Wednesday, November 22, 2006
"Smaller, dingier, more promiscuous..."
nearing the end of "The Age of Innocence" and i kinda don't want it to be over. as you prolly know, it's a love story set in NYC high society in the late 1800s. there's this upper class dude, Newland Archer, who's leading this very conventional life and he's all set to marry this very sweet but boring girl as he's expected to. but then his fiancee's cousin comes into the picture and he totally falls for her b/c she's worldy and sentient and intelligent and, well, i guess pretty sexy.
anyway so the whole book is about this torturous situation where he's going through with his marriage to May, the boring gal, and becoming more and more obsessed with Ellen, the exotic, smart one. i'm about 7/8 of the way through and it's getting pretty dire. at one point, Newland actual considers killing May off. but you just know that isn't going to happen. the book is basically about that horrible sense of compromise when you take the easy way out and know that you'll basically being driving on autopilot the rest of your life. Wharton does an amazing job of conveying how nauseating this feels.
anyway, but each time the two secret lovers meet, it gets more and more intense. at the point in the book i'm at, Newland has basically lost it. he meets her at the train station in Jersey City--and interestingly there's this weird tangent where he sort of scoffs at an idea that's being tossed around which is that trains might someday run directly into NYC--and they take a coach ride together and steal a kiss and he just starts gushing to her: "I mean: how shall I explain? I--it's always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.[this last part is in italics, so you know it's a big moment]"
anyway, but the most intense thing is that Wharton doesn't let him get away with his irrational passions. Ellen is pretty worldly and has seen men come and go and even though she loves him, she keeps her feet on the ground. he tells her he wants to move to some far off country with her and what she says is just so brilliantly cold and intense:
"Oh, my dear--where is that country? Have you ever been there?...I know so many who've tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous."
damn. i just love that. kind of reminds me of one of my favorite film scenes, the end of "The Graduate," where Benjamin has busted in and stopped Elaine's wedding and run off with her. they jump on this bus together and they're grinning and then their smiles suddenly fade and they have these completely dumbfounded looks on their faces, like, "What the fuck do we do now?" that, to me, is amazing: the idea of working so hard at running away from something that you forget to think about where you're headed.
anyway, hail Edith Wharton. this is really tragic, beautiful stuff. i'm not sure what's going to happen to Newland and Ellen, but it doesn't look too good...