We're back! This week in Reading with Daniel, the novel-reading club for writers, we are beginning a new novel, The Age of Innocence.
I really love this novel and I think it has a lot to teach writers today (us). It is partly a love story, partly a historical novel, partly a study of the creative person's search for a moral and meaningful life. The novel has one of the best endingsanywhere in literature. I taught it to undergraduates recently and the room was silent as we assessed the final chapter.
The Age of Innocence
As I just mentioned -- I think there is a lot to learn from this novel, whatever your chosen genre or approach to writing.
I want to go slowly with the story, especially the opening chapters -- and also the ending -- because there is just so much to point out and admire.
I may be more "spoiler-heavy" than usual. In this particular book, the early pages contain several subtle introductions of themes and plot threads, and rather than pass over them in silence (because the first-time reader would not notice their significance), I will instead alert you to them.
PS There is a film version of the novel, a very good film, which you may enjoy (Daniel Day Lewis plays the main character, Archer).
Today's analysis is just on the opening pages.
One more note
One challenge of reading The Age of Innocence, in my eyes, is that Wharton seems to have intended to write a historical novel about the New York of a previous generation (she wrote the novel in 1920: its events begin in the 1870s).
At times, this goal of the author's poses for the contemporary reader a bit of a barrier, as we perhaps lack the interest or awareness in how New York society developed in that 50-year period. The novel's title seems to be a partly ironic, partly earnest description of how Wharton saw this past version of the city (as it existed prior to the transformation brought by WW1).
As a result, there are many discussions of dress, style, music and so on that are likely to be less rich for us, as contemporary readers, as they were for Wharton's intended audience.
I would just "read through" those elements in the story, imagining that they would be very funny if you were reading in 1920 and were acquainted with New York fine society -- but don't let them derail you.
Synopsis of the opening pages of the novel, down to "to strike out for himself":
A young wealthy man in 1870s New York is dawdling before his arrival at the opera. In rather round-about language, the novel explains that he is relishing the soon-to-be announced engagement between himself and May Welland, a well regarded young woman in that same society. Newland Archer reflects on his place in the world, on a past painful affair that seems to have surprised him with its seriousness (at least for the woman in question, if not for him), and on May's supreme innocence, which he plans to adjust and develop with his own education and knowledge.
"The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in quality..."
Craft lesson: early threads mentioned quickly
I am not sure if this counts as a craft lesson: there is less of a prompt than usual, perhaps. Rather, I would just like to point out how various elements in the story are brought in from the very start of this novel.
These plot threads are brought in lightly: the narrator seems to be half-amused by them, and you might not quite notice them on a first read. This opening is a great example of the quality I admire in novels -- "lightness" -- where the plot and the deeper context are already in motion on page one, but the reader's introduction to the story feels low-stress, easy, quick.
Firstly, we see the very first mentions of what grows into a significant internal plot thread for Newland: that he finds New York, his New York of old money, to be boring and unfulfilling. This is not presented to us openly at first; Newland is not really aware of it. But we see it brought up by the narrator lightly, indirectly:
"he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases..."
"In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number..."
Secondly -- and this next part contains a spoiler -- there is a lengthy discussion of May's innocence.
"he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. "We'll read Faust together ... by the Italian lakes ..." he thought, somewhat hazily confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with the masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege to reveal to his bride..."
Newland does not realise that while May may be less well read than him, and presumably less sexually experienced, she is not at all the child he imagines her to be. In many ways, she is more agile and insightful than he is. We later discover that she knows about his affair with the married woman described quickly here.
More importantly, (spoiler incoming) Newland does not grasp here that May has picked the day of their engagement announcement to draw attention away from a big problem for her family (her scandalous cousin has just returned from a brutal / failed marriage).
It was only that afternoon that May Welland had let him guess that she "cared"....
The timing of both developments -- the engagement and the arrival of the cousin, in the paragraphs just after this section -- is May's doing, not his.
Newland assumes that he, as the experienced man, is leading this wedding plot, while in fact it slowly becomes clear to the reader that May is the one moving things along.
In other words: we see in these opening paragraphs the laying out of the dramatic question that will dominate the rest of the novel. Newland believes himself well-placed in New York fine society, but beneath the surface he is lonely, frustrated, and eager for something deeper; he is about to tie himself to May and her family, believing that he is the superior party in this union, a move which does not seem to provide that deeper experience of life he is searching for.
It's so brilliant!
The point: if you want to write a literary, subtle, classic-style novel, you don't have to beat the reader over the head with outright statements of theme or hooks to grab their interest. But you also don't need to ignore plotting altogether, considering it beneath you.
As Wharton does here, you can instead introduce themes in a way that seems simply to be characterisation, character-background -- but which contains genuine dramatic dilemmas for the protagonist.
We might describe the question as: "Will Archer be happy with May, who he looks down upon, but whom everyone in his society approves of, or will he be able to find a more fulfilling life somehow, either with her or someone / somewhere else?"
Again -- this is a less prompt-focused email this week. But I invite you think how you might introduce the plot threads of your novel in the opening pages -- even if the reader -- and the main character -- don't notice their initial appearances on those opening pages...