I’m painfully slow, it’s true. Fans of Wharton’s storytelling probably already know what I’m just now discovering, or at least articulating to my own satisfaction. Wharton shares a family resemblance with Freud. And I’m not talking about her mannish features either. No, she has something else in common with him. Her view of repression shares at least two startling similarities with Freud’s theory of mind. As you may recall, he endorses a hydraulic conception of psychic life. Through the blockage of the id, a secondary elaboration gives rise to the ego, and through the blockage of the ego, a tertiary elaboration gives rise to the superego. Repression fits us for civilization while laying the groundwork for our discontent. Sorrow and humiliation are inescapable features of life. That’s the first similarity. The second one has to do with the secret language of signs. According to Freudian theory, a dream is a psychical structure that has meaning. Through proper technique, the manifest features of a dream can be interpreted. (A lovely ripe melon isn’t always a melon, you polymorphously perverse dreamer, you.) Dreams are disguised wish fulfillments. In Wharton’s prose, there’s a similar relationship between repression and the development of a language of secret signs, except that this language emerges in a social context instead of a dreaming state. Indeed, repression, i.e., submerging what’s uppermost in your thoughts, is inversely related to the language of innuendo. Insofar as Wharton’s character’s block their true thoughts and feelings, the language of secret signs predominate: flashing eyes, a subdued tone, a fugitive glance, a clandestine touch, an upturned lip, or a cluster of yellow roses anonymously sent. Like dreams according to Freudian categories, innuendoes are disguised thoughts and feelings—and they’re ignored at your own peril.
In The Age of Innocence, none of the characters unexpectedly dies or suffers massive bodily trauma. There’s no self-slaughter or death by way of accidental overdose. There’s no muffled gunshot against the temple. No wreckage after a giddy sled ride. Instead, we’re presented with a spiritual death, or the loss of an opportunity or a potential to be one’s self entire.
Meet Newland Archer.
He is a perplexed man. He is sincerely yet sedately in love with his wife, a simple, conventional, and unimaginative woman. Newland is also passionately in love with his wife’s cousin, the exotically named Countess Olenska. She is the antipode of her highly traditional and staid cousin.
What makes Newland’s conflict such a fascinating study is that he is largely the cause of his own troubles. Sure, the habits and manners of his social tribe are ranged against him. But he has many opportunities to free himself from a passionless marriage. He doesn’t because he’s a slave to the very conventions that he has the imagination to vehemently criticize. He is a profoundly divided man who loves two women, and is unable to summon the courage to swim against the tide of fashion and respectability.
The result is a novel whose ending is as poignantly stifled as the beginning of Love in the Time of Cholera is passionately effusive.
And hopefully that’s enough to interest you in the book.
In the first chapter of The Age of Innocence, Wharton runs a master class on exposition. She opens the novel at the old Academy of Music in New York, where the Fifth Avenue social elite has gathered to attend an operatic performance of Faust. With impeccable timing, the curtain goes up just as our protagonist, Newland Archer, enters the music house. So who is the stage performer: is it Christine Nilsson, the opera singer, or Newland Archer, a highly imaginative yet conventional man? Judging by the “emerald green cloth” that festoons the music hall, and judging, too, by the winking opera glasses and roaming gazes, the real drama is unfolding in the box seats and balcony. Here the players perform for, observe, and judge each other on a much larger and unforgiving stage. Over yonder is Mrs. Manson Mingott, the great matriarch (representing the power of family); and Lawrence Lefferts, the high priest of form (the power of fashion); and Sillerton Jackson, a naturally gifted insight genealogist (the power of knowing a family’s secret pain); and May Welland, Newland’s recent betrothed (the power of simplicity and convention); and Ellen Olenska, sitting beside May, a radiant, complicated woman with a checkered past (the power of passion and freedom). And then there’s Newland Archer, a deeply confused man, torn between duty and romantic love. Although he hasn’t an inkling of the conflict he will endure for many years, the reader, because of Wharton’s finely wrought exposition, is ready to find out.
I envy wine connoisseurs, their ability to sample vino and, after swishing it around with a concentrated air, to find the perfect adjective when describing hints of taste, like cloves, fig, chocolate, butter, cardamom, and other delicious words that make me repent of my career choice. What is true of wine connoisseurs is even trebly true of literary critics who have a highly discerning palette when it comes to the aromatics of prose. Except that my envy actually borders on something like hatred, a nameless venom-spitting mood. Not even the Germans have a word for it.
Through a glass, clearly
I’m reluctant to say that Wharton’s prose is strong and ambitious. That her syntax is neat, orderly yet “intriguingly complex,” swish swish. Or that her voice resonates with a realism tinged with comedy and cynicism. I’m reluctant to say all these things, not because I don’t think they’re true, but because they don’t make me sound sufficiently snooty. And today I want to be worthy of an uptight dilettante in a cashmere argyle sweater. Yes, I do. Call me Rutherford. (Eat your heart out, Melville.)
Have you noticed that a good Whartonian sentence feels whole in the mouth? It tastes clean and smooth and whole like round polished sea glass. Armed with her sea glass, Wharton has a unique ability to zero out, as it were, and from a very high vista capture the scale and scope of large, rising social currents — which affect marriage, property, and social relations in general — and then just as easily zero back in very precisely to an unforgettable setting in a villa in Siena, Italy where an aspiring poet is trying his damnedest to keep faith with his literary vision “in the quiet place with the green water-fall….”
Wharton’s sea glass magically combines the sweeping power of a panoramist (this word, having just now been coined, exists for your use, too) with the obsessive precision of a miniaturist. To wit: Ralph “was met by a small abashed figure clad in a kaleidoscopic tartan and a green velvet cap with a silver thistle.” Or: “The old lacquer screen behind Clare’s head looked like a lustreless black pool with gold leaves floating on it; and … a little table at her elbow, had the brown bloom and the pear-like curves of an old violin.” That’s just stunning.
In addition to her sweeping powers of description, Wharton has an amazing knack for saying things just so, for capturing or relaying subtle shades of difference in expressions, feelings, and values, like “Ralph’s indignation had already flickered down to disgust,” where one feeling imperceptibly gives way to another. She also has a special talent for hinting at stark differences in values and frames of reference. Early in their marriage, for instance, Ralph wants to broach the issue of money and Undine’s excessive love of spending it. But he’s fearful of displeasing his wife: “he had too keen a memory of the way her lips could narrow, and her eyes turn from him as if he were a stranger.”
Wharton could simply tell us that Undine doesn’t like talking about finance. But there’s something so much more subtle and gratifying about the lips that narrow and the eyes that turn away in anger. Not to mention Wharton’s touch in conveying something of Ralph’s resentment and the creeping distance that has entered their marriage, by relying, not on bald description, but on a memory that prevents him from having an honest reckoning with Undine about a fraught topic.
So next time you want to sample wholeness and the taste of round polished sea glass, you could do a lot worse than reading The
Custom of the Country.
If the boy is the father to the man, then the simple crude vulgarity of childhood prattle is the father to a more refined adult sensibility. At least that’s how I justify to myself the uproarious delight I feel when someone uses the gorgeously awkward expression: “do do” — as in, “When you do do decide to go to the store…” or “Make sure that if you do do this, that you don’t overdo it in polite company.”
Whenever I hear this construction used — rewardingly often, I might add — by my family and friends, or by a new client in a meeting, or even by a complete stranger at a nearby table at lunch, I always wink at them and chuckle, “You just said do do.” Pathetic, I know. But it makes me laugh, and I like to laugh a lot, even at the cost of sacrificing the half-way decent opinions of others’. It’s worth it, it really is.
While this may be my favorite awkward construction, it shares a syntactical similarity with my least favorite one, by a custom country mile: “that that.” Damn, that’s ugly, dreadfully so. On the face of it, it looks like an anagram, but it’s not, so it breeds a kind of visual frustration. And although it has promising onomatopoetic properties, nothing really sounds like it. Cupboards don’t clatter that that, crows don’t squawk that that, and doors don’t sound that that when you knock knock who’s there on them. Worst of all, you can’t pun on life’s second greatest physiological process with that that. It’s dead to possibility.
Now, even a novelist of Wharton’s stature, whose prose is a remarkably supple instrument, with which she effortlessly presents complex social situations and trenchant psychological observation, even Wharton, who is my literary mistress and, with my wife’s full permission, my “hall pass,” beating out such beauties as Isabella Rosellini and Cate Blanchett, even Wharton can botch a sentence something terrible, bless her soul.
In The Custom of the Country, Ralph Marvell, who learns that his wife Undine is enjoying a drawing-room party, is jovially cautioned by Mrs. Shallum not to stick his husbandly nose into the soiree: “I don’t think husbands are wanted!”
Something isn’t wanted, that’s for sure. And then we get this bit of mischief from Wharton. “Ralph laughing rejoined that that was just the moment for them to appear….” Husbands, that is.
Or that that.