Those families that boast yichus (pedigree), wealth and have Rebbes in their lines can be equated with the upper echelon of society.
Those families where the parents work or the children are 'working boys' rather than those who choose to spend their days in Kollel are considered lower class.
And those who are in-between (not blessed with an excellent pedigree or wealth but striving to be accepted by that upper class) are the middle class.
As to the women, they are as sheltered as ever they were in 1870.
The Age of Innocence stars Newland Archer, a wealthy young man who is engaged to the pretty maiden May who is related to the unusual Countess Olenska, a woman who dared to flee from her colorful husband. Archer is dissatisfied with his world and his life and feels a vague, directionless ache and desire to search for an alternative. The Countess unknowingly provides that alternative since she does not conform to society's mores until she is taken in by Newland's noble talk of living for society's mandates and values, preaching such virtues as selflessness, honor and nobility. In this case, the selflessness takes the form of not breaking the engagement with May even though he is hopelessly in love with the Countess and she with him. The Countess, in turn, does not divorce her husband due to the scandal it would cause and the shame that would be cast upon her family, to whom Archer will soon be related. Their high-minded consideration of others ends in tragedy; the two of them are made to part by a civilized dinner that ushers the Countess away.
There are several scenes in the work where Archer's perception accords entirely with the state in which Haredi women commonly find themselves. Here's one such excerpt:
- Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May's only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.
The innocence which Archer hopes his wife May will not possess is exactly that innocence which is so carefully cultivated by insular communities:
- "Poor Ellen--she was always a wayward child. I wonder what her fate will be?"
"What we've all contrived to make it," he felt like answering. "If you'd all of you rather she should be Beaufort's mistress than some decent fellow's wife you've certainly gone the right way about it."
He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said if he had uttered the words instead of merely thinking them. He could picture the sudden decomposure of her firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over trifles had given an air of factitious authority. Traces still lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter's; and he asked himself if May's face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
The stigma of divorce and the shame the entire family faces is also paralleled in the Haredi world, where children whose parents are divorced are considered to come from 'a broken home' and their shidduchim are therefore affected negatively.
There is much more within the book that accords with that world but it is not polite to note it. What I enjoyed was realizing once more that literature never ages.