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December 9th, 2005

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10:37 pm - Book thoughts
I just finished a book, and I found the ending quite disturbing.

I was hoping that I could get some thoughts from my LJ friends about it.

The story takes place in New York's high society at the turn of the century. The description of the culture, the details of the physical surroundings and society's norms are splendid. The main character, Newland Archer, becomes engaged to May Welland at the same time that he meets her cousin, Countess Olenska. He sees May as his society's norm, and her cousin to be intellectual and somewhat bohemian. He often ponders in the story the hypocriticalness of a society that allows the man to have dalliances while women are not only not allowed to, but are shaped by society into an unnatural "pure" thing.

Long story short, Newland and Countess Olenska fall in love. But she is married, though separated, and encourages Newland to marry May. He does, but after a couple of years he starts to feel stifled in an unchanging married life. He tries to see Countess Olenska as often as possible, but completely understands what society would do to him if he were to carry on an affair. Near the end, May announces that she's pregnant (just as he was about to tell her that he was leaving her for her cousin) and Countess Olenska moves to Paris.

Flash forward thirty years. Newland and May had three children and May dies while caring for the youngest. He truly mourned her death. Their children are much more progressive than they ever were. Newland takes a trip with his oldest son to visit Paris, and without alerting his father, arranges for the two of them to visit with the Countess, whose husband has conveniently died. They walk together to her apartment.

And then Newland decided not to see her.

The book ends.

WTF? Why does this bother me so much? OK, it's not much of a romantic ending that I was expecting, but did it have to be the opposite? I tried clinical-cise the ending (that's a clear cut case of learned helplessness...), but it is still bugging me. Maybe it's freaking me out the thought of how society and cultural norms can so constrict you that you can change into something that you don't really recognize as yourself.

And what is the author trying to say? That it was good that he stayed with his wife and did the "right" thing? The book didn't seem to glorify his choice. Or maybe she is pointing out that doing the "right" thing involves sacrifice, a sacrifice that you can't ever get back. And pointing out about how the children weren't bothered by the things that would have made the old society tear its hair out. I wonder if she was saying that this is the preferred way to live your life?

Or, is this author just really, really good at angst?


(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:December 10th, 2005 03:32 am (UTC)
Just the opposite -- she was attacking the societal norms that made what Newland did "right." No glory, just an indictment of everything that high society, at the time, stood for.
[User Picture]
Date:December 10th, 2005 02:13 pm (UTC)
It was interesting that the end of the book actually seemed devoid of any judgment or even emotion. But then, on the other hand, maybe that's as close as she could get to attacking the norms in that society. She couldn't come out and say, "This is wrong.", so she shows the shadow of the result of the norm.

I did a little reading about the author's life, and you can see a lot of parallels to her life and this story. First of all, she did grow up in New York high society. She had an unhappy marriage with little intellectual stimulation.

In thinking about it more, I wonder if the reason I'm conflicted is because different part of myself are judging this differently. The parent and the intentional communitist in me says he did what he has to do. The romantic and polyamourist in me says he did it all wrong, and the Zen in me says it just is the way it is.

I love it when a book gets you to thinking a lot.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:December 10th, 2005 02:15 pm (UTC)
I think it says, "Sometimes life sucks, get used to it."

I remember the end of Twin Peaks. I must have screamed for an hour after that last show.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:December 10th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC)
But would we appreciate the happy ending less without having sucky endings once in a while?

You know one of the best ending I think was ever made? Pleasantville. It was a cliff hanger, but refused to judge the wife's choice of "stay with the husband and traditional family" or "go with the new guy" by having her decide. That really is the way life works, rarely with easy answers.

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