Edith Wharton's novels make you sad: trenchantly sad, sick at heart, hopelessly resigned. The Age of Innocence is no exception. What can you do if you marry a woman you love despite being in bigger love with a different woman? WHAT CAN YOU DO?? Suffer through it, live your life, find in time a space for those feelings to reside & not kill you. The Age of Innocence is a book that contains the following line in its opening chapter, "[T]hinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization," and the following line in its closing chapter, "He had to deal all at once with the packaged regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime." The lines strike me as a matched pair of "bookends," as it were. That same tendency to mute experience and expressionrepresented as a kind of pleasure in the openerstill exists in the now aged protagonist at the book's close, but it sounds more like pain, doesn't it?
Lack of articulation is both figurative and rather literal in this book: Nobody actually ever says anything here, and it's maddening! Rather than actual conversation with words, the characters (men and women of the 1800s) measure & gauge one another by their skin tone. Nearly at every page, Edith Wharton has men looking sallow, women suddenly assuming pallor, and both genders equally blushing floridly. Although the dearth of actual words is frustrating, it serves to underscore those rare instances when a real expression of feeling does take place explicitly via language. Imagine two parties hopelessly and helplessly in love with one another, although due to circumstance, nothing can be done about it, & they rarely get to see each other. In one of these long awaited and always forbidden meetings, the man says to the woman (and the italics are Wharton's!), "Each time you happen to me all over again." (*Phew!* I'll stop here because, I don't know about you, but I need to go take a cold shower.)
I must say that I enjoyed the actual act of reading The House of Mirth better. True, its tale is also sad, but reading The Age of Innocence JUST HURTS. I think there are reasons why narratives of the dull ache of longitudinal emotional pain exist in literature, and I'll give you a hint: It ain't life imitating art! This stuff happens, folks. It's happened since the beginning of time, and it's still happening. MANY RELATIONSHIPS, DESPITE A MUTUAL INTENSITY OF FEELING, JUST DON'T WORK OUT. Perhaps what should be more suspect in writing is the trend that offers up tidy denouement. You won't find that in The Age of Innocence.
*Pulitzer Prize winner for the year 1921.