Thursday, April 09, 2009


Let's rehearse this business about Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence, again. Here is the passage which I mentioned a couple of years ago. It begins with Ellen Olenska:
Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing - give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage ....And because my family was going to be your family - for May's sake and for yours - I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," she broke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret of having done it for you!"
The silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart....

"At least I loved you-" he brought out.

On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-corner where he supposed that she still crouched, he heard a faint stifled crying like a child's.
[Olenska:]"I felt there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and - unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before - and it's better than anything I've known."
At this point, Archer suggests Olenska go out with her friends: "Since you tell me that you’re lonely...."
She smiled a little under her wet lashes. "I shan't be lonely now. 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."
This rare opportunity to achieve and manifest character virtues presents itself to Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Olenska takes full advantage of this opportunity, while Archer has only middling success. Only Olenska grasps the opportunity to retain one's happiness in spite of the painful sacrifice required for these virtues. Archer hasn't the foggiest idea of this happiness.

Think of other cases. For example, a woman who realizes in her late 20's that her husband and mother are poor family members, too absorbed by their mild narcissistic and rage disorders to know what love is. Also, the woman has few other really good and intelligent people with whom to make friendships. Nevertheless, this woman resolves to stay with this family because there are children involved who need their mother and father to stay with them. She thus gives up more than a decade of time to living a life which is in large part not good for her and also lonely. She achieves the insight into happiness which Olenska does, and she does what she ought just as well as she. But, no perfect Olenska, she also has days from time to time on which she is Archer.

Gratitude and virtue are a sort of spinal cord of character. Failing the former, the latter is difficult. If you have both of them in spades, you come to a fulfillment of character which is the stuff of self-love, as Olenska discovers but Archer never does.