"I just wasn't made for this world, but I wouldn't like to meet someone who was."
I'm always so shocked when I enjoy a "classic" novel. I guess I'm always expecting them to be unbearably dull. Admittedly, a lot of them are, especially when you're forced to read them in high school. But when I finished The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton, 1920), I felt significant sadness. To me, this doesn't just mean the book was "good", but that the world-building was impeccable. When I finished the book and left its world, there was a sense of loss.
[Image: Daniel Day-Lewis played Newland Archer in the film adaptation. I would have done the casting very differently, going much younger with all the main characters. But meh.]
The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer and his various First World Problems. He's a young man living in New York City's high society in the late 1800s. While he's engaged to a "respectable" girl, he falls in love with a "fallen woman", i.e., one who fled her abusive husband. Their love affair was barely an "affair" at all, consisting of just a few brief conversations and a lot of fantasy. But I was surprised by how intrigued I was with the social milieu. While it was hard to dredge up much sympathy for these people's problems, Wharton's descriptions intrigued me anyway. The people are stuffy and boring, but Wharton gets into their heads in a way I found really remarkable. The characters are the country's most privileged people, but they also seemed very fragile, existing in a permanent state of social anxiety. They exhibited extreme distress and paranoia over "trivial" matters like wearing the wrong dress or being uninvited to a dinner. It was oddly comforting to me. Maybe in 100 years, our own social concerns-- "How long do I wait to e-mail her?"..."Hmm, should I 'like' his 'I'm single' Facebook update?" will seem just as silly.
Had the Age of Innocence characters lived today, they might be diagnosed with a variety of conditions. Check out these traits of Victorian-era socialites, which map over Asperger's:
- Rigid thinking
- Obsession with a narrow range of topics
- Focus on minute details
- Adherence to arbitrary routines
- Continuous need for structure
At its heart, the book seems to be about theoretical vs. actual opportunity, something that is timely for me. What dreams do we choose to pursue, and which do we let die? What is reality and what is truly fantasy? I don't know if today's culture, with all our additional freedoms, makes that question any easier. Apparently it's a dilemma that has been bothering Americans for some time now. Same exact theme, with a very different conclusion, set in the 20th century:
[Image: The novel Revolutionary Road]