Published only five years apart, Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence (1920),” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby (1925),” share some notable similarities: both feature male protagonists in bizarre and confusing romantic situations, and both offer glimpses into the privileged world of New York elites in the early Twentieth Century, albeit in slightly different ways. Specifically, “Age of Innocence,” depicts the period of time just before World war I, and has an air of nostalgia for a more innocent time, but also an undercurrent of insidious darkness about the changes yet to come. “The Great Gatsby,” on the other hand, takes place after the war, and explores the desolation of modernity, but also has undercurrents of nostalgia. This essay will use “The Age of Innocence” and “The Great Gatsby” to explore the different approaches Wharton and Fitzgerald take to exploring what feels simultaneously, like two different worlds, but also the same world.
Ideas about marriage, relationships, and gender dynamics play a large role in both novels. In “The Age of Innocence,” most of the key plot points center around the rumors of Countess Olenska infidelity, something which is highly scandalous in the world of the novel, and in one important scene, Archer comments on the double standards for men and women at this time, with regards to extramarital escapades, saying: “Women ought to be free – as free as we are (Wharton, p. 41).” Archer appears to be ahead of his time – something he will demonstrate throughout the novel – in that he understands that these rigid constraints on social life are detrimental to the happiness of many. The changes Archer anticipated come to fruition in “The Great Gatsby,” as women in the 1920s found themselves much more sexually liberated than their mothers and grandmothers. Of course, this transition was not met with joy by everyone, as Tom Buchanan remarks in Fitzgerald’s novel that women get around too much these days. The changes that accompany the passage of time we see in these two works transcend matters of sex, and permeate every aspect of society.
Wharton’s novel takes place a few decades before it was written, in the late Nineteenth century, in what is known as the “the Gilded Age,” an era in American history in which the rich were richer than they had ever been, and had spent generations enthralled in tradition. But things were changing, and looking back almost five decades later, Wharton points out how those changes were more obvious than people at the time may have realized:
“ … the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people,’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to … there was no reason why (Newland Archer) should not have come earlier … New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in Metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago (wharton, pp. 3 – 4).”
Notice how Wharton describes the characters (the world of fashion) as being “still content to reassemble,” indicating that this is something they have been doing for some time, then the word “content” implies a state somewhere in between apathy and enthusiasm, communicating that the characters are attending this gathering, not because they necessarily enjoy it, but rather out of some sense of social obligation. Wharton furthers this idea towards the end of the passage when she likens the need Archer feels to be fashionably late to the superstitions of his primitive ancestors, communicating how outdated these social graces to-which he and his friends cling are. Next, consider some the adjectives Wharton uses to describe the scene in the first two lines, “shabby,” and “old,” so as beautiful as this opera house may be, it is past its prime, or soon will be. What’s more, the house’s patrons like the old place because it’s unattractive to “the new people,” referring to some nondescript group that has recently emerged, and seems to be upsetting New York’s cultural establishment, so much so, that they would rather retreat to their stuffy fortresses of tradition than embrace the newness that has begun to bubble up under the surface.
“The Great Gatsby” is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest who has moved to the West Egg community of Long Island of New York, and finds himself the neighbor of the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby holds lavish parties every evening, with New York’s elites as his guests, and when Nick gets invited to one, we see, through his eyes, what it means to be privileged in the new age of American Wealth:
“The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs … already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colours, and hair bobbed in strange new ways … the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names (Fitzgerald, p. 45).”
These are, of course, “the new people” Wharton was referring to in the previous passage. The most striking difference between this scene and any from Wharton’s novel which describes a social gathering is the sheer amount of liveliness running through it, as well as the clear lack of any formality to the scene. The first line in this passage doesn’t seem to have anything interesting about it “The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs,” but one should ask if such a line would appear in Wharton’s novel? The act of dressing is intimate and private, and while “The Age of innocence” depicts many intimate moments between its characters, they are always fully clothed, with not even a mention of them ever being nude, thus we have our first indication that the world being portrayed in “The Great Gatsby” is one less concerned with stuffy notions of propriety. Next, consider the use of the word “gaudy” to describe the aesthetics of the scene, and how the hairstyles are described as “strange and new.” Fitzgerald and Wharton are both interested in fashion and aesthetics, but Wharton is focused on the traditional styles of the old order, while Fitzgerald revels in the new. The final sentences are the most important in illustrating the differences in how the two novels portray social gatherings. “ … introductions forgotten on the spot on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” These people are paying little attention to the kinds of rigid formalities which Wharton’s characters would be mortified to ignore. Yes, both novels center around the lifestyles of the well-to-do, but Fitzgerald’s characters are the nouveau-riche, they have the same amount of wealth, but they are not the same people.
What it means to be rich does not stay the same from era to era; one would think that money is money, and what a person does with it, or how they earn it wouldn’t matter, so long as they have it, but when we examine two contrasting scenes from “The Age of Innocence,” and “The Great Gatsby,” we see things are much more complicated than that. Here Wharton gives us a look at Newland Archer’s professional life:
“No one was deceived by his pretense of professional activity. In old-fashioned legal firms … which were mainly engaged in the management of large estates and ‘conservative’ investments, there were always two or three young men, fairly well-off, and without professional ambition … though it was supposed to be proper for them to have an occupation, the crude fact of money making was still regarded as derogatory, and the law, being a profession was accounted a more gentlemanly pursuit than business (Wharton, p. 215 – 216).”
Note how the narrator uses the phrase “professional activity” rather than profession to describe what Archer does, suggesting that Archer’s career as a lawyer is something less than a pursuit, and more something he does at his leisure. Then, Wharton explicitly states that the young men who populate these law firms have no ambition, and that’s because they don’t have any reason to be, as they already come from wealthy families. Wealth is a given for these young men, one couldn’t call them successful, as success implies that a person has put in some kind of effort – they’re just rich, it even says that money making is ‘derogatory,’ as though, in this world, money only means something if it’s inherited; because to earn your own money meant that you did not have a legacy, that you had no history in your family, and thus no prestige to your name. The wealthy young men of this era, about whom Wharton is writing in this passage, seem to act as though they are some kind of American nobility – without the titles – hence law being referred to as a ‘gentlemanly pursuit,’ similar to how the aristocracy of the old world would practice fencing, or hawking, or some other idle activity. But again, we should remember that Wharton is viewing this scene in retrospect, hence the phrase “still regarded as derogatory,” indicating that this was a world on its last legs. What’s more, this scene is viewed through Newland Archer’s eyes, with any distaste with-which it is infused coming from him, illustrating that there was a desire for change, even among the establishment. However, some people still wanted to cling to the old way.
Jay Gatsby’s ultimate desire is to acquire the love of the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, whom he has loved since his youth. Unfortunately for Jay, he has a rival, Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, an old money alpha male, who sees right through Jay’s ostentatious facade:
“‘Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ demanded Tom suddenly. ‘Some big bootlegger?’
“‘Where’d you hear that?’ I enquired.
“‘I didn’t hear it. I imagined it. A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.’
“‘Not Gatsby,’ I said shortly …
“‘Well, he certainly must have strained himself to get this menagerie together.’ (Fitzgerald, pp. 111 – 112).”
This scene and the one we just viewed from Wharton are almost opposites: in the former, we have someone from old money airing his distaste for the status quo, while the latter has a son of the establishment airing his grievances for “the new people.” This stretch of dialogue perfectly encapsulates how people like Tom viewed people like Jay: Tom is so threatened by the idea of his social sphere being infiltrated, that when he sees someone with the potential to do so, he instantly assumes the other person’s means have been acquired through illegitimate means – yes, Jay actually is a bootlegger, but at this point in the story, Tom doesn’t know that for sure. While wealth has become easier to acquire in this new era, and the stigma against “less gentlemanly” professions may have lessened, Gatsby and his contemporaries are still unable to buy the status that Tom has gained through inheritance. Rather than get the world to pay attention to him, the garish parties Gatsby throws to show off his wealth and attract Daisy’s attention only remind him of how much he, and many others like him, still have to prove.
Wharton and Fitzgerald’s novels view the same world through different lenses: Wharton places herself in the past and looks forward, while Fitzgerald remains in the present and looks back. “The Age of Innocence” surveys a glorious past, while still taking time to watch for the darkness approaching over the horizon; “The Great Gatsby” basks in the glamorous danger of the new world. Examined side by side, Fitzgerald and Wharton’s novels provide a rich picture of two of the most colorful periods in our country’s history, and help us understand profound truths about wealth, class, and love, which are still worth contemplating today.