The Age of Innocence seems to be a love triangle, a romance between a married man and someone not his wife, much like The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Lady Chaterley’s Lover. We are used to fictions in which the suspense and tension arise from such illicit romances. The late Tony Tanner once wrote that it is “the unstable triangularity of adultery, rather than the static symmetry of marriage, that is the generative form of Western literature as we know it.” Decades earlier, Denis de Rougement had written even more forcefully, “To judge by literature, adultery would seem to be more of the most remarkable of occupations in both Europe and America. Few are the novels that fail to allude to it. … Without adultery, what would happen to imaginative writing?”
But if The Age of Innocence is like those other great novels about doomed, adulterous love, then why does the Countess Olenska’s passion for Newland Archer seem so remote? Where is the sex? And how come everything works out reasonably well for all three characters–without homicides, suicides, elopements, trials, or even any grand gestures and statements?
I would propose that The Age of Innocence is not a love triangle or a romantic tragedy. It is rather a study of one young man whose basic problem is neither romantic nor erotic but basically political.
Archer sees the glamorous Countess Olenska as an escape from his foreordained life, a life devoted to maintaining his own social milieu and class. Because the countess has broken Society’s rules and is on the verge of banishment, running away with her would foreclose the role that is expected of Archer and would open vague alternative possibilities for him.
Decades later, Teddy Roosevelt makes a surprising appearance:
… the Governor of New York, coming down from Albany one evening to dine and spend the night, had turned to his host [Archer], and said, banging his clenched fist on the table and gnashing his eye-glasses: “Hang the professional politician! You’re the kind of man the country wants, Archer. If the stable’s ever to be cleaned out, men like you have got to lend a hand in the cleaning.”
“Men like you–” how Archer had glowed at the phrase! How eagerly he had risen up at the call! It was an echo of Ned Winsett’s old appeal to roll his sleeves up and get down into the muck; but spoken by a man who set the example of the gesture, and whose summons to follow him was irresistible.
Archer, as he looked back, was not sure that men like himself WERE what his country needed, at least in the active service to which Theodore Roosevelt had pointed; in fact, there was reason to think it did not, for after a year in the State Assembly he had not been re-elected, and had dropped back thankfully into obscure if useful municipal work, and from that again to the writing of occasional articles in one of the reforming weeklies that were trying to shake the country out of its apathy. It was little enough to look back on; but when he remembered to what the young men of his generation and his set had looked forward–the narrow groove of money-making, sport and society to which their vision had been limited–even his small contribution to the new state of things seemed to count, as each brick counts in a well-built wall. He had done little in public life; he would always be by nature a contemplative and a dilettante; but he had had high things to contemplate, great things to delight in; and one great man’s friendship to be his strength and pride.
He had been, in short, what people were beginning to call “a good citizen.” …
TR substitutes for Ellen Olenska. Since Archer is a heterosexual young man of romantic inclinations, it may seem amusing that the old Rough Rider could replace this young lady whose beauty is frequently emphasized. But Archer is already married to a lovely young wife. He doesn’t need a fallen countess for a romantic partner. What he sees in Ellen Olenska is someone who has important things on her mind, someone to talk to. It is to his credit that he respects her mind. Yet all she could give him would be “conversation,” her own and that of her Continental artist friends. What Roosevelt offers is something for Archer to do.
Until he enters public life, Archer is basically limited to the domestic sphere. He is a lawyer with a Harvard degree, but his legal job is undemanding and uninspiring, just a respectable sinecure. Insofar as his assigned social role is domestic, he is much like Dorothea Brooke (or Jane Addams before she founded Hull-House), women denied the possibility of greatness. It turns out later that Archer doesn’t have Rooseveltian greatness in him, but he deserves and obtains the right to try.
There are times when it seems impossible for respectable and honorable people to enter and improve public life. The United States in the 1870s was one such time; our own period is coming perilously close. Innocence requires retreat into family or “money-making, sport and society.” The age of progressive reform that began in the 1890s not only strengthened democracy; it also gave good people the chance to add their bricks to a worthwhile wall. Courageous reformers like TR and Jane Addams opened the way for ordinary Americans like Newland Archer to achieve some measure of public happiness. And that, I think, is the basic plot of The Age of Innocence.