The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence - cover

The Age of Innocence, a 1920 novel by Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937), is considered one of her finest. It earned her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, which made her the first woman to win this award.

The story centers on Newland Archer, an upper-class New Yorker in the 1870s. Central to the narrative is Archer’s conflicted desires between duty to his staid but loving wife and his passion for scandal-plagued Countess Ellen Olenska, a divorcée.

Edith Wharton grew up and lived in a similarly charmed world of wealth, one that could protect its inhabitants from everything but heartache.

In Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time, Louis Auchincloss (1971) wrote of the book: “Against the smallness and vapidity of its inhabitants the physical background of New York and Newport is painted with a richness of color and detail that delights the imagination.”

The Age of Innocence was universally praised for its portrayal of that society and all its nuances. In 2019 essay in The New York Times, “The Age of the Age of Innocence,” Elif Batuman states a case for why the book still feels relevant:

“In many ways, The Age of Innocence feels more current to me now than it did in the 1990s. Criminals like Julius Beaufort and Count Olenski are protected by an invisible safety net, while Ellen lives under constant threat of destitution, dishonor and homelessness.”

Newland Archer, a man torn between duty and desire

Once again, from Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time by Louis Auchincloss, a portrait of Newland Archer, the conflicted main character of the novel:

“He may be the best of his world, but the best, we feel, is none too good. He is burstingly complacent, delighted with his own fine, vigorous youth, with his promising but not taxing law practice, with the adoration of his widowed mother and old maid sister, and the love of his beautiful but unimaginitive fiancée. 

… And he is delighted, too, that he has sown his wild oats, that a desultory affair with a married woman has prepared him to cope with his future bride’s assumed ignorance in all matters of sex. Newland Archer, in short, is about as fatuous a young man as one could conceive of, the roundest possible peg in the roundest possible hole.

Yet everything might have been all right for him had it not been for the arrival of Ellen Olenska, the beautiful, disenchanted cousin of his fiancée, who had fled home from a Polish brute of a husband. Ellen sees the New York society that to Archer is brilliant, glittering, even formidable, as a quaint, innocent refuge from the black storms of her European life.

… Her effect of Archer is immediate and catastrophic. Not only does he learn about love; he learns that his whole life has been premised on a false hypothesis. His discovery of himself and re-evaluation of his household gods form the principal topic of a story that is one of very few in which Edith Wharton confined herself to a single point of view.”

Following is a review from the year of the book’s publication. For thelle conclusion, make sure to continue reading past the review under the heading “The Plot Pivot.”


A 1920 review of The Age of Innocence

From the original review in the Washington Times, November, 1920: Edith Wharton has been called the foremost American novelist by both American and European critics, so a new book from her pen is an event eagerly anticipated. In The Age of Innocence she has produced a book which is the best, from every point of view, she has yet done.

The Age of Innocence is a story of New York society, circa 1870. More exactly, it is a mirror reflecting with startling realism the people and events of the period when “folks drove up Broadway in Victorias.”

With deft and certain touch Mrs. Wharton builds her sort around the society of the day, showing the absolutely artificial lives led by its members, their abject submission to rules and restriction prescribed by convention, and their distrust of, and hostility to, such of their people as evinced any desire for freedom of thought or action.

Two women of divergent classes

For the purposes of her story, Mrs. Wharton uses two young women of widely divergent and strongly contrasting personalities, and one man, in love with both women, and loved by them.

Every motive, every mood, the state of mind, of each of these characters, is ruthlessly exposed to the gaze of the reader in the keenly analytical manner which is one of the distinguishing gifts of Mrs. Wharton.

The story opens on an opera night, with a ripple of excitement caused by the presence in the box of a social leader of Ellen, Countess Olenska. Ellen is an American girl, longtime resident in Europe, who has fled under circumstances of a somewhat compromising nature from her brutal husband in Poland.

The restrictive society of Puritan New York

By virtue of her influential family connection she succeeds in re-entering New York society, which accepts her, albeit reluctantly and disapprovingly.

Ellen soon becomes discontented with the restrictions of New York society — she has lived too long abroad in an atmosphere of artistic freedom to endure patiently the artificial standards, the suppression of natural instincts and emotions, of Puritan New York.

Newland Archer’s dilemma

Newland Archer is the man who finds himself in the dilemma of being engaged to May Welland, absolutely conventional daughter of the most conventional of families, and discovering he is being led by every tie of mutual taste and interest toward Ellen.

Archer’s position becomes most unenviable. In his profession, the law, he is called on to decided whether Ellen shall seek a divorce, and so start anew a scandal fast dying out, or whether she shall effect a reconciliation in the interests of her family’s social status.

A divorce means that Ellen will be free to marry Archer, but opposed to this step is the accumulated weight of family hostility to divorce proceedings. In those times, New York’s “age of innocence,” divorces were simply not countenanced by the best families.

Wonderfully well written are the love scenes between Ellen and Archer, and the complications they cause between him and May Welland. May takes the attitude of the carefully sheltered women of her class, that of ignoring the situation, which makes it all the harder for Archer.

The way out appears difficult to Archer, but eventually he takes the one path which leads to happiness for all concerned.


The plot pivot (and a spoiler alert)

One important plot point the review left out, perhaps due to the indelicacy of the subject for the matter for its time was this:

At a critical juncture in their clandestine relationship, Countess Ellen Olenska agrees with Newland to consummate their affair. He has decided to leave his young wife, May, and follow Ellen, who is set to return to Europe. He resolves to finally tell May that he is leaving her,  following a farewell party they are hosting for Ellen.

But May has foreseen the situation. Interrupting Newland, she not only tells him that she is pregnant, but that she informed Ellen of this two weeks prior (even though she wasn’t completely sure of the fact as yet). Newland succumbs to duty, and resolves to remain with May for the sake of his yet-to-be-born child. 

Both Newland Archer and Ellen come to the realization that to preserve their love as a thing of great beauty, they need to renounce it. Back to Louis Auchincloss:

“The balance of Newland’s moderately civic and uneventful life is covered in a couple of pages. In addition to being a conscientious if undemonstrative husband and father, he serves a term in the State Assembly, fails re-election, and drops thankfully back to obscure if useful municipal work and from that to the writing of occasional articles in reforming weeklies.”

Newland Archer chose duty above desired, and relegated himself to a respectable, yet vapid life of limited vision.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

1993 film version of The Age of Innocence
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More about The Age of Innocence

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2 Responses to “The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton”

  1. While touring Chateau-sur-mer, home of the Wetmore family in Newport, RI, the guide pointed to a portrait of (I think) Elizabeth M. Perry Vinton who was a friend of Edith Wharton’s. The guide said that the character of May Welland in “Age of Innocence” was based on Mrs. Vinton and her husband. Comment, please?

    • Lucy, sorry I somehow missed this comment. This sounds fascinating but I have no idea if it’s true. I do know that Edith Wharton spent time in Newport among the moneyed set, so it’s possible.

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