The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is my choice for the 1920 Club. Its portrayal of restriction seems very appropriate for our times. Here we read of a narrow society, which curbs its members with invisible rules and customs. Mostly set in Old New York in 1871 the fates of three young people are determined by these outdated codes. In this novel Edith Wharton returns to the theme of love outside society’s boundaries. 

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Bloggers read a book from the year and post their thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to choose a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but read and reread books, especially from the 20th century. 

The Age of Innocence

We are in New York at a precise time, 1871. We follow Newland Archer, a young man who is accomplished and cultured and believes himself a little above the society into which he was born. He will find himself as trapped by the families’ codes as everyone else, especially as he is about to announce his engagement to May Welland.

There is a problem for May’s cousin Ellen Olenska has just returned from Europe where it is known that she has abandoned her marriage to a Polish count. No matter that he is the transgressor, in Old New York  circles it is the woman of a failed marriage who is ostracised. And divorce is not accepted. And no-one in this circle speaks directly about these difficult matters.

Newland Archer agrees to announce his engagement early in order to protect May by accepting the Countess. He also persuades Ellen not to divorce her husband. He gradually falls for Ellen, and the feeling is mutual. Sensing that his attentions are elsewhere, but we are not sure if she is aware of his entanglement with Ellen, May offers to release Archer from the engagement, but he feels obliged by duty to continue to the wedding. As the Archer and Ellen become more involved everybody assumes they are lovers and conspire with May to exclude her. At the point when Archer decides that he will abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, May reveals that she is pregnant.

Archer assumes he is above the double standards that he can so clearly see operating within their close circle. Early on he announces the revolutionary idea that men and women should be judged by the same standards. He imagines that he will achieve a companionate marriage with May, while at the same time thinking in terms of possessing her, and expecting the impossible innocence (ignorance) and purity that was implied in her virginal appearance. The author early on reveals that he assumes he is not caught by the practices, especially the silences and social estrangements that the families enforce. But he is too weak, or is it too loyal to May, to go directly against the codes. And because he is a man he has less to lose than either woman, and benefits from these codes and double standards. And because he is a man he has been trained to be self-centred.

May has been schooled in the ways of the families. Her appearance is perfect, she has intelligence, but does not use it for cultural ends. Archer quickly comes to see that marriage to her will not bring companionship but perpetuate the relationships of the society into which they were born. She out-manoeuvres Archer at every turn. It is so well done that one is not sure how far she does it consciously, that is until her final conversation with Ellen is revealed when May was deceitful even as she played her trump card.

Ellen is a more sympathetic character. Her appearance especially her interests and clothing are unorthodox, coming as she does from Europe. She challenges the mores of Old New York by the style of her appearance, the décor in her house, her social practices, and especially by her relationship with Newland Archer. She also has a way of escape. Having been persuaded not to divorce her abusive husband, and therefore with no independence or money of her own she takes a stipend from the matriarch of the family and returns to Europe. 

All three characters have suffered from the limitations of New York in the 1870s. The final chapter reveal that within a few decades it has all changed. And of course the massive social upheaval of the First World War had played its part in that.

Edith Wharton in 1920

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton knew what she was writing about. She had been raised in New York in the 1870s, in the social milieu that she describes in this novel. She had made a bad marriage, and her husband had embezzled her money and they were finally divorced in 1913. From 1908-10 she was involved in a passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton an American Paris. The Age of Innocence was her 12th novel and she was recognised as an exceptional writer in America as well as Europe where she now lived.

Reading The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, 1st editiion

The introduction by Sarah Blackwood to the Penguin edition can be found on the Literary Hub website. She draws readers’ attention to the details in the novel. Indeed much of the tightness, restrictions of the world of the Archers and Wellands is achieved by precise details: of the time (details of plays, opera performances, books and so forth); the place (street names, descriptions of the Museum before it became the Metropolitan); physical details of houses, gardens, interiors; and clothing. The details do other work, such as revealing some of the unspoken fracture lines: eg the muddy wedding dress dragging after May across the room (p229). Throughout the novel it is clear that the characters can read every details of each other’s behaviour, and that May can do this best of all. 

The book in the past was been portrayed as costume drama, a historical romance, but that is misleading. The wedding of May and Newland occurs precisely half way through this book and it explores myths and challenges of marriage and notes that social change is on its way. 

Scorcese’s film was made in 1993, and appears to have been a costume drama starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was critically acclaimed, but apparently did not do well at the box office. I have not seen it.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first published in 1920. I used the edition published by Oxford World’s Classics. 265pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921

No 45 on the Guardian’s List of 100 best novels

Related posts on Bookword

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

10 Responses to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. I’ve read a little Wharton, and she certainly seems to pin down that New York society quite brilliantly. An excellent choice for 1920!

  2. Beautiful review, Caroline. I think you’ve captured the novel’s nuances and subtleties so well, particularly in your discussion of the interplay between the three key characters. It’s probably my favourite Wharton, although Ethan Frome with its evocation of the harsh winter landscape comes a fairly close second. I recall being left with the impression that May is actually much smarter and more cunning than she appears at first sight. Newland underestimates her, I think…

    • Caroline

      I think you are right about May Welland, but her triumph is hardly one to wish for. She has outplayed her husband, and the better relationship that he hoped for is therefore impossible, You are left in no doubt, reading this novel, that the young women of Old New York were brought up to be able to manage their men and cunning, to use your word, is a key tactic. Noone does well out of that society.
      I enjoyed Ethan Frome too. Edith Wharton does excel at writing about the tension between duty and love. I guess she knew about it from her own life.

  3. I do enjoy Wharton’s writing and this is a very nice review. I think my favorite so far is the ironically titled “The House of Mirth”.

    • Caroline

      I agree, she writes so well. I think Age of Innocence is also ironic, although I am not sure it works very well. None of the characters are innocent, except Countess Olenska, who is treated as guilty for having left her cruel and philandering husband.
      Thanks for making your comment. I hope you visit again soon.

  4. I didn’t love this when I read it, but you’ve made me interested to try again one day – perhaps with different expectations.

    • Caroline

      Hi SImon, this comment went into Spam for some reason.

      I hope you get on better with Age of Innocence if you try it again. I think one problem is that we are to some extent programmed to like main characters, and it is hard to be that sympathetic to either Newland Archer or May Welland although on first appearance they are both attractive. And Countess Olenska can only survive by leaving them and New York for Paris.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope you visit again.

  5. This was the book I read for the 1920 club too. Absolutely loved it and would happily read it again. May’s character was interesting – she’s presented as this innocent figure yet she proved quite a minx. The dynamics between those three figures were so well orchestrated.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for this. Glad you enjoyed the book so much.
      I think we can agree that May Welland does not act very honestly, but the term minx suggests to me a kind of flirtaous flitting. May is single-minded in the project her society and family have set her: have the appearance of having married well. She achieves it.
      I think the novel is a strong critique of the values of Old New York.
      Thanks for the comments. Please visit again.

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