The twentieth century was one of tragedy on a massive scale. The sheer brutality inflicted upon millions of people was witnessed by differing societies scattered across the globe. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote their respective masterpieces in response to various events that contributed to the horror, albeit in slightly differing ways. Wharton wrote ‘The Age of Innocence’ post-war, and it was written and is read very much with the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’ lurking in the mind.
Published in 1920, it is essentially a novel highlighting the crippling social conventions of a society before it was grotesquely ripped apart and gnarled by World War One. In comparison, in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, published in 1939, Steinbeck offers a pointed criticism of the policies which caused the Great Depression, and thereby the flight and anguish of so many dispossessed families. Both novels therefore offer a historical study, although Wharton writes of a society on the brink of profound and permanent change whilst Steinbeck writes of one actually going through fundamental change.
Tragic elements are consequently bound to be found in both. Yet, on closer inspection one can see that there is also a positive reading, as by the end of each novel some characters are enlightened, and so understand more about themselves and the others around them. Initially, there appears to be such hope in both novels. Newland Archer describes his feelings at the prospect of his marriage to May Welland thinking ‘What a life it was going to be, with this whiteness, radiance, goodness at one’s side! Archer goes on to say ‘Evidently she was always going to understand; she was always going to say the right thing.
The discovery made the cup of his bliss overflow’. And at this early point in the novel, as any young couple amongst this society, the pair are simply happy to have carried out all that is expected of them. So far, so good. The tragedy is that it is only when confronted with someone who challenges the ideals that Archer has always respected and adhered to so strongly that his marriage appears in such a starkly realistic light.
In the same way, at the beginning of the journey in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ huge optimism exists at the prospect of finding a new life in California. The turtle and his struggle across the highway at the start of the novel serves as a metaphorical warning of the misfortunes the Joad family will suffer. Further forewarnings come in the form of the death of the grandparents and of the dog. However, it is only later in the novel when the reality of the situation is truly discovered, but by this point it is too late.
And it is questionable as to whether the Joad family had little, if any, choice over leaving their desperate circumstances in the first place. Upon first reading the novels, it is relatively easy to recognise the most obvious tragic element of each. In ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, a novel once described as ‘morbid, pessimistic and gloomy’, the thousands evacuated from the ‘Dust Bowl’ of Western Oklahoma and Texas during 1930s America makes a poignant story on its own.
However, Steinbeck personalises this by focusing on one particular family, the Joads, while still relating it to the bigger picture and offering historical analysis of what was occurring to such families generally. Likewise, in ‘The Age of Innocence’ we get an overview of New York society whilst the focus remains throughout on one particular character, Newland Archer and it is through his ‘lens of consciousness’ that we view society. The evident tragic aspect of ‘The Age of Innocence’ can be seen as one of thwarted love.
Newland Archer and Countess Olenska are beaten by united New York society, although perhaps, because of such severe social codes, the conclusion was inevitable from the start. It is a rather simplistic argument which says that their relationship simply tells a story of thwarted love. It would be a tragic story if it was so, and that they did truly love one another. However, if one subscribes to the theory that Archer never did truly love Ellen but was merely infatuated and obsessed with the unobtainable then the true love story seems a fallacy.
And if an elopement was so unobtainable then perhaps the conclusion of the novel is inevitable. Would Archer have broken with conformity in the face of such harsh opposition? In Chapter 1 of the novel, he looks at May, his fianci??e, contemplating ‘her own absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity’. He goes on to think “We’ll read Faust together… by the Italian lakes’… azily confusing the scene of his projected honeymoon with the masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly pride to reveal to his bride’.
May typifies what New York society deems that a young woman should be, just as initially Archer is all that a young man should be too. But in Chapter 23, Archer sees that May ‘had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting; the function was exhausted because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr Welland’.
Although Archer appears to look as if he might break with social conventions later in the novel, both he and his wife epitomise typical products of their society and of the age, and generally anything or anybody alien to this culture was ignored. Ellen Olenska is inescapably, as part of the Welland family, drawn into this society and so Archer is thrown together with someone who contrasts sharply with his, and importantly society’s view of the stereotypical woman. Maybe he did not love her, maybe it was merely fascination. Possibly that is an unfair and sceptical view of their relationship.
Perhaps Archer truly did love the woman who gave him his ‘first glimpse of a real life’ in comparison with his ‘sham one’. In Chapter 22, Archer sums up this ‘sham’ life, saying ‘His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen’. However, even if he did then was it not slightly nai??ve to believe that New York society would look upon their relationship as anything else than a sordid scandal? And perhaps they might not have been eternally happy had they eloped together.
By the end of the novel, Archer is contemplative about his decision; understanding maybe that he was better off staying within New York’s social boundaries. As touched upon above, the possibility remains that Archer might not have been able to cope with the loss of social status, having been brought up understanding that social standing meant everything. Initially he shows such reverence to society that it is hard to believe his principles could alter so radically as to completely disregard everything he had once stood for.
The issue raises another theme running parallel through both novels; the difference between truth and reality. The Joad family believes that they are heading out to California for a better life, for a land of milk and honey and the truth is that so too believe all the other families. It proves to be nothing of the sort, and so further illustrates tragic aspects of the novel. Upon reaching California they simply become slaves to business in being forced to work for pitiful wages, only because they are desperate for anything that they can get.
It is tragic that these ruined families make their way across a trail of devastation to such pathetic ends. Or are they so pathetic? In the closing scene of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Rose of Sharon provides a metaphorical beacon of hope. By the finale of the novel, the Joads have suffered incomparable hardships. The grandparents have died, three members of the family have left, there is little hope of worthy unemployment, no food and Rose of Sharon has given birth to a stillborn baby.
However, at this point the family rises above this to perform an act of astounding kindness and generosity by nursing the starving man. This again combats the tragic element of the novel by proving that the Joads have not forgotten their sense of the value of human life. It is over the issue of human nature that it becomes even more interesting to compare the two novels. Throughout ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ we see incredible acts of generosity and kindness, highlighting the best qualities of human nature. The title itself suggests that out of fermenting wrath stems something productive.
The travelling families unite together in recognition of the common bond they share; that of suffering. The story chronicles the two ‘families’; the Joads and the collective ‘family’ body of migrant workers. ‘Twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream’. An example of this is when the Joads meet the Wilsons, and the two family units merge into one; committing themselves to one another’s survival.
As Tom eventually realises ‘his people are all people’. It is an experience that transforms many families from ‘I’ to ‘We’ and thereby acts as an uniting bond against the enemy of the novel, effectively the big businesses and ruthless capitalist powers. As a result of the dispossession, cooperation springs up spontaneously amongst strangers all sharing the same situation, proving a sharp contrast to the callous and cold-blooded way in which families have been force to leave their heritage.
Casy, at one point, mulls over ‘the one big soul ever’body’s a part of’. Likewise, in ‘The Age of Innocence’, we can see the united force of a group of people in the form of New York society. And similarly this group fuses together to defeat an enemy, or at least to protect the status quo. The nature of this group is similar to that of the migrants; a desperate longing to survive is seen in both along with the desire to protect their own kind. This group Wharton herself knew extremely well, having been brought up in it.
It is thought that the expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ once specifically referred to Wharton’s parents who were well known throughout New York for their extravagant parties and lifestyle, and Wharton has been called the ‘literary aristocrat. ‘ In this way, ‘The Age of Innocence’ can again be seen as a celebration. Through Newland Archer’s character, Wharton illustrates the ‘groping member of the old society she had been… and suggested how sedate and unfulfilled she might have become had she not broken free of that curiously attractive social prison’.
Correspondingly, through Ellen Olenska, Wharton offers a partial sketch of ‘the intense and non-conformist self’ she felt that she was, as someone had once called her ‘the young hawk’. Interestingly though, while in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ the groups are fixed in a weary battle with one another; the migrants against the government, (which is in united force with business) in ‘The Age of Innocence’ a struggle goes on between the individual and the group. Ellen and Archer have to sacrifice their desires and opinions in order not to upset the established order.
And in most cases this established order takes its form as the family. For example, Ellen is dissuaded from divorcing her husband because of fears about what it would do to damage the reputation of the Mingott and the Welland families. Unhappily though, Wharton’s personal life was marred by a certain amount of tragedy. Haplessly married at a reasonably young age to a man thirteen years her senior Wharton faced, much like the character of Ellen Olenska, ‘the temptations of adultery and the censure of divorce’.
And even though she may have been referred to, as mentioned above, as ‘our literary aristocrat’ Wharton still faced the criticisms of her class who disdained and feared what they saw as the rather bohemian life of artists and writers. Thus, as the novel deemed by many to be the author’s finest work contains tragic elements, so too did the life of the author herself. When examining the astounding hypocrisy of New York society in ‘The Age of Innocence’ the theme of appearance and reality becomes more apparent.
This hypocrisy is partly hinted at by the novel’s heavily ironic title. Wharton questioned the idea that the people making up the society that she knew so well were innocent. For example, Larry Lefferts self-righteously proclaims himself to be a pillar of morality whereas he is actually one of the biggest philanderers of the story. In the same way, Julius Beaufort’s lavish parties are celebrated and attended by society yet the same people scorn his vulgarity and are quick to condemn him following his financial downturn.
The dramatic irony in the novel stems from the fact that New York assumes Ellen and Archer are in the midst of a torrid affair while the true reason that the pair decide to part is so that they do not hurt those close to them. Yet another parallel between Wharton and Steinbeck is that the latter portrays a tragic story of great suffering, but there is more to the novel than just that, as there is to ‘The Age of Innocence’. When he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he described the writer’s obligation as ‘dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement’.
He took the job of writing a novel about such a potentially controversial issue astoundingly seriously, actually travelling with a group of migrant workers from Oklahoma to California in 1936. Whereupon, he published a pamphlet called ‘Their Blood was Strong’, having been commissioned by ‘The San Francisco News’ to cover this issue. And although many Oklahomans and Californians reviled the novel for what they viewed as unflattering representations, the vast majority of readers and scholars praised the book. The American literary critic Robert DeMott said that it ‘entered both the American consciousness and conscience’.
Therefore, although it chronicles a devastatingly tragic historical event, the fact that it has been written and brought to the attention of so many millions of people surely means that the era of such destruction and ruin will not be forgotten. Interestingly, throughout ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Steinbeck constantly contrasts altruism and selfishness. For example, in Chapter 15, where Mae the waitress sells sweets to a migrant for his two sons at a drastically reduced price and consequently truck-drivers, having seen this exchange, leave Mae an extra large tip.
This theme of generosity is comparable to Tom Joad’s story, which dramatises a conflict between the impulse to respond to hardship and disaster by focusing on one’s own needs and the impulse to risk one’s safety by working for a common good. In the end, following the murder of Casy and Tom’s subsequent position as an outlaw, he joins the workers’ cause, again highlighting the generosity of spirit amongst the migrants despite all that they have been through.
Hence, underneath the tragic surface of the story, the dispossessed families maintain their dignity and honor, emphasising the importance of self-respect and its preservation in order to survive spiritually. As Tom says ‘Ever’thing we do… is aimed right at goin’ on’. It seems remarkably easy on reading the novels to declare them both simply tragic stories. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ indeed tells a woeful account of the real situation that people were placed in as a result of a cold-hearted and profit seeking government during the 1930s.
And similarly, ‘The Age of Innocence’ ends on a sorrowful note as Archer looks back with a certain amount of nostalgia upon the life he might have had with Countess Olenska. Nostalgia similar to that which Wharton felt towards pre-war New York society. It is perhaps easier to find tragic elements within Steinbeck’s social critique than Wharton’s, as the former is obviously writing about a conflict within America which happened and did cause huge suffering and distress for a whole class of society.
Having said that though, the predominant class of society in ‘The Age of Innocence’ and their stifling social expectations would soon be devastated by the effects of the First World War, a fact which hangs ominously in the air throughout the novel. Nevertheless, underneath the tragedy of each story lies something more positive. By the closing chapter of ‘The Age of Innocence’, Archer understands that he did what he and his society considered to be the ‘right thing’ in standing by his wife.
At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Steinbeck wrote and so raised the profile of the appalling treatment of a group of people considered to be the ‘underclass’ of society in the economically distressed America of the 1930s. And furthermore, these people have proved by the end of the novel that through the united strength of one another they have not been crushed or beaten. So while there are undeniably tragic aspects to the pair, one has to understand that there is far more depth to the novels than simply their stories.