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Somewhere in this book, Wharton observes that clever liars always come up with good stories to back up their fabrications, but that really clever liars don't bother to explain anything at all. This is the kind of insight that makes The Age of Innocence so indispensable. Wharton's story of the upper classes of Old New York, and Newland Archer's impossible love for the disgraced Countess Olenska, is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in this country was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when "society" had rules as rigid as any in history.
A novel so dense with cultural artifacts as to seem to be from an alien planet, The Age of Innocence shows us a world where certain virtues were of paramount importance, and other modern-day virtues, such as self-determination, were subordinate to the mores of the culture as a whole. The central struggle, between Newland Archer and his conscience, is resolved and unresolved in subtle, understated ways. Wharton gently pokes fun at the world of Old New York society in which she lived, such as when Newland is asked how he will spend the afternoon and he replies that he will "save it", but she also admits, tacitly, throughout this wonderful work, that members of that society could not violate its values without destroying themselves, and, most importantly, also destroying the people around them.
The progression of time is particularly poignant in this book, for the values of Newland Archer's youth are torn down, and, as she said, rebuilt in an entirely different way just a generation later. Wharton, writing this in 1920 and looking back at values of her youth and the generation before her (the 1870s and 1880s) has equal parts of nostalgia and condemnation. It's the kind of nostalgia that is warranted, for it is a clear-eyed understanding of both the good and the bad in the society of one's past. This novel has a number of surprises in it, along with a perhaps unparalleled understanding of the privileged class's moral triumphs as well as their hypocrisies.--Submitted by Elizabeth Hayes Smith.
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