What Edith Wharton Taught Me about Marriage

April 17, 2017 | 3 7 min read

I’d been married five years when I found myself at a point I never thought possible—on the precipice of becoming an unfaithful wife.

My husband and I are high-school sweethearts, and I’ve led the entirety of my adult romantic life (and my adult life for that matter) with him by my side. As a new wife, I viewed the world from a moral high ground where love existed in the simplest terms. I thought of marriage as a seal on the heart, such that a love powerful enough to lead two people into a lifelong commitment could never legitimately fade. Although I knew couples who divorced, sometimes ten or twenty years into their marriage, I saw these ruptures as signs of the couple’s fragility or immaturity rather than evidence that my own perception of romantic partnership might be flawed.

And then I almost became one of those couples, too. Looking back, now fifteen years into my marriage, I can only shake my head at my younger self. I had so much to learn.

My journey as a wife and lover has included several well-loved novels, sought out for escape or nourishment over the years, but it is my shifting perceptions of one story that I feel places my own emotional evolution in stark relief: the classic love triangle in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I first read The Age of Innocence as a high school senior, when my husband and I began dating. He was a freshman in college. We’d met a few years before in a youth orchestra (I played the oboe, he played percussion), but despite mutual interest our courtship had stalled until he called one day months later and invited me, of all things, to a band concert.

It was at the height of my own heady teenage love that I discovered Wharton’s story of Newland Archer and his marriage to one woman despite his love for another. Not surprisingly, the tale struck me then as a tragedy. My young and untested heart saw the story in terms of missed opportunities and romantic foreclosures. I was angered, in that first reading, by Newland’s choice to marry May despite his knowledge that he did not truly love her the way he loved May’s exotic cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. In a scene several weeks before his wedding to May, Newland confesses his feelings to Ellen, only to immediately retreat back into the safety of his engagement to May.

“May guessed the truth,” he said. “There is another woman—but not the one she thinks.”

Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.

She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. “Ah, don’t make love to me! Too many people have done that,” she said, frowning.

Archer, changing color, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. “I have never made love to you,” he said, “and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.”

I saw Newland Archer as a coward, and May’s choice to say she was pregnant well before she knew it to be true seemed a cheap trick that proved her own selfishness. The only member of this love triangle who I felt had any decency was Countess Olenska, who loved Newland and yet resisted his affections in order to avoid harming her cousin. Naturally, the end of the novel where we find the widowed Newland eschewing the opportunity to see Ellen again annoyed me even further, and confirmed my opinion at the time that Newland was incapable of any form of brave passion.

It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

My take on this classic tale remained set throughout the next several years of my relationship with my future husband. We developed a strong and deep connection with each other as we pursued our undergraduate studies, eventually finding ourselves as newlyweds in our early twenties at the beginning of graduate school and our adult lives together. I was decidedly brash as a young spouse—and desperately in love.

At my bridal shower, I remember a family friend, herself married some forty years, wished my husband and I great luck in our marriage. Although I cringe now to recall it, my 20-something-self responded with, “Oh, we won’t need luck,” a sentiment I sincerely believed. Unlike Newland, my husband and I were marrying with a passionate love as our foundation and with no one competing for our affections. I still thought of love as a stable and intractable force—once found, it would never leave. My retort brought what I thought was a smug smile to my family friend’s face and I felt disappointed by her critical view of marriage. Now, though, I see her advice and her smile for what it was: Wisdom.

Five years into married life and ten years into our relationship, my husband and I hit an impasse. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can attest, happy couplings erode slowly over time, so slowly that you can’t see the disintegration until one day you find yourself crying into your cereal and wondering why your husband seems to dislike you so much. It was this period of my marriage that marked my second reading of Newland, May, and Countess Olenska’s love triangle. It was also the first time I realized I was capable of cheating on my husband.

The causes of our unraveling marriage are difficult to identify even now, years later and in a much more solid and loving place. In general, I believe it was the usual suspects: criticism, entitlement, and laziness. On both of our parts. Regardless of the catalyst, the facts remain that I was a young married woman who’d begun to recognize that perhaps my husband was not the only source of affection. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘the one’ for the rest of my life.

It was a scary prospect for me, but I also found myself invigorated. Although my options for potential new partners were not exactly manifold, I found myself fantasizing about different men in my life who I felt might provide the emotional love I no longer experienced in my marriage. And of course, in reading The Age of Innocence again, my views of Newland were entirely changed. My disdain was replaced with a whole-hearted empathy for him. I saw Newland as a man flailing in a loveless marriage while another pathway for real affection remained just out of his reach. It’s not going too far to say that I identified with Newland on this second read. Although I hadn’t secured a new pathway for love, I had accepted its possibility and that, if presented with the option, I would likely pursue it.

Archer choked with the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.

“Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?” he asked.

“For us? But there’s no us in that sense! We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them.”

“Ah, I’m beyond that,” he groaned.

“No, you’re not! You’ve never been beyond. And I have,” she said, in a strange voice, “and I know what it looks like there.”

He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain.

But just when I’d accepted our relationship was irretrievable, another surprise came: My husband named the darkness taking hold in our love. He told me about his struggles within our marriage that I’d ignored entirely, being so focused on my own self-assigned role of victim in our relationship. And I listened. And then I told my husband how I was feeling. I laid it all out there — the fantasies, the divorce-lawyer shopping online, the misery. And he listened. It was a conversation that set us aright — not immediately, and not without effort and tears and one time where I childishly yelled expletives at him from the front porch as he headed off to work — but I can look back ten years later, from the vantage point of a happy and loved spouse partnered with another happy and loved spouse, and see that discussion as a turning point in our marriage. I’m so very grateful that I didn’t jettison years of friendship and affection because even the idea of other options seemed more attractive in the moment. I’m also grateful that my husband helped me grow into a better partner, rather than simply giving up on us.

Reading The Age of Innocence again this past year brought with it yet another perspective on the star-crossed trio: for me, May has become the hero of the tale. It was May who loved Newland enough to forgive him his indiscretions with Ellen. Although May is portrayed in portions of the novel as naive and even vapid, Wharton weaves throughout the story hints at May’s true depth of understanding. She wasn’t stupid or self-absorbed. May saw Newland’s emotional affair with the Countess for what it was — a fantasy of love that would not hold with time.

Much like my own perusals for future partners, I’d argue Newland’s devotion to Countess Olenska was more a response to his dissatisfaction with his own life rather than a real affair of the heart. Even if he were to leave May and love Ellen, his problems would follow him, much as my own failings as a partner would have followed me into my next relationship. Rather than viewing it as an entrapment, May’s early revelation of her pregnancy strikes me currently as auspicious in its timing, as it helped prevent Newland from throwing away his marriage for a fleeting romance.

Near the end of the novel and now a widower, Newland has a conversation with his son, Dallas, where he discovers this powerful and loving intervention of his wife:

“Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone — you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”

Archer received this strange communication in silence. . . After a little while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guess and pitied. . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.

Having lived through several phases of love, and with hopefully many more still to come, I stand with May in acknowledging the value of two lives woven together, but I also understand how tempting alternatives can be when you let those threads fray, untended, as both Newland and I almost did. Thankfully, we both had spouses who stepped in just before irrevocable damage was done to guide us over the chasm, our marriages still intact. I don’t know where my life or my heart will be the next time I read Newland, May, and Ellen’s story, but for now Wharton’s The Age of Innocence affirms what has become for me an essential truth: In love, you’ll need hard work, and more than a little luck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.

is a developmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories and essays have appeared in LitHub, National Book Critics Circle: Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, The Indianola Review, and (parenthetical). Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.