Great question about one of the GREAT novels. Remember that author was the first woman to win the Pulitzer for this novel. It still reads fresh and real. Get over the near-Victorian language. Victorians loved clutter (a result of the industrial revolution) and so that came out in their writing to....lots of words lots of description just because they could. Enjoy the language...go back and look at the description of Mrs. Manson Mingott's 'flesh' ...A flight of smooth double chins led down to he dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the last Mr Mingott." WOW: Edith sure could write! Anyways: to your question. We have apeople living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century and they are being pulled into the vast and unknown future while still clinging desperately, dispairingly to the past symbolized by Europe. One stunning example of this is when Madame Olenska says with her openness "It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” what a zinger! She is charmingly chastising all present, but particularly Newland Archer, for longing for something they left...longing for a way of life in Europe that their ancestors left because it was restrictive and supressive. Also, Newland still orders crates of books from bookshops in England and France and attends the same opera rather than investigating new American authors that could tell him a little about his own country and his own future. Nostalgia is a dangerous pasttime. It is a bittersweet longing for a place or people of events that have long passed. Nostalgia warps our vision of the past. It often guilds (coats in gold) it in a hazy beauty which allows us to deny and ignore all the negative, destructive and debilitating limits the past exerts on us. Nostalgia perpetuates that pressure. Newland Archer, an American of great privilege, longs for something he has actually never lived... a genteel aristocratic life in Europe, What does this tell us about Newland (think about his name) Newland is a snob who believes he can define his superiority by a familiarity and worshipping of a European past he never lived. In his New York circle, it was a mark of your high standing in society and your status as an aristocrat to be able to sound like you knew that kind of life in Europe. Rather than embracing America and all its new democratic attitudes and opportunities, Newland is too afraid and so looks back. That is why he does not recognize Helena or May as the strong and intelligent women they are who are going to direct their own lives by looking forward to the future.
Edith Wharton is a power house read. If you think you are done with this book...hang on...return to it in a few years and see how it feels then. It is a classic and that means its ideas are never old, never dated and still apply to your life. Longing for the past is a dangerous pasttime that costs you dearly the opportunities your present offers you in abundance. Be ware of nostalgia.