Friday, April 13, 2007

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: The Perdition of Newland Archer

This is the story of the self-destruction of a man. "Destruction" is seemingly wildly too strong a term, as Archer's life is, after a fashion, "exemplary" (to use Kekes's term.) But this is precisely the point. Fate deals him a good hand, albeit one with a painful trial in it. Yet, Archer lacks the spiritual resilience to get past the trial.

Archer is talented, bright, inquisitive and imaginative, as well as loyal to whom he ought to be. But there is an arrangement of these components of character that would enable him to remain true to his most important values and that he fails to find. He fails to find it because he allows himself to plunge into rage, despair and self-contempt.

Few of us are put to the test: to sacrifice what, above all other things, one wants second-most for what one wants most. Here lies the possibility of perdition and the chance to realize salvation. Archer must choose: He may through betrayal bring shame and disruption to the society to whom he is rightly loyal and also break his new wife's heart. Or he may forego a life with the woman to whom he is ideally suited: Ellen Olenska. he chooses the former, and Olenska, as desirous of him as he is of her, leads him to it. But Archer rails against this fate. He allows the disappointment to grow into rage and despair. These push him near to madness as his internal "demons" drive him to revoke his choice, a move he is prevented from making by Olenska's retreat to Europe and his wife's announcement of her first pregnancy. Thereafter, he fails to be the kind of "fellow he had dreamed of being," instead "inadequate: a mere gray speck of a man." His irrational resentment of fate drives him needlessly to abandon his third-most important value: his delight in adventuresome travel, inquiry and interesting discussion.

Olenska, by contrast, is saved. She endures the fate, foregoing the life with the man ideally suited to her. But she does this with a grace of character and a steady and clear-eyed contact with her conscience, the faculty that in Archer deteriorates under the oppression of resentment. Olenska is able to cut through the layers of resentment and find the settled resolution to her fate as her "equal," rather than the "master" fate becomes for Archer. Upon making the difficult choice fate forces upon her, where Archer finds rage and chasms of despair within himself, Olenska finds abiding self-love. She explains to him:

I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light.

Just so. The difficult trial causes the painful emotions. But if you remain quiet and do not rage against them, they disperse. Archer, on the other hand, welcomes "fuel for his own [anger]." For Archer, the trial "is beyond human enduring--that's all." But Olenska instructs, "Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!"

While most of us don't face a trial of the severity that Archer and Olenska did, still it remains possible to experience the salvation Olenska did and to avoid the deleterious effects of resentment of fate that beset Archer. Perdition and salvation are attainable even for less interesting characters. Olenska shows that it is a matter of paying attention to one's loyalty to one's "unconditional commitments" (as Kekes calls them) at precisely the moments when adversity strikes and offers us fuel for anger or despair. There is a peaceful contemplation, a serenity just short of meditation, that is possible for anyone who has, although not faced the trial, nevertheless managed to choose, arrange, and adhere to a set of unconditional and conditional commitments that we would call important constituents of a good life. The good life is a moral and practical matter, whereas the avoidance of perdition and the acceptance of salvation within it is a spiritual one. If even an exemplary life can be deeply damaged by resentment, then Archer and Olenska's lives serve as a universal lesson.