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Friday, June 13, 2003

The Age of Innocence

Whoever accused Edith Wharton of writing The Age of Innocence without a “strong male character” is not entirely right. To be sure, the main character, Newland Archer, is not one of them, however, there are a few men in the story that I view as particularly arrogant and self-assured. While most of the strong characters in this story are female, Wharton does manage to allow a few men to shake their fists at convention.
Julius Beaufort is a disgraceful philanderer who chases Ellen Olenska openly and relentlessly. He apparently shows no remorse for his unconventional behavior and his offspring appear to marry well in spite of him. The financial scandals connected with his name do nothing to keep his heirs from society. He is a man who lives what he feels and is perhaps the strongest male in this book. He rules his household with an iron fist and his wife had “the most distinguished house in New York”. After his wife dies, he marries his former mistress, Miss Fanny Ring. Beaufort does not have great social power like Henry van der Luyden, who sets conventions instead of following them. Actually, Henry is the safe-keeper of the old standards while having the power to change them.
Lawrence Lefferts, The "model of form" in Newland Archer’s narrow little world, is stronger than Archer, though he outwardly practices “Form,” all the while he is flaunting the rules and cheating on his wife. It is of note that the stronger men in this story cheat on their wives while the weaker men, such as Archer, do not manage the act. It makes me wonder if that is what Wharton intended us to discover. The freedom from restraint that is part and parcel of adultery has been attached to Wharton’s own name; This makes me suspect that either she wanted to cheat on her husband or that he cheated on her.
If Archer were a strong character, he would set the social pace, not follow it. I do not think it was weak of Archer to become annoyed at the attention his fiancé was receiving in the opera box; it is natural that he would not want any hint of a scandal connected to his future bride.
Where he does show weakness is in his early announcement of their engagement. Wanting to protect his fiancé is one thing; to rearrange his life to suit convention is another. It is an ironic situation, for the book opens with an explanation of how he loves to mull over coming delights. Yet, in this situation, he robs himself of that pleasure and announces his betrothal on the same day that May Welland accepts his offer.
Newland is not able to tell the truth to May at the Beaufort’s ball, instead of solidifying their upcoming union by trusting her with his inner thoughts about Madame Olenska, he chooses to protect her and perpetuate the ongoing myth that May is an innocent.
In chapter five Archer suddenly feels sympathetic towards Ellen and insists that she and all women should be free. However, he does not follow this statement up with any real action. He is merely testing his sticky wings a bit in the relative comfort of his own environs. At home, anything he says is likely accepted because he is the power in that environment, however, out in public he shrinks from such rash thoughts and actions.
When Newland begins to doubt his upcoming marriage to May, it is a moment of weakness; it does not make him weak character. It is a merely a psychological mountain that many newly engaged young men must ascend. He reminds me of a leaf caught on the surface of a stream; he is carried wherever the main flow takes him. Every time the scene changes, Newland undergoes a brief transformation into yet another character, sometimes inflexible, like his peers and sometimes liberated, like Madame Olenska. This is what makes him a weak character.
He does not fixate on certain objectives and ideals; rather he mirrors the company that he keeps. This is his most critical flaw. From time to time, he fights against the predictability of his life, but he has no strength to stand up to May and rescind his marriage offer, or pursue Ellen after he learns that May is Pregnant. He is at the mercy of the women in his life, they present him with situations, and when he does have freedom of choice, he never chooses for himself but instead lets “fate” determine his life.
The women in this story share very strong characteristics. May boldly questions Archer about their upcoming nuptials and whether or not he still in love with Mrs. Rushworth, his former mistress. She manages to make Ellen Olensky leave the country by lying about her state of pregnancy, and her persistence of will manages to sooth Archer’s rough edges during the first six months of their marriage. She may play the innocent, but we recognize her for what she is, a clever young woman who will not lose her husband to her cousin. She forms an alliance with the strong women in her family to keep Archer out of the information loop.
Ellen is strong enough to leave her husband and his fortune. Her happiness is more important to her than convention. At the Van der Luyden reception for the Duke, Ellen follows her coda of acting against common practice by leaving the Duke’s side. We do not know if this is a deliberate act, though we guess it might be because she calls the Duke “Boring”, or if Ellen is simply unaware of the customs. After all, she has been away for quite some time and was raised by an eccentric aunt. She is a woman who speaks her mind and does not hide behind the double talk that everyone else in New York uses.
One would think, however, that she would know that it is inappropriate for her to repeatedly invite Newland to her home without his family and fiancé, yet she does it anyway. She issues a clear invitation to Newland at the theatre one night, “What do you do while May is away?” She knows whom she wants and is unafraid of getting him initially.
Ellen captivates Newland; she manages to make him feel that the notions of his society are backward. She easily changes his mind whenever they encounter one another and he becomes obsessed with her.
Mrs. Archer displays some strength in going to see Louisa van der Luyden. She is ready to risk appearing foolish and takes an active role in making the cousin of her son’s fiancé more acceptable to their society. She does not act on her own, but after “a painful period of inward resistance and outward temporizing”. She is not a very strong woman like Mrs. Manson Mingott, the grandmother of Ellen and May, whom is the most socially powerful woman in the book besides Louisa van der Luyden. She willfully built her home away from the rest of society, yet they still troop to her dinners even though the food is dismal. She directs her family’s lives, as matriarchs tend to do and her granddaughters are her supplicants; they seek her approval and monetary support. She is the hand behind many of the decisions in Ellen’s life. While she is the epitome of convention, she is also the one who “tried it on”, regarding allowing Ellen to come back into the family fold. Her and Beaufort were known for their “shortcuts through the conventions”.
The Van der Luydens, the Archers, and the Mingotts represent the kind of society that is scared of change, they have become stodgy and old fashioned. The critical “Form” that people like the Leffertses and the Wellands follow is their way of hiding behind silly conventions because they are too scared to venture out and enjoy themselves. They need someone else to take the risk first as in the case of the Van der Luydens who made Ellen welcome and in the case of Ellen being one of the first New York women to frequent the salon of Mrs. Struthers.
Perhaps Archer does not go to visit Ellen in the final chapter because of Dallas’ revelation that May knew of his passion for Ellen. Once again, it is May controlling Archer, even from the grave. The whole idea of Ellen was that she was free, from the conventions of society and completely unlike any of the boring aspects of Archer’s duty- filled life. To have his feelings validated by dead wife, only makes them less of what they were. Because they meet with approval, his feelings are no longer exciting or important. “Newland Archer, looking out of his hotel window at the stately gaiety of the Paris streets, felt his heart beating with the confusion and eagerness of youth.” May’s insidious stamp of approval is all Archer needs to put out that fire. Archer is also now afraid of Ellen, after all she has had half a lifetime of experiences that he had not and he doesn’t even feel like his attempts at conversation will do. She is an insurmountable idea, now that life with May has “softened” all of Newland’s “sharp edges”.
Many of Wharton’s novels appear to favor strong females such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Zenobia Frome in Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence is no exception. Wharton manages to portray a variety of strong women in this story. They control the life of Archer, without him realizing it. “Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family council”. Since men barely receive mention in relation to the women in this family, they are all dead and buried; the women make the decisions. “Mrs. Manson Mingott’s influence is great throughout her family.” At one point, Archer realizes that his power within the family is dead, because he no longer shares the “tribal” view, and that May has kept information from him and her conscience had not “protested.” The women in this book conduct the lives of their men and offspring with no guilt, they assume that they are the best judge of character and deportment and leave nothing to chance or “fate”.


Sources:

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, and Auckland: Bantam Books, 1996

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Ethan Frome - Book Versus Movie

I think I enjoyed the book, Ethan Frome, written by Edith Wharton, much better than the movie. Patricia Arquette is one of my favorite actors and Liam Neeson is always good in whatever I have seen of him, but the story is tough to take in a movie form. It is not often that I go out to see a movie and want to leave the theatre in a sad mood. I guess I am always looking for the happy-ending. Indeed, that last line of the movie by Ruth Hale seems to try to give watchers hope that someday, everything will be all right for Ethan, but really it is an ineffectual little statement that does nothing at all. On the other hand, I enjoy books that make me cry. I find tragedy much easier to digest in a book form. Perhaps that is a narrow-minded view, but it is my preference. However, this is not my only reason for liking the book better, I feel that too much detail gets lost in movie versions and that the characters are not developed as much as they are in books.
There are many differences between the version written by Edith Wharton and the screenplay, written by Richard Nelson. The frame of the story changes, the narrator is not a minister who is told the entire story by his landlady Ruth. In the original story, he is an engineer, who gleaned bits of Ethan’s tragic story from many different sources and figured out the rest of the sad tale during his visit to the Frome farm. The movie version was a much simpler adaptation and does not take as much time to get into the flirtation between Ethan and Mattie. Moviegoers expect some action and even in this dreary, somber tale, the screenwriters are able to make it happen.
The nature of the movie did not allow us a glimpse of what was going on in Ethan Frome’s head. Only the dialogue and actions tell the story, leaving the watcher to complete the story in their own imaginations. Without reading the book first, I am not sure that I would have understood what exactly was going on. I felt that the scene in the store where Mrs. Hale was trying to remind Ethan of his’ wife’s sacrifices was comical. I just wanted to yell out at her, “woman! You go home to his house and take care of that woman! Then come talk to me about what he owes her.” This was a different encounter than the book version. The movie made this scene a judgmental one, Mrs. Hale saw Ethan buying Mattie a present was trying to make him feel bad. The book has takes on a completely different meaning,
“Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: "I on'y just heard from Mr. Hale 'bout Zeena's going over to Bettsbridge to see that new doctor. I'm real sorry she's feeling so bad again! I hope he thinks he can do something for her. I don't know anybody round here's had more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after her; and I used to say the same thing 'bout your mother. You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome."
She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the horse; and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road and stared after the retreating sleigh. It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.”
The fox and the poison were native only to the movie version, perhaps to give us an idea of how desperate the character of Mattie is or perhaps to make the story more exciting, it is hard to say. It does not help much because it makes you wonder why they had to smash into a tree at all, with the poison so handy.
Mattie in Wharton’s book is a much sunnier, optimistic character, she attempts to lighten Ethan’s load by leaving him the note “"Don't trouble, Ethan.” The Mattie in the movie is distinctly different, in her despair; she goes after the poison meant for the fox. She does not want to live as soon as she finds out that she must leave Ethan. The movie couple enjoys a more intimate relationship, we see Ethan going to Mattie in her bedroom, while in the book, and they only kiss in the kitchen.
The book offers a rounder view of Ethan than that of the movie, because we are privy to his inner dialogue. The movie shows an Ethan who had excellent prospects while the book mentions that he spent a brief time (a year) in vocational school. Ethan in the movie is less likable than in the book because he openly flirts with Mattie and because of their intimate relationship. The Ethan in the book, once he realizes that he will hurt people to get away with Mattie, makes the more noble choice. This make us sympathize with him The movie version shows Mattie as the decision maker whilst the book has Ethan making that crucial decision. The movie exposes Ethan not making any decisions at all really; except for the way he treats Mattie. The book reveals so much more of Ethan’s inner struggle that we are aware that he is trying to make decisions in spite of Zeena’s overbearing control.
Zeena’s role, acted by Joan Allen, was perhaps the best in the movie. She looked exactly as I expected her to when I was reading about her, only better. The way she ate the pie, while saying that she had no appetite, gave me the impression that her sickness was the result of hypochondria. Even though the book explains this and the movie does not, her portrayal filled in the missing blanks here. She is a nasty piece of work who appears to make the all the decisions for everyone involved. The one sour note I found was that I could not imagine Ethan falling in love with her or wanting to marry her in the first place. She looked awful from the start. The movie omitted the inner communication that explained Ethan’s fear of silence if Zeena departed. It leaves us with the unbelievable impression that he found her attractive enough to marry just because he did not want to be lonely. Loneliness is a less powerful emotion than fear any day and it just was not convincing. The glances between Zeena and Ethan were nothing like the looks between Ethan and Mattie.
Neeson plays the part of Ethan quite convincingly, he re-creates Ethan’s tortured walk so well that I was wincing with each step he took. Nevertheless, he was not morose enough during the flashback scenes, he appeared like a man on the make, instead of the miserable husband, stuck with a wife he doesn’t love, in the Wharton version. The “smash-up” in the movie leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. We only have Mattie’s words that she “doesn’t want to ever leave this mountain” to base our assumptions on. The book leaves nothing to the imagination in this scene and again I have to wonder how much I would have understood if I had not read the book first. Her wishes were much clearer in the book. "Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!" "Down where?" "The coast. Right off," she panted. "So 't we'll never come up any more." "Matt! What on earth do you mean?" She put her lips close against his ear to say: "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more."
The book illustrates Ethan paying more attention to Mattie after he gets a warning from Zeena that Mattie will leave them to marry someone, they are kindred spirits from the start, but Ethan’s passions are inflamed when he feels a threat to their relationship. In the movie, there is a lack of set-up so we only see his attraction to Mattie from the start. The book meanders around quite a bit before it gets to the part where Zeena is jealous of Mattie’s effect on Ethan. “It was a fact that since Mattie Silver's coming, he had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness, and he had stupidly assumed that she would not notice any change in his appearance. Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia's way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences. Of late, however, there had been no room in his thoughts for such vague apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade.”
Mattie is described as not very useful in the book, she can trim a hat, recite a bit and play a few tunes on the piano, but the movie depicts a Mattie that Ethan is blown away by. He admires her talents in a very steamy scene.
The movie gives us a Zeena who is a sick individual; we can feel some pity for her for a while. The book coats her in a more negative light, she is the reason they cannot move away, while the lack of offers on the farm are a problem, the narrator leaves us in no doubt that Zeena became sick on purpose in order to remain in a area where she enjoyed some status. She is the reason Ethan is miserable, not her sickness.
The accents in the movie were surprising to me, Even though I knew it was located in New England, when I am reading a book, I rarely think about the accents. The book had language that was indicative of strong accents, but they were secondary to what was going on with the characters. The movie, and Mattie’s particularly strong accent, distracted me a bit from the story, but I found it charming anyway.
The ending of the movie was not as good as the ending of the book, the book depicts a clear trade-off of roles between Zeena and Mattie, while the movie does not show this as strongly. Since the role-reversal is such an integral part of the story, the movie could have developed this better. I will probably always enjoy books over movie translations for this very reason. Too much important detail gets lost in the transformation to film.
The transferring of Ethan Frome to film was artfully done and the moral issue remains, but it is not as rich of a tale as the one told by Wharton. Too much is taken for granted by the director, they seem to believe that if they get it, we do also, but sadly, that is not the case. While each form is open to individual interpretation, books will probably always get us closer to the author’s original intentions. I will admit one notable exception, I could never had understood the game of “Quidditch” from Harry Potter without seeing it in the movie version.

Sources:

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome New York, New York: Penguin Putnam 2000
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com

Ethan Frome Dir. John Madden
Perf. Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, Joan Allen
American Playhouse @ Theatrical Films and Miramax 1993

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