Monday, August 20, 2012

Part XXI: The Age of Innocence vs East Wind, West Wind

Spoilers from
The Age of Innocence
East Wind, West Wind

On the surface, these two books seem to have nothing in common: one takes place in 1870s New York, or "Old New York" as its styled, among the almost elite family of Archers and those they know where we see the customs and whatnots the "Old New Yorkers" have developed, while East Wind West Wind takes place in China in 1920s, also in a wealthy family. The Age of Innocence has a masculine point of view from Newland Archer's desire to marry May Welland to him meeting Countess Ellen, while in East Wind West Wind we have a wealthy girl who's married to a Chinese educated in America.

Still, dig a little deeper and you can see that these books are not as different as one thinks they are. Both are about the women, or rather the education and breaking from tradition for the women. While the question may be the same for the time period, can women become independent from men, the conclusions are drawn completely differently. I will start with The Age of Innocence and then I will discuss East Wind, West Wind.

In The Age of Innocence we meet Newland Archer, a man about to marry the beautiful May Welland, and one who desires to liberate the women, or else break the traditions that shackle the society. Newland is best described as educated and shackled. He thinks himself above the rules and laws and believes that his and May's life together will be completely different than that of others he knows. His fiancée, May Welland, has been indoctrinated very well into what is expected of her, and she has never been taught to think for herself and so on. In the beginning of the novel, Newland Archer meets a very independent thinking woman who was raised by an eccentric aunt of May's named Countess Ellen Olenska; a woman who is married to the man she detests and only wishes freedom from him. While being in her company, Newland Archer starts to fall in love with her, although he does marry May and in the end his desires are never met: he realizes the pointlessness of trying to encourage May to become a woman like Ellen Olenska because she was never taught to think for herself. Newland lives his life the way he doesn't want to do so. The marriage becomes something of a convenience instead of an equal partnership, and he is forced to let go of Ellen. While the manacles of society exist, the novel points out of what might happen should someone never take risks in life and cares too much about what others think of him. The ending is very bitter.

East Wind, West Wind does have many commonalities with The Age of Innocence, but there is a difference in ending as well as taking chances, which the characters in that book do. Just like in The Age of Innocence, East Wind West Wind focuses on the wealthy families where appearance is everything, and it focuses on the marriage between the woman steeped in tradition as well as a man who is a Chinese educated in America, and also there is great focus on the woman's brother and his marriage to an American girlfriend where there is risk. While The Age of Innocence seems to have a sort of a decay, East Wind West Wind is focused on freedom and movement, as well as the inevitable. The story is from a woman's point of view rather than the man's (one can say that in this story a May Welland is narrating it.) The woman has a difficult time adapting to the change such as stopping the foot-binding process or living in a Western styled house and so forth. Her husband seems to be a strong man with strong principles and refuses to bow down to superstition and so forth. (In all honesty, the woman started becoming more western is due to her mother saying she could be rather than something dawning on her.) After she has gotten used to the changes as well as befriending some foreigners, the brother returns with an American bride. The brother is forced to make very difficult choices when it comes the bride, but the ending is sweet and there is realization that there's pioneer spirit within the four characters, and that they're forging a path that has not existed in China for a very long time. The characters did suffer through consequences: the brother with the American wife is an outcast and no longer can be called a son by the woman's family, but instead he has to learn trade and skill to support his growing family, there is also the sad idea of the certain traditions becoming extinct.

Some other things that I find interesting is that these two books are ten years apart in publication date: The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, while East Wind, West Wind was published in 1930. They also seem to be something like yin and yang to one another, especially when one questions which path to take in life. It sounds like I'm advocating in taking risks to everything, but not true. There is safety or a net to staying on a certain path and not veering off from it, while taking a path to something can bring along unexpected surprises.

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