The Age of Awesome

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Newland Archer is in love with the wrong woman:


He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit: he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him a certain waste of emotion. As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it. 

He turned into his florist's to send her the daily box of lilies-of-the-valley which, to his confusion, he found he had forgotten that morning. As he wrote a word on his card and waited for an envelope he glanced about the embowered shop, and his eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. 

He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her--there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. 

In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska; then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card out again, and left the empty envelope on the box. 

 "They'll go at once?" he enquired, pointing to the roses. 

 The florist assured him that they would.

Coming off Austen--whose prose feel more spacious--its bracing to be confronted with the sheer density of Wharton's sentences. Austen's sentences are long and winding, but they convey information in a different way. I think Wharton may be more fond of verbs and action. She writes like a poet, and I've found the best way for me to take her work in is to read a chapter, and then re-read it out loud. A line like "New York again became vast and imminent" begs to be spoken. 

And all of this brutal and muscular language is assembled to critique the bound society from the perspective of a member of the master-class. Newland has it all going for him, but in comprehending the attempts to bind this other woman, he comes to see the binds around his own betrothed, and slowly the binds around his own person:

It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman's eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? 

He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness? 

"We might be much better off. We might be altogether together--we might travel." 

Her face lit up. "That would be lovely," she owned: she would love to travel. But her mother would not understand their wanting to do things so differently. "As if the mere 'differently' didn't account for it!" the wooer insisted. 

"Newland! You're so original!" she exulted. 

His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make--even to the point of calling him original. 

 "Original! We're all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We're like patterns stencilled on a wall. Can't you and I strike out for ourselves, May?"

No. I fear not. This is an awesome book. And more related to understanding slavery then I can convey.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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