Edith Wharton: a duologue of silence

We are super-Wharton fans here, and here is one of my favourite passages from her famous “war-novel that never even mentions the war”, The Age of Innocence:

  Seated side by side on a bench of the half-empty boat they found that they had hardly anything to say to each other, or rather that what they had to say communicated itself best in the blessed silence of their release and their isolation.
  As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.
  As the boat left the harbour and turned seaward a breeze stirred about them and the bay broke up into long oily undulations, then into ripples tipped with spray. The fog of sultriness still hung over the city, but ahead lay a fresh world of ruffled waters, and distant promontories with light-houses in the sun. Madame Olenska, leaning back against the boat-rail, drank in the coolness between parted lips. She had wound a long veil about her hat, but it left her face uncovered, and Archer was struck by the tranquil gaiety of her expression. She seemed to take their adventure as a matter of course, and to be neither in fear of unexpected encounters, nor (what was worse) unduly elated by their possibility.
  In the bare dining-room of the inn, which he had hoped they would have to themselves, they found a strident party of innocent-looking young men and women—school-teachers on a holiday, the landlord told them—and Archer’s heart sank at the idea of having to talk through their noise.
  “This is hopeless—I’ll ask for a private room,” he said; and Madame Olenska, without offering any objection, waited while he went in search of it. The room opened on a long wooden verandah, with the sea coming in at the windows. It was bare and cool, with a table covered with a coarse checkered cloth and adorned by a bottle of pickles and a blueberry pie under a cage. No more guileless-looking cabinet particulier ever offered its shelter to a clandestine couple: Archer fancied he saw the sense of its reassurance in the faintly amused smile with which Madame Olenska sat down opposite to him. A woman who had run away from her husband—and reputedly with another man—was likely to have mastered the art of taking things for granted; but something in the quality of her composure took the edge from his irony. By being so quiet, so unsurprised and so simple she had managed to brush away the conventions and make him feel that to seek to be alone was the natural thing for two old friends who had so much to say to each other….
  They lunched slowly and meditatively, with mute intervals between rushes of talk; for, the spell once broken, they had much to say, and yet moments when saying became the mere accompaniment to long duologues of silence. Archer kept the talk from his own affairs, not with conscious intention but because he did not want to miss a word of her history; and leaning on the table, her chin resting on her clasped hands, she talked to him of the year and a half since they had met.

Here (and in several other places) Wharton suggests the lovers have a telepathic connection. They understand more about each other through their silence and by being apart than others do through words and intimacy. The two go through the entire novel and thirty-five years with maybe half a dozen meetings and even fewer physical touches or contacts – and, although they long for more, there’s no suggestion that they would be together more in that case. Paradoxically, it is their separation which unites them. All this is what makes the ending more upbeat than it appears, as in this extract (we are decades later, the lovers are both free at last, and Archer’s grown-up son has arranged a meeting between them):

  The day was fading into a soft sun-shot haze, pricked here and there by a yellow electric light, and passers were rare in the little square into which they had turned. Dallas stopped again, and looked up.
  “It must be here,” he said, slipping his arm through his father’s with a movement from which Archer’s shyness did not shrink; and they stood together looking up at the house.
  It was a modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-coloured front. On one of the upper balconies, which hung well above the rounded tops of the horse-chestnuts in the square, the awnings were still lowered, as though the sun had just left it.
  “I wonder which floor—?” Dallas conjectured; and moving toward the porte-cochere he put his head into the porter’s lodge, and came back to say: “The fifth. It must be the one with the awnings.”
  Archer remained motionless, gazing at the upper windows as if the end of their pilgrimage had been attained.
  “I say, you know, it’s nearly six,” his son at length reminded him.
  The father glanced away at an empty bench under the trees.
  “I believe I’ll sit there a moment,” he said.
  “Why—aren’t you well?” his son exclaimed.
  “Oh, perfectly. But I should like you, please, to go up without me.”
  Dallas paused before him, visibly bewildered. “But, I say, Dad: do you mean you won’t come up at all?”
  “I don’t know,” said Archer slowly.
  “If you don’t she won’t understand.”
  “Go, my boy; perhaps I shall follow you.”

Note Archer doesn’t correct his son: he doesn’t need to say of course she’ll understand; he implies it, of course, but implies it for our ears only, not his son’s – Dallas remains perplexed. Indeed, you might think that the very fact that Archer doesn’t correct his son that proves that the lovers still have this bond. Or you might think perhaps Archer just believes or imagines that? In any case, one aspect of the ending is unambiguous: from the moment Archer saw the empty bench, we know the lovers will never meet again in the flesh. And yet the actual revealing of that, when it comes, is surprising. How the devil does Wharton pull that off? The same way, perhaps, that she makes us believe in telepathy.



The Age of Innocence at Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/541/541-h/541-h.htm


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