Friday, September 3, 2010

Etymology, my dear Watson!

Current book: The Age of Innocence
Pages read: 66 - 132

Poor Ellen Olenska decides she wants to ask her estranged, abusive husband for a divorce, and Newland's family is desperate to stop her, due to the fact that divorce is a great scandal amongst the best families of New York, no matter the circumstances. Because he is her most trusted friend, Newland gets saddled with the job of convincing her not to sue for divorce and manages to accomplish it. He is under the impression that Ellen had an affair with the secretary who helped her escape her marriage, and that to bring the divorce to court would reveal that information publicly.

Newland desperately wants to get married to May because he is afraid, if they have a long engagement, that'll he'll have an affair with Ellen. He hasn't admitted to Ellen that he loves her, but he clearly does, and she clearly loves him back. May goes down to St. Augustine for a few months in the winter, and Newland stays in New York to work at his law firm (because he is, apparently, a lawyer, regardless of the fact that he doesn't need any money). After some time, which he spends thinking mostly about Ellen, he goes down to Florida to see May and ask her, once again, to shorten the engagement, regardless of convention. She, suspecting his real motives and citing said convention, refuses.

Newland returns to New York and goes to see Ellen. At their meeting, he discovers that she never had an affair at all, but was, in fact, in the right all along. At this, he proposes that she petition for a divorce after all, and that they get married. She tearfully refuses him, saying that he's right, after all, about the social stigma, and also that it wouldn't be fair to May. Newland says that May would marry him quickly if she really wanted to keep him, and her insistence on the long engagement proves that she wants to give him the chance to choose someone else, if he truly loves another. Ellen still refuses, but there's a sense of possibility - that is, until Newland returns home to find a telegram from May saying that she's changed her mind, asked her parents, and initiated preparations to be married in a month.

Oh, the irony! Well, Wharton is making a statement about the ridiculousness of social constraints by pointing out the fact that society would much rather have Ellen remain married and have a series of affairs than it would have her get a divorce and happily remarry. I have to admit that I always forget that the stigma attached to divorce stuck around for so long. I mean, this novel is taking place in the early 20th century, and yet, still there's a sense of any (female) divorcee being somehow tainted. I surmise that it stems from the basic institution of marriage itself as a device to ensure monogamy; after all, if a woman has been divorced and wishes to remarry, she's clearly stepped outside the bounds of monogamy. However, it's ridiculous that monogamy only matters for a woman, and a man is free to sleep around as much as he wants to before marriage. Newland's repeated notion that women should be free is Wharton's notion, too, and she's proceeding to point it out by tragic circumstance.

On an etymological note, this novel uses the word appertain, and it made me wonder what the difference between pertain and appertain was. As it turns out, there isn't one. Which made me wonder, in turn, why the hell we've got two words that sound the same when one will do. I suspect bastardization may be the culprit. This is why I need a copy of the OED. Etymological mysteries require a good casebook!


  1. If only access to the OED weren't so expensive! I hear the 3rd edition will not be printed, only published on line, so maybe we should petition the publisher for a decent price. If I could buy a Kindle for $189 and load it with the OED for another $100--what a deal!

  2. In French, "appartenir" means to belong wholly, whereas "partenir" means to belong (implication being somewhat). The distinction being that one is a Venn diagram with complete overlap, and the other is just has some shared ground, not all. I would surmise that the vocabulary came to English during the period when French was the language of the nobility, and the distinction eventually just faded. It may be that because of the way English is constructed (perhaps because it's not Romance), the difference doesn't come up as much and through the natural evolution of language, the two just came to occupy an identical definitional space.



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