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Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.
Maureen Howard is a critic, teacher, and writer of fiction. Her seven novels include Bridgeport Bus, Natural History, and A Lover’s Almanac. Her memoir, Facts of Life, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. She has taught at Yale and Columbia University.
The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton's most romantic novel, yet our expectations for her lovers, Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, are disappointed at every turn. Wharton's genius lies in offering the pleasure of a romance, then engaging the reader in a stunning exploration of boundaries between the demands of society and personal freedom, illicit passion and moral responsibility. In this novel of bold design, we are the innocents unaware of the more demanding rewards to come, just as the readers of the Pictorial Review were as the monthly installments appeared in 1920. Luring us with the high comic tone of the opening chapters, Wharton admits us to Newland Archer's dreamy certainty about love and marriage, all that lies ahead in an ordered universe, his little world of fashionable New York in the 1870s.
The strict rules of that society are rendered in detail-the moments when talk is allowed during the opera, the prescribed hours for afternoon visits, the lilies of the valley that must be sent to May Welland, the untainted girl who is about to become Newland's fiancée. In the opening scenes there are two observers, Wharton and Newland. The novelist is full of historical information about the city of her childhood and the customs of her privileged class. New York, constructed out of memory and verified by research, is not a discarded back-lot affair of an old Hollywood studio, but a place that must come alive for the writer as well as her readers. This lost world, lavish with particulars of dress, food, wine, manners, is weighted with an abundance of reality, all the furnishings of excessively indulged, overly secure lives. But as the writer calls up her New York of fifty years earlier, Newland Archer also instructs us in the mores of the best of families and the questionable behavior of flashy intruders on the rise. This dual perspective is playful: the novelist assessing her man, placing him in a rarefied world that he too finds narrow and amusing, though all the while he is a player in it.
Wharton's education of the reader continues as each character comes on stage. Newland is a self-declared dilettante, May an innocent thing, Countess Olenska an expatriate with a problematic past. Julius Beaufort, a freewheeling climber, may be the scoundrel of the piece. The novelist is knowingly leading us into melodrama, the dominant mode of the popular theater of the age she recreates, a theater of plays in which good and evil were clearly sorted out, not tainted by moral ambiguity or shaded feelings. As we read what has so often been praised as an historical novel, we must bear in mind the year it was composed, 1919. The Age of Innocence calls upon history to inform the present, and Wharton portrays a cast of clueless characters who could not conceive the slaughter of World War I or President Wilson's ill-fated proposal for the League of Nations. Turning back to the untroubled era of her childhood, she entertains with a predictable old form that is a lure, even a joke, but not on the reader. We are drawn by the broad humor at the outset of the novel to the discovery of a darker story without the simple solutions of melodrama. Edith Wharton had a gift for comedy that has often been obscured by a reverence for the elegant lady novelist or probing for feminist concerns in her work.
The opening chapters of The Age of Innocence are given to caricature and sweeping mockery. In fact, Wharton mentions Dickens and Thackeray, whose comic exaggerations she must have had in mind. Newland Archer, superior and instructional, is foolish in the romantic projections of his marriage to May: "'We'll read Faust together . . . by the Italian lakes . . .' he thought, somewhat hazily confusing the scene of his projected honeymoon with the masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege to reveal to his bride." An understanding of Faust, the most popular opera of the nineteenth century, with its unbridled passion and soul-selling contract, will presumably improve May: "He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton." Meanwhile, Nilsson, the great diva, sings gloriously in the tacky garden scenery of the opera house. Early on, we suspect there will be no paradise and little innocence as the next months' installments of the novel unfold. May, corseted in virginal white with a "modest tulle tucker" over her bosom, is too good to be true. It may be difficult for a contemporary reader to find Ellen Olenska, fated to be May's rival, shocking in that revealing Empire dress, "like a nightgown," according to Newland's sister.
Posted January 16, 2012
Posted April 14, 2009
This book was really drawn out. The characters were boring and stuck in a time warp. The writing does not transcend time like a good book should.
1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2013
Although the most famous of her works, I did not find it to be as good as House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country.
This one has much less character development than the other two.
Posted December 19, 2012
I was assigned an english research paper my junior year of high school to read an American author of my choice's books and relate it to the author's life. I was surprised to find that I not only had a marvelous time reading this book, but I also found myself deeply interested in Edith Wharton's personal life and biographies. Definitely recommend!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 7, 2011
Posted August 1, 2011
This was beautifully written, drew you into that time period, old New York, and made you feel the cultural and social pressures of that time. I love how this was seen through the guy's perspective, how Newland had to choose between what he wanted versus what was expected of him. The subtley of gestures and what was not said revealed more, expressed the underlying messages and meanings. The realism of these characters and their situation like May and Newland's conversation at the end, brilliantly represent an age in our history. For all these reasons, I think this book is wonderful. Pride and Prejudice does not compare, though probably more entertaining, but not as well written or multi-layered. This book takes the cake!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 5, 2011
This is a wonderful story and a classic however this free copy was terrible many many words spelled incorrectly and symbols added inappropriately made for very difficult reading try to find another copyWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 18, 2011
Posted December 26, 2010
Posted December 6, 2010
Typical of Google Books, this scanned text is full of uncorrected Optical Character Recognition errors. Get a better free one or plump $1 for something readable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 23, 2010
The book was wonderful! It led you up to think exactly of what was going to happen. The love triangle is captivating. The entire book up until the last few chapters is wonderful! But!! Beware of the last few chapters for your own anticipation of what will happen and what the book leads you to believe will be broken. The final pieces of the story that are added at the end will make you realize that what the author was hinting at the entire time (the meaning of reality) is what wins in the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 30, 2010
Posted January 1, 2010
I have mix feeling about this book. I hate the first half, but liked (not love) the second half. Overall I understand why it is a classic. The novel description of old New York is very good. Though it a tragic romance, I didn't feel any sympathy for the characters. I felt that the whole tragedy could have been easily avoided if someone had simply speak up. To be honest if it wasn't require, I wouldn't have read this book.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2007
I happened to see the movie of the same title a number of years ago and just got around to reading the book. I hang on every word. The subtlety may be lost on someone who is less than insightful. The characters are so well developed that I feel I know what they will do next. The intrigue is in finding out if I am correct. I love the fact that there are beautiful words that you probably haven't heard, and I'm well pleased to be expanding my vocabulary while reading for pleasure. I am sad to come to the end of this fantastic and extremely well written story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 1, 2006
Very good book in my opinon. I had to read it for English class this summer and at first was wary. The beginning was a little slow, and I had to look up many of the vocabulary used. But overall, I really liked this story. My heart broke that they couldnt be together. I used they could have, but that wasnt the way it was back then I guess. I recommnd this to people who love a good romance read, even if the ending was a tad disapointing...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 2, 2005
it was great reading The Age of Innocence, the book pulls you in and is hard to put down. it is a well written story about the power of love and a young man's struggle to break away from the binds of society.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 14, 2005
This is a truly well-written story of forbidden love and the influence of society. This remarkable book is about a man who has to make the ultimate decision of his life - to choose the path of love or the path of duty!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 30, 2002
This was an outstanding novel. I would recommend everyone to read it. The way Edith wrote this novel makes you feel just as you are a part of the story line yourself. You learn how important it is to go with what your heart tells you to and don't do what society wants you to. Newland Archer learned that the hard way he did as the New York society wanted him to and not as he wanted to. He had a great life he thought until he met the woman that changed it forever. Ellen made his life more complicated than he ever thought it could be. She was a unique individual and thats what made Newland fall in love with her. Although he was to marry May , Ellens cousin. The heartbreak this story has in it is very sad and frustrating because you aren't able to tell them what to do. You just have to sit there and read about it, but you won't want to put the book down for wondering what Newland and Ellens next move will be. Poor May was so worried about what society thought that she wouldn't even admit Newland and Ellens love for each other. May was so stubborn not to realize what was going on right before her eyes. The ending of this book was the worst part about it. It doesn't happen like you would expect it to. In all it was a wonderful novel and I would read it over and over again if I could.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 13, 2002
I've read this book a while back already- but I can say, I've been looking for simular books now ever since. The vivid writing, the overall performance Warton presents is so outstanding that I wish I had a million of copies to give away with my recommendations! I also have to include, since I read this book at the age of 18 and saw a previous opinion: I think adolescents can handle it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2002
'The Age of Innocence' is a book that should never be given to adolescents to read. Why disillusion them so young? Only those of us who have been trapped by convention, duty, peer pressure and financial circumstances could ever fully appreciate the bittersweet conflict in Ms. Wharton¿s book. This novel asks the question, 'Is it an easier fate to live in blissful delusion as May does rather than the torment of knowing that you are deluded but powerless to do anything against it as Newland does? Unfortunately, life, for those of us who have lived it, is rarely one of choices although every endeavour is made to make us believe it is. As the character Shirley Valentine once said in the movie of the same name, 'We don¿t do what we want. We do what we have to and pretend it is what we want.' In truth, most of us are Newland Archer. Stuck between the world which we know and that which we can see flickering just beyond the stale conversations and trite responses. How galling! How cliché! How true.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.