The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, he describes social media as “the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” So the market said, here, perform everything all the time for no reason. “It’s prison,” he says. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the market is New York’s high society in the 1870s, and it’s fitting that the novel opens to a performance at an opera house because this is a story about people performing, and watching others perform, constantly.

The prison is society’s strict adherence to (arguably outdated) decorum: protocol, customs, etiquette, formalities, whatever you want to call them. This prison governs who people can marry, where and how they spend their time, what they wear, how they think, and whether or not their dreams are worth anything at all. These rules are strangling people, programming them, and as a result they live in a world where appearances are everything.

If they refuse to perform up to the claustrophobic norms of the day, they risk expulsion. No money from the patriarchy, no connections from the matriarchy, no respect whatsoever. Performance, then, becomes religion.

“Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

Every time I read a classic I inevitably ask myself the same question: “Has this book finished saying what it has to say?” If it’s become out of touch then it isn’t a classic, because classics endure; they reinvent themselves. We continue to find value in classics well past their point of origin.

The Age of Innocence is a nearly 100-year-old book about a society of fake, self-centred, and anxious people in 19th century New York and all I can think about after reading it is Facebook. If that’s not the definition of a classic in 2018 I don’t know what is.

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What Makes a Book a Classic?

With another Classics Spin well underway, it’s time to discuss that age-old blog question: What makes a book a classic?

It’s one of the more provocative and unsolvable questions in the literary community. Like an argument over whether or not a book is worthy of five stars, it’s a hopelessly subjective and seemingly pointless affair. But these discussions continue to rage on, and here we are, talking about it again.

Why? Because it’s delicious. Like the proverbial cake that could very well lead to a heart attack, we shout “consequences be damned!” and maniacally devour it.

It’s possible we keep circling back around to it because there are only a few places where a discussion like this one is worth much of anything: a classroom, a bookstore, and a blog with a connection to the Classics Club.

To help me get to the bottom of this conundrum, I searched far and wide for advice from the wisest sages: Italo Calvino, Ezra Pound, Chris Cox, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Mark Twain, and five “normals” from the literary community.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 6: People Are Dying Now and I Don’t Care

I can’t exactly put my finger on when it happened, but I am completely checked out of War and Peace. With just two short sections remaining (and the epilogues) I am ready and excited to let this one go. Just two more weeks of slogging and this behemoth will be out of my life forever.

I’m selling my book on eBay.

I’m not watching the mini-series.

I’m not telling anyone to read it.

I’m developing a serious bias against 19th century classics.

I’m just…fucking…done.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 5: Comets Always Fuck Shit Up

Thanks to a bit of illness last week, I had to double up this week’s reading and cover Volume II, Part V, and Volume II, Parts I and II. If you’re interested in the domestic parts of these sections, please refer to my fellow #warandpeacenewbies‘ articles. For my purposes this week, I’m sticking to Pierre, the Great Comet, and the War that is now in full swing.


Pierre Finds His Morality

Up until this point, Pierre’s new lifestyle hasn’t allowed him many opportunities to claim the moral high ground. For the most part, it’s afforded him the chance to drink his face off, get into all sorts of high jinks, and fuck a bunch of people. Despite his Masonic leanings, he hasn’t exactly been virtuous up until this point. But when he refused to take advantage of a vulnerable, confused Natasha, he put virtue ahead of his own carnal desires for the first time in … well … ever?

Given that Pierre is essentially a simulacrum of Tolstoy, this moment felt more important than Natasha’s brush with disaster. Despite the fact that Pierre is only the focus of the section’s first and last chapters, his journey felt the most significant. In a way, Natasha’s challenges felt like a necessary interlude in Pierre’s story, a bridge that would take Pierre from one position to another. Her circumstance simply provides Pierre with the opportunity to be a moral man.

(I’m not sure if that’s sexist of me, or sexist of Tolstoy, but it’s probably sexist of one of us.)

The significance of this moment is further evidenced by Pierre’s experience with the Great Comet at the conclusion of Volume II.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 4: The Quest for a Good Life

This week’s reading covered Volume II, Parts III and IV, in which we jump to 1809 (then back to 1808), Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons and agrees to remarry Helene, Boris and Natasha end their courtship, Andrew (Andrei) sets his sights on Natasha despite Pierre’s protestations, and Nicholas (Nikolai) vows to marry Sonya.


In parts III and IV of Volume II, there is very little of what I would call entertainment, but this is one of the more interesting sections of the novel due to the narrative being driven by a simple, yet complex, question: “What does it mean to life a good life?”

So far, we’ve seen almost every character’s attempt at success or happiness foiled. Pierre thought he would find existential peace through the Freemasons but he’s made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Andrew has become disheartened with his forays into both the military and the government. Marya is desperate for religious belonging, but she still feels something is missing. Natasha’s impending marriage to Boris has fallen apart. Nicholas intends to marry Sonya, much to the disapproval of his family. And the list goes on.

There was an undertone of cynicism to Part III, a cynicism I was long expecting but haven’t quite seen yet. (I just assume that every big-ass Russian novel will be sad as fuck.) And maybe I’m just in a bitter place in my life, but I enjoyed it. Tolstoy seems to foreshadow that every effort to improve someone’s life will ultimately end up fizzling out. Things are doomed to failure.

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