I know I am incurring some form of literary sacrilege by failing to appreciate this novel. I remember reading this holding my breath at every stop of a conversation because I feel that the characters are holding their breaths as well lest they do something against their will, rather, something against the expectations imposed on them by their society. You see, the characters are rich New Yorkers who visit each other in carriages or who invite each other to posh parties. It is like excerpts of the parties and dinners from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, only that the times are different: this is set on the years between two centuries.
They say that the only people who could write the highest form of literature are those who came from extreme poverty or high-end aristocracy. Wharton comes from the latter. So is this novel a high-end literature? Sure, it’s a Pulitzer winner, but I don’t know. I just don’t dig it. Probably because I find novels about the rich a little empty? We could not blame the author if there are no poor characters in her novel. How can she write something even remotely related to poverty if she has never laid a finger on it?
Besides, it would have been hypocrisy if she writes about it. Oh, this novel is thick with it: vain, pompous men and women who parade a mask of dignity in the hopes of filling out a space once filled with values. But what were the values of that time and the values of the coming generation?
It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.
This novel is pegged on the values of familial loyalty, sustained tradition, rigid manners, and sexual chastity. And the value above, if that qualifies as one. We now have a tent full of characters who either stay inside or get out and pull out these pegs. And what do they do?
Archer, Ellen, and May are the lead characters of the novel. Another ménage à trois. Archer is attracted to Ellen, Ellen is an older, estranged wife to someone, and May is the naïve fiancée of Archer. So we read about them fighting off their feelings because they are expected to do this and to do that. It must have been really sad living in the 1900s even if the city is New York. That must have been sadder still.
So you see, these people do not know what they want. Rather, they are afraid of acting on what they want. They just do what is expected of them: marry the person you are assigned to marry, act sad because you should be a bereaving separated woman, and play the role of the ignorant who hears the juiciest of gossips last.
Because I detest this attitude, I did not have any sympathy for these characters. At least the characters of War and Peace seemed to know how to act. Archer, Ellen, and May felt like machines toying with emotions, but I still forgive them because they are written during that period when social expectations are more important than personal gratifications.
How can these people live like that? They have their own brains to figure things out. Ellen loves Archer, but Archer knows what would happen if he breaks from his marriage to May. Everyone in New York will sympathize with the wounded party, who by the way knows what’s going on, that her prospective husband is in love with another woman. She has a brain to understand that, right?
And what do these three people do about that? They just carry on, stifling whatever it is that is in their hearts. They cannot seem to escape the chains of duty that they are bound with, hands and feet.
If they can’t do it, they should stop entertaining thoughts that they know they are incapable of realizing. Of course they can’t help it. God, I have a feeling that I am just going to repeat myself. I’m just so annoyed. This isn’t the age of innocence. It’s the age of blunders.