The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

3.8 332
by Edith Wharton

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With her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton recreated the Old New York of her own childhood, in a moving tale of passion and desire. "Edith Wharton is a writer who brings glory to the name of America, and this is her best book. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century ... a permanent addition to literature" (The New York Times).  See more details below


With her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton recreated the Old New York of her own childhood, in a moving tale of passion and desire. "Edith Wharton is a writer who brings glory to the name of America, and this is her best book. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century ... a permanent addition to literature" (The New York Times).

Editorial Reviews

NY Times Book Review
One of the best novels of the 20th century.
William Lyon Phelps
Here is a novel whose basis is a story. It begins on a night at the opera. The characters are introduced naturally—every action and every conversation advance the plot. The style is a thing of beauty from first page to last.... The appearance of a book such as The Age of Innocence is a matter for public rejoicing. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century and looks like a permanent addition to literature.
The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal

A handful of Wharton's standards get the "Everyman's Library" upgrade. These are more expensive than paperback alternatives but still reasonably priced, and the hardcover quality is worth the extra bucks if you can afford it.

—Michael Rogers
From the Publisher
"From the wide-ranging and expert introduction to the appendices (one of which gives readers Wharton's plot outlines for the novel), Michael Nowlin's edition is eminently useful. The book provides us with representative reviews from the time of the initial publication, writings by Wharton and others about 'feminism,' Wharton's letters, and excellent notes for both the text and supplemental materials. No one working on Wharton today places her so accurately as Nowlin." - Linda Wagner-Martin, The University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill

"The beauty of The Age of Innocence rests in the beauty of Wharton's language and the precision of her insights into human nature; the supporting reference materials provided here in appendices and notes illuminate the cultural and social history of Old New York, the city in which Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska discover their forbidden love. Michael Nowlin's edition is an excellent resource." - Shari Benstock, University of Miami

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Classics
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
2 MB

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Chapter One

ON A January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in "Faust" at the Academy of Music in New York.

Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the "new people" whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience" had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient "Brown coupé." To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman's most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was "not the thing" to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not "the thing" played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in quality that--well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima donna's stage-manager he could not have entered the Academy at a more significant moment than just as she was singing: "He loves me--he loves me not--he loves me!--" and sprinkling the falling daisy petals with notes as clear as dew.

She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

"M'ama . . . non m'ama . . ." the prima donna sang, and "M'ama!" with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim.

Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the back of the club box, turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera, but who was always represented on fashionable nights by some of the younger members of the family. On this occasion, the front of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage lovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to be very beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with the Opera Houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights, was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger than the roses, and closely resembling the floral pen-wipers made by female parishioners for fashionable clergymen, sprang from the moss beneath the rose-trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-branch flowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr. Luther Burbank's far-off prodigies.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul's impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing.

"The darling!" thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. "She doesn't even guess what it's all about." And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. "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. It was only that afternoon that May Welland had let him guess that she "cared" (New York's consecrated phrase of maiden avowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead of the engagement ring, the betrothal kiss and the march from "Lohengrin," pictured her at his side in some scene of old European witchery.

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the "younger set," in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being's life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold his view without analysing it, since he knew it was that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, buttonhole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system. In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented "New York," and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it would be troublesome--and also rather bad form--to strike out for himself.

"Well--upon my soul!" exclaimed Lawrence Lefferts, turning his opera-glass abruptly away from the stage. Lawrence Lefferts was, on the whole, the foremost authority on "form" in New York. He had probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account for his complete and easy competence. One had only to look at him, from the slant of his bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fair moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his lean and elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of "form" must be congenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes so carelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace. As a young admirer had once said of him: "If anybody can tell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it's Larry Lefferts." And on the question of pumps versus patent-leather "Oxfords" his authority had never been disputed.

"My God!" he said; and silently handed his glass to old Sillerton Jackson.

Newland Archer, following Lefferts's glance, saw with surprise that his exclamation had been occasioned by the entry of a new figure into old Mrs. Mingott's box. It was that of a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds. The suggestion of this headdress, which gave her what was then called a "Josephine look," was carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a large old-fashioned clasp. The wearer of this unusual dress, who seemed quite unconscious of the attention it was attracting, stood a moment in the centre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland the propriety of taking the latter's place in the front right-hand corner; then she yielded with a slight smile, and seated herself in line with Mrs. Welland's sister-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in the opposite corner.

Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass to Lawrence Lefferts. The whole of the club turned instinctively, waiting to hear what the old man had to say; for old Mr. Jackson was as great an authority on "family" as Lawrence Lefferts was on "form." He knew all the ramifications of New York's cousinships; and could not only elucidate such complicated questions as that of the connection between the Mingotts (through the Thorleys) with the Dallases of South Carolina, and that of the relationship of the elder branch of Philadelphia Thorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no account to be confused with the Manson Chiverses of University Place), but could also enumerate the leading characteristics of each family: as, for instance, the fabulous stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the Long Island ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths to make foolish matches; or the insanity recurring in every second generation of the Albany Chiverses, with whom their New York cousins had always refused to intermarry--with the disastrous exception of poor Medora Manson, who, as everybody knew . . . but then her mother was a Rushworth.

In addition to this forest of family trees, Mr. Sillerton Jackson carried between his narrow hollow temples, and under his soft thatch of silver hair, a register of most of the scandals and mysteries that had smouldered under the unruffled surface of New York society within the last fifty years. So far indeed did his information extend, and so acutely retentive was his memory, that he was supposed to be the only man who could have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker, really was, and what had become of handsome Bob Spicer, old Mrs. Manson Mingott's father, who had disappeared so mysteriously (with a large sum of trust money) less than a year after his marriage, on the very day that a beautiful Spanish dancer who had been delighting thronged audiences in the old Opera House on the Battery had taken ship for Cuba. But these mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr. Jackson's breast; for not only did his keen sense of honour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted, but he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.

The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspense while Mr. Sillerton Jackson handed back Lawrence Lefferts's opera-glass. For a moment he silently scrutinised the attentive group out of his filmy blue eyes overhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustache a thoughtful twist, and said simply: "I didn't think the Mingotts would have tried it on."

Chapter Two

NEWLAND ARCHER, during this brief episode, had been thrown into a strange state of embarrassment. It was annoying that the box which was thus attracting the undivided attention of masculine New York should be that in which his betrothed was seated between her mother and aunt; and for a moment he could not identify the lady in the Empire dress, nor imagine why her presence created such excitement among the initiated. Then light dawned on him, and with it came a momentary rush of indignation. No, indeed; no one would have thought the Mingotts would have tried it on!

From the Paperback edition.

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What People are saying about this

E. M. Forster
Will writers ever recover that peculiar blend of security and alertness which characterizes Mrs. Wharton and her tradition?
Katherine Mansfield
Is it - in this world - vulgar to ask for more? To entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?
Gore Vidal
There is no woman in American literature as fascinating as the doomed Madame Olenska... Traditionally, Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.

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The Age of Innocence 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 334 reviews.
BANCHEE_READS More than 1 year ago
The Age of Innocence is a thought provoking literary piece which I enjoyed immensely. It is written in a simple, accessible style, yet deeply portrays human emotions and interactions in late 19th century New York City. This novel represents an account of high society life of the 1870s. The events of this novel are wrapped around a prevailing lifestyle of jealousy, shame, and excessive pride which colors the main characters. Not unlike many other segments of the society, then and now, the characters of this novel attempt to disguise these feelings through hypocrisy and deception. In a time where keeping appearances is everything, the protagonist, Newland Archer, is at conflict with himself. He is engaged to May Welland, who represents stability and the traditional high society life. He begins to fall in love, however, with May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. After seeing Ellen and her freedom and spontaneity, he begins to question his life and why he feels the need to conform. He realizes how dull his life is and how materialistic and fake the high society aristocrats are. He loves May, but cannot stand the idea of living such a predictable life with no deeper meaning. In the end, he must choose between living the life he is expected to live with May, or being happy with Ellen, yet ruining the family name.
Guest More than 1 year ago
So, I have to admit: this was not my favorite classic novel. However, I understand why it is a classic and I do feel it is well worth reading. I have a few issues with some of the characters and I wasn't as moved with the love story as many others were. To me, Newland did not have to marry May...he knew before he married her that he really wanted Ellen. So, I guess I don't pity him too much and I really don't know what he expected to happen other than the fact that he would never be happy with May. I'm really glad Ellen didn't allow him to cheat on May with her either. At least she showed some class. Overall, I loved seeing what old New York was like--wow, has it ever changed. Also, I loved the themes and dialogue of the novel. Follow your heart and don't live for others.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. It gives an incredible view into New York society circa 1890's - all it's rules and duties. Newland Archer's conflict between what he wants to do and what he should do is engaging. It's heartbreaking to see him try to flap his wings only to have them clipped each time. One could say he should have had more character - the character to shun his duty and follow his heart. But it's hard to fault him for being an honorable man.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Newland Archer, a refined gentleman in the strict society of New York City, follows the expectations of others by deciding to lead a life of no excitement or adventure. In order to adhere to the rules of society, Archer decides to marry May Welland, a naïve, uncreative, and ignorant woman who firmly follows the rules of society. However, when May¿s cousin, Countess Olenska, comes to New York to flee from her husband, her rebellious freedom and zealous consciousness of life draw Newland Archer to her. Soon, Archer and the countess develop strong feelings for each other, but they must resist these feelings for social responsibilities. Unexpected meetings continuously occur between the two and the question of whether they will act upon their love is the main plot for this novel. As the wedding of Archer and May approaches, Countess Olenska and Archer decide to never be more than friends for the sake of May and their families. With the forgotten love and the unbearable struggle between Archer and the countess, Edith Wharton illustrates that sacrificing happiness to protect others is not an act of charity or goodness but an act of foolishness for what one loses through sacrifices cannot be regained. With the many ironic situations of uncertainty and captivating passion, The Age of Innocence powerfully portrays ¿a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending civilization¿.
Catherine-E-Chapman More than 1 year ago
A Five Star Ending I've had this book for years but finally got around to reading it, spurred on by the sense that I haven't read enough American classics. I'm awarding 'The Age of Innocence' 4.5 stars and rounding to 4 for practical purposes, although, I must say, I think the ending of the novel is worthy of 5 stars. Why not 5 stars overall? I only award 5 stars to books that I really think will stay with me for life; things I'll want to keep coming back to to read again. 'The Age of Innocence' is such a very good, well-written novel, that the only reason I think it falls short of being in the 5 star category for me is maybe that the extent to which it is an incisive social observation of privileged society in latter-Nineteenth century New York compromises the extent to which it charts a very private and personal -and so timeless- love affair. However, the whole point of the book is an examination of how these private and public spheres of life interconnect (and, indeed, conflict), so I realise that my complaint is somewhat paradoxical! But I did think 'The Age of Innocence' was a great novel and I was struck by the frank modernity of Wharton's writing - perhaps due to the fact that this nineteenth century novel was published in the twentieth century. Towards the end of the book I became preoccupied with how the story would end. In conclusion, I found it ended in the only way it could, given what had gone before. And I thought it a truly five-star ending. I would recommend 'The Age of Innocence' to anyone who enjoys reading novels - it's a great novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is terrific and suprisingly funny. Just a heads a few places the pages are jumbled so you might read all of page 118 and turn to 119 and suddenly be reading a different part of the book then a page or two later it will go back to what you were reading. Very frustrating, paper back would have been better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story that will stay with you forever
Blitzismydog 16 days ago
This Pulitzer-prize winning novel charms from the very beginning. Unlike many contemporaries, Wharton does not dwell on mundane details (unless they contribute to the story) but focuses on character and character development. She is also at ease in the world of New York Society that she describes, having experienced it extensively as a young woman. The story's characters, predictably, are either part of 'New York' or somehow new to it or removed from the rarified air of the uppermost class. Wharton is quite aware of the significance of extreme wealth, family and class, which dominate her story. The Upper Crust wishes to mix, at least a little, with Arty People; but the Arty are generally not Upper, so cannot really mingle. Wharton adroitly demonstrates, over and over, how hypocritical and gossipy the Upper are; say one thing, behave in a different way; smile outwardly, cringe inwardly. Pretend to understand those things you absolutely cannot ken. Perhaps all of American society has seen and experienced these conflicts in a less-Victorian way. The pull of tradition--dictated by the Older Generation--is at odds with characters who think and change, or are free spirits due to extensive time in Europe. Interestingly, Wharton left the US and spent many years in France, divorced her husband at a time when 'it simply wasn't done' (in the US) and seems determined to make her points about Art/Intellectualism vs. Society's Straightjacket. She does so to dazzling effect. Newland Archer, the young protagonist, represents slavish devotion to upperclass ways, until his head and heart are turned by Countess Olenska, who thinks for herself and does not reflect on societal dictates before moving or speaking. Newland, however, is engaged to Perfectly Upper May Welland, and the conflict and story evolve from there. It is a delicious, dizzying, unforgettable journey. Read slowly, it's truly a treasure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic book. So well written. Edith Wharton was a rare gem among the authors of all time. I also highly recommend the Film adaption directed by Martin Scorsese and starring the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis! You will not be disappointed in either!
seimore More than 1 year ago
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.
BookieMa More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time getting through this book. I kept having the feeling that I was missing parts of conversations; it seemed so much was implied. I would re-read paragraphs and still not get it. The characters are shallow & prissy; I didn't like anyone. If you're looking for beautifully written classics with wonderful characters, read Jane Eyre & The Scarlet Letter.
Anonymous 4 months ago
By the time I reached the end of the extremely discriptive Victorian New York society's lifestyle, I recognized the ending from another shortened version of the book, or perhaps a television version. Even knowing the ending, I still looked forward to re-living it with the same feelings, that it ended as most of lifes quests to grasp more or better than we already have, and realizing at the end that it was only part of life and not what makes for the best that life has given us.
Anonymous 6 months ago
The Hunters are currently in the center of Gilhan Forest, where many mythical creatures live. It is a dense hardwood forest with few clearings and little undergrowth. The Hunters are camped in a large clearing with a stone firepit in the center. A quaint creek runs nearby. The dragon's mountains are barely visible over the treetops. There is plently of fallen wood, but much of it is wet because of the heavy and persistant rains that fall on Gilhan.
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