‘She was the lady in ‘blue’ when everyone else was wearing tan’… This slight play on the words from the theme song of The Nanny came to mind while reading this story. There was just ‘something about Ellen’ that separated her from everyone else in the room.
And Wharton does a wonderful job of drawing me into this story from the very beginning. I was interested in Ellen as soon as I met her, mostly because she was known as “poor Ellen Olenska”; I wanted to know why she was referred to this way…I would find out, but first, we are given a closer look at the New York social society of the 1870’s.
The story takes place in New York during the 1870’s and follows the relationship between Newland Archer and Madame Olenska, his wife’s cousin. The novel provides great insight into the customs and conventions of the time and illustrates how these traditions affected not only their relationship with each other, but also, the impact they had in the lives of those around them as well.
This book reflects a chapter in American History that is now gone; a world where “taste” and “good form” reigned. A few times Madame Olenska sarcastically refers to New York society as “Heaven”. On the outside everything appears to be going well, but only because problems and pain were not openly shared with others; Madame Olenska was discouraged from talking about what happened with her husband. In this society of the rich and privileged, maybe not all, but many relationships were merely superficial.
The novel provides a glimpse of the world of the wealthy, to really see the standards-and glaring double standards- that were the rule of the day. It depicts a society where every relationship, social and personal, is, if not determined by, at least heavily influenced by convention.
Madame Olenska, “poor Ellen Olenska”, is running away from a husband and a life that she wants to be free from (I will try very hard to keep this as much a spoiler-free post as I can). Newland wants to help her, but his society expects and demands adherence to certain standards. As he tries to help her his eyes are opened to the reality of the world he inhabits and he has to decide what, if anything, he is going to do about it.
Madame Olenska may not be perfect, but she cares about her family and she cares about people; I’m only sorry we do not get into her head more, but we do get a good sense of what and how she feels. She wants to live her life among friends and family without having to submit to someone else’s expectations. She enjoys art, beauty and conversation; she enjoys the company of artistic people even in that ultra conservative New York society! She is also willing to reach out to someone in need when the “deity of “Good Form”” has forbidden it. However, this society has standards, strict standards for women which must be followed, and she is expected to conform.
In contrast, there is May, Madame Olenska’s cousin and Newland’s wife. She has been raised to live a certain way and she adheres to these social conventions. Throughout the novel I alternated between a certain amount of pity for May and disappointment in her uncaring attitude towards her cousin’s pain. But then again, May would have her own, very personal, reasons for wanting her cousin to remain married.
The story is engaging; the characters are not all likeable, but some, like Madame Olenska’s aunts are very interesting! I also liked how we were given glimpses of Ellen’s unconventional upbringing to see how that shaped the woman she became. Her relationship with her cousin May was complicated by her relationship with Newland, but then, how could it not be? My feelings about Newland are mixed. On the one hand, he supported Madame Olenska’s right to divorce her husband and he saw the double standards of his day and was willing to speak up about it. On the other hand, he used his marriage to May to maintain respectability.
For me, the novel ended in both a surprising (which was good) and a sad way. First, the ending completely surprised me because I thought I knew what was going to happen…then surprise! Not what I expected. Second, I was saddened to see how Newland’s life played out with his wife. It was not a bad life, but it could have been different…it could have been so much more.
What is it that we want out of life and what are we willing to sacrifice to live life on our own terms? These are very important questions to ask ourselves so that we dont look back at a life full of regrets.
Let me end this post by saying that this book was so good! It was more than a story about a relationship though, society was key in this story. It really was a look back in history, at a time now past, to see how people in that society lived life. I say ‘that society’ because it illustrates the way of life for the wealthy, not the everyman, but it really is a fascinating read! If you haven’t read this book yet, you definitely should! You won’t be disappointed.