, ridiculous rules, and irrelevant gossip shape the lives of the men and women who are a part of it. Both the subtlety of the writing and the subtlety of the characters’ actions require the reader to pay close attention to every word, but the extra effort is well worth it.
“But, as it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts, he simply replied: ‘Oh well, there’s always a phase of family parties to be gone through when one gets engaged, and the sooner it’s over the better.’ At which his mother merely pursed her lips under the lace veil that hung down from her grey velvet bonnet trimmed with frosted grapes.”
Then there’s Archer Newland, the main protagonist. I feel like I know him personally, and I pity him. He starts out with such promise: a favored son, engaged to marry a respectable daughter from a “good” family, open-minded, and inquisitive. While he is perfectly comfortable with the rules and behaviors of his set, he is at times uncomfortable with them:
“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 one side and hypocrisy on the other.”
Archer has every intention to educate his future wife and make her as much his equal as possible. His good intentions are blown away, though, when May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in New York. She has left her abusive husband and shocks everyone with her impulsive behavior. Yet she is also realistic, and when May is finally able to convince her parents to shorten the engagement period, it is Ellen who urges Archer to go through with the wedding, despite the confessed love between Ellen and Archer. So Archer does what is expected of him. The consequences are heartbreaking.
I can’t really fault Archer for falling in love with May’s cousin. One can’t control who one falls in love with. What I find sad is that he stops engaging with his wife. True, his early ideas of making May his equal, to open her eyes so that she could see what he sees, were unrealistic; but after he decides that May can’t live up to Ellen, he never gives her a chance.
“As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty, or an emotion.”
Archer’s big mistake is that he underestimates his wife. The rules of his society are so engrained in him that he realizes people consider his relationship with Ellen to be questionable, but never once does he consider how this might affect his wife. He believes he can easily deceive her. How wrong you were, Archer! You never saw the blow coming she dealt you.
The ending of this book is certainly bittersweet. I wonder why he didn’t go up to see the Countess Oleska. Maybe he can’t bear the reminder of what could have been; maybe he doesn’t want to know whether his wasted life was worth it. Maybe Ellen has lived in his mind for so long now that he doesn’t want to know whether his idea of her is still true. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, which is the perfect ending for this book.
I read this book as part of The Wharton Review, hosted by Brona’s Books. Check out some of the links submitted so far for this month-long event that focuses on Edith Wharton:
- Cathy at 746Books wrote a wonderful review of Ethan Frome.
- Brona explained some of the Wondrous Words that you can find in Wharton’s writing. (I have one to add: valetudinarian: a person who is unduly anxious about his/her health)
- Melissa at Avid Reader’s Musings wrote a mini-review of Summer.