Immortality and Myth in The Age of Innocence

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Immortality and Myth in The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton’s books are considered, by some, merely popular fiction of her time. But we must be careful not to equate popularity with the value of the fiction; i.e., we must not assume that if her books are popular, they are also primitive. Compared to the works of her contemporary and friend, Henry James, whose books may seem complex and sometimes bewildering; Wharton’s The Age of Innocence appears to be a simplistic, gossipy commentary of New York society during the last decade of the 19th century*. Instead, it is one man’s struggle with the questions of mortality and immortality. Wharton’s characters, settings and the minutiae of social rituals, manners, speech habits, dress and even flowers help her expose the mortal and immortal. But her adroit contrasts and comparisons with mythology elevate her fiction to the heights of sophistication.

It is Newland Archer who is caught in the struggle man feels between living an ordinary and mortal life; or what his society consider an extraordinary and immortal life. It is he who is tested, who is tried and convicted by his society. It is he who gives in to the immortal manipulations of his wife, family and friends. It is he who gives up his chance for freedom, for love, and to be mortal. Wharton’s skill raises her characters to the level of myth for they, like the Greeks, are unforgettable and hence immortal.

Looking at the book as a whole, Edith Wharton’s New York society of the late 19th century can be weighed against the society of Greek (and Roman) mythology. They are both mortal and immortal. She utilizes mythology to present us with a sophisticated comparison of New York society and the pantheon of t...

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...nd his own mortality. Yet as the anti-hero, he is a coward; he denies his mortality and accepts immortality. He lives within the pantheon of the gods yet by rejecting their societal rules, he is a thinking human mortal being. But as a mortal being he lacks the strength to change and recreate the New York pantheon. He is forever trapped within the walls of its mausoleum.

*One story about Wharton and James goes like this: Wharton drove up to James’ house one day in a brand new, beautifully large car. She got out and said that she had purchased the car with the proceeds of her last book. James pointed to a wheelbarrow and replied that that was what he purchased with the proceeds of his last book and with the sale of his next book, he would paint it. I think this is an appropriate story about popularity and fiction and the perceived value of that fiction.

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