When The Age of Innocence came out in 1993, I was 32. I went to see it with my boyfriend. We were living together in a committed relationship, and our lives had become routinized and boring.
After the movie we strolled into the East Village and he began yammering in an easy, superficial way, much like the way May Welland tells Newland Archer all the society doings in her winter resort of St. Augustine. Like Newland Archer I tuned out my partner in order to pursue my own reverie about, actually, Newland Archer, in whom I thought I saw myself.
I had left the film sad at his fate, and his separation from his soulmate, Ellen Olenska. I was on a cliff I might soon fall off of, into marriage and a lifetime of predictability. My partner’s wisecracks about Michelle Pfeiffer’s hairdo, or whatever he was talking about, added annoyance to my despair. He wasn't moved by the story the way I had been, and I took it as one of many signs that we didn't belong together. Within a year we had broken up and gone our separate ways.
In my eleventh year as a New York resident, I moved into my own apartment in Chelsea, where I lived happily, without a roommate for the first time. I bought a VHS copy of The Age of Innocence and made a habit of watching it once a year.
I like to see it during the winter holidays, not so much because it is a winter film (like Meet Me in St. Louis, it encompasses all seasons, but like that movie it leaves you with a sense of having been snowed on), but because of a particular memory I have of its being shot in Park Slope, around the corner from where I lived with that boyfriend.
One summer evening I came home from work to find a block of Eighth Avenue closed to auto traffic. Blowers were creating an artificial snowfall so that Ellen Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, could descend the steps of a brownstone, enter a carriage, and drive away. (I later realized this scene must have taken place after she says goodbye to Newland Archer, played by Daniel Day Lewis, for the last time, closing the door on the possibility of their ever having the affair they’ve been contemplating).
Passersby dressed in shirtsleeves or shorts and flip-flops, had gathered to watch Ms. Pfeiffer mount the carriage and depart in the blizzard, and I stood with them for a while, enchanted by the giant snow globe Martin Scorcese had created in our neighborhood. When the movie came out, this made me more excited about seeing it, this tiny role I’d already played as a spectator of its creation.
It was wrenching, this meditation on sacrifice and lost possibility. Newland and Ellen represented all the things people give up when they settle down. Newland's story was a warning about how commitment undermines creative freedom and atrophies intellect and authenticity. Marriage even seemed to ruin his appreciation for art and literature.
Even after a few more years had passed, and I was happily married to someone I regarded as a creative soulmate, and had two children, and a family life full of art projects, and experiences worth making art about, I watched The Age of Innocence with this focus on loss, summed up in the tenor of a scene at the end, an exchange between Newland and his son Ted. Ted reveals that May, on her deathbed, told him about Newland’s affair with Ellen Olenska. And that his mother had said that she would die knowing that Ted and her other children would always be safe with Newland, because “once, when she asked him to, he gave up the one thing he wanted most.” In answer, Newland looks ahead and says bitterly, “she never asked. She never asked.”
His choice of whom to marry, in a society which, he tells Ellen earlier in the film, does not arrange its marriages, had been determined by power brokers in a system of invisible signs and symbols that moved in mysterious ways, with curious and sometimes surprising endorsements.
(Julius Beaufort, for example, who winds up as Ted’s father-in-law, is able to conduct a series of scandalous affairs and even survives a Madoff-like collapse of his investment business, all because he surfs the changing times better than Newland).
This past New Year’s Eve, 15 years after my first viewing from a bachelorette’s vantage point, I decided to watch The Age of Innocence again. I had missed a few years of viewing, and I wondered if I’d see anything new in it. Right from the beginning, I noticed more details about Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel, how he used cinematic means to literary ends so brilliantly. But a new emotional response surprised me.
This time around, I was drawn to a different most-significant moment. Ted has arranged a visit to Ellen Olenska in Paris and sprung it on his dad, asking whether he might like to meet again the woman he almost “threw it all over for.” Newland, alone in the Louvre (throughout the film, the contemplation of art brings this character closest to his emotional truth), thinks to himself, “I’m only 57.” He meets Ted outside Ellen’s apartment, but can’t bring himself to visit her.
“Just tell her I’m old-fashioned,” is the excuse he gives his son, “that should be enough.” He then walks away, and the narrator (Joanne Woodward) tells us that the fact that his wife had appreciated his sacrifice, and pitied him, moves him inexpressibly. Yielding to May's subtly-expressed deathbed wish that he stay committed to her beyond death, he walks away.
“Just tell her I’m old-fashioned.” With this remark Newland sides with May and the old order. Her comment to Ted about the family’s safety has ensured that his commitment to her will never end; propriety has spoken through her and he will listen.
Ellen is indeed only one of a series of ghosts in his life, one of a number of people, places, actions given up in order to experience commitment. Newland’s way is a fundamentally conservative one, and though Beaufort, with his philandering, and Ellen, with her “eccentric and incoherent education” and possible divorce, represent a new, chaotic, even dangerous order, Newland’s choice, which he finally recognizes as a choice, and stands by it, is in favor of stability and tradition. Not to say that the path he picked was better than if he'd chosen Ellen, or lived like Julius, but I no longer see it as quite so miserable and suffocating. People who commit give up all kinds of transitory pleasures; people who don't commit give up the possibility of ever standing in the room where 'all the great events of their life' have taken place.
In Newland Archer, Edith Wharton wrote an expansive character that allows for identification from very different vantage points—Archer’s yearning for freedom versus the decision to forgo it. Is Newland disgusted with Julius Beaufort or envious of him? Is his marriage to May the result of societal coercion or choice? Either, or both, depending on who's watching, and when.