By Edith Wharton
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I’ve reached a point in my life when I have probably forgotten most of what I’ve read.
I estimate that I have read, on average, seventy-five books a year for the past twenty years. Some of those books have been, basically, wiped from my working memory. I will read back over my reading list and think, “Oh yeah, I did read that.” There are classics, Great Books, which I have read and about which I can recall absolutely nothing at all (‘The Adventures of Augie March’, for example – I couldn’t tell you what that book was about with a gun to my head). Many of the books I’ve read live in my memory as ghosts, barely discernible but definitely there (‘On Human Bondage’: I’m pretty sure someone falls in love with a waitress).
On the other hand, some books stay with me with extraordinary vividness. More than that, there are passages that I can recall almost word for word, decades after I read them. These passages have meaningfully changed me, and I carry them through my life, using them to understand myself and the world around me.
There is no rhyme or reason to what lodges in my heart in this way. Sometimes, it’s not even a passage in the traditional sense: it is a moment, or a single sentence. But they have shaped me, these passages, informed my ideas of love and honor and grief.
The end of ‘The Age of Innocence’ is one of those moments. I have carried the end of that book with me for years; I remember it, I’m haunted by it. I love it, and I think it is one of the most beautiful, poignant, humane moments in literature.
‘The Age of Innocence’ is the story of Newland Archer. Newland is a child of one of New York City’s most prominent families, the oldest blood in the New World. He is engaged to, and marries, May Welland, a young woman from an equally illustrious family. May is kind and lovely but utterly proper – everyone agrees that he has made a great match.
However, one night, Newland is introduced to the Countess Olenska. The Countess, who is May’s cousin, has fled her marriage to a wicked European count. She is living in New York, a woman separated from her husband, an object of pity and mild scandal. She is different from any woman Newland has ever known: independent in thought, unconventional, and interesting. Certainly, she is quite different from the entirely conventional May. As Newland falls more and more desperately in love with Olenska, he begins to chafe at the restraints of New York high society, and the norms which circumscribe his life.
Eventually, he and the Countess Olenska determine that they will run away together. On the eve of their flight, though, May comes to him and tells him that she is pregnant. Newland is unwilling, or unable, to abandon his young family, and Countess Olenska leaves New York City.
The very last, short section of the book takes place decades later. Newland Archer is a well-respected widower, a New York City fixture, taking a trip with his adult son, Dallas, to Paris. He learns that the Countess Olenska, now a widow herself, is also in Paris. Newland, finally free of the wife with whom he stayed out of obligation, decides to visit her one afternoon. On his way, though, he has this conversation with his son:
“‘…But mother said-‘
‘Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent me alone – you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.’
Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sunlit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: ‘She never asked me.’
‘No, I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath…’
Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime.
After a while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.”
Newland decides not to visit the countess. He will never see her again.
We live in a romantic culture. Most of us would be sympathetic, I think, to the idea that Newland should have pursued romantic love. We conflate romance and actualization: we feel, instinctively, that Newland was denied something fundamental when he was denied his chance to spend an unconventional life with the woman he loved.
Newland chooses duty over romance – this is a choice we understand. But we expect, at the end of his life, when his wife is dead and his duty is discharged, that Newland will choose to see his countess, to be reunited with her. His decision not to changed the way I think about the world.
I have pondered this passage for years. Not at all dramatic, is it? You could drive right past it without noticing, if you were sprinting for the end. I cannot articulate what it means to me. It is that sentence, “It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…”, the suffering it implies, which moves me. The idea of a life so lonely (“the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime”) that even the knowledge of a witness, the knowledge of not having been invisible in your sadness, could be so powerful.
Or perhaps it is the quiet, desperate dignity of a man choosing to honor the life he had instead of the life he wanted. Of the understanding that we cannot have all things, and perhaps it is best simply to be what we are.
I think, when I was younger, I became obsessed with this passage because I didn’t really understand Newland’s choice. But, as I have gotten older, I understand better that life is often full of grief for what we did not have, did not do. Very few of us make it through our lives without wondering after, longing for, another path, at least for a time. It is too late to chase what might have been – all that remains is to honor and enjoy what was. And the silent, loving witness of his wife reminds Newland that what was, while not perfect, while not romantic, was worthy.
I understand, in a way I could not before, that Newland, at the end of his life, chooses himself. Newland’s dearest wish had been taken from him by the inopportune pregnancy of his wife. Only, in the end, by renouncing the Countess again could Newland claim the choice as his own. It was the only way to make his peace, I think, with the life he had.
There comes in a time in our lives when what we wish, most dearly, is not to regret any longer. The time is spent – the only choice that remains is whether or not to be at peace with what has happened. What ‘The Age of Innocence’ taught me is that, while the price of that peace might be high indeed, it is worth paying.