Naive young Archer Newland falls for a disgraced countess, the cousin of his fiancée.
This 1920’s novel starts with the innocent Archer Newland happily involved in his theories of marriage. He’s a well connected and well-to-do bachelor at the prime of his life in a New York that loves white men. Archer has everything.
The opera where Archer announces his engagement to the beautiful young May should have been his triumph. But although he’s only aware of a disquieting feeling, it foreshadows his misery.
Archer is exquisitely aware of all social customs and becomes the family’s advisor for helping the Countess, Ellen Olenska. Poor Ellen is a bit of a fallen woman – raised by eccentric parents who allow her to wear black at her coming out and to marry a foreign count.
After her escape from this abusive relationship, she returns to America as something damaged yet grown larger because of it. She is an enigmatic and seductive creature who no longer fits into the acceptable box for a woman. Equally pitied and blamed for her downfall, she ends up unwittingly destroying Archer’s happy ignorance.
Archer is obviously intelligent and cultured, but he holds society’s rules as a sort of happy religion. Without even trying, Ellen reveals every foible and hypocrisy. The things he held so dear he is forced to see clearly. He grows beyond their confines and falls in love with Ellen. She’s something passionate and genuine in a world of artifice.
But then there’s her cousin May, the young girl he is engaged to. He has always pictured May as a blank canvas he intended to paint. The irony is that May’s sweet nature may be indifferent to his attempts to form her.
Watching Archer struggle is like trying to remove superglue from your fingers. It is ultimately futile – you might get one finger free but then you’ll get it stuck to something else. I get the feeling that Edith Wharton was enjoying Archer’s innocence even as she used it to torture him.
The ending could be argued to be Archer’s peace with the world, his acceptance and maturity. Or is it merely showing us that Archer has been and always will be a coward?