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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.
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.
21 out of 21 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 May 19, 2008
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.
8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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.
5 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 19, 2010
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.
3 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 November 6, 2006
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¿.
2 out of 2 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 1, 2013
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!
1 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 November 15, 2012
This book is terrific and suprisingly funny. Just a heads up....in 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.
1 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 January 16, 2012
Posted September 28, 2011
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 April 5, 2014
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.
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 January 19, 2013
Read it first in college inthe eighties and never forgot it. Reread before the movie came out and agsin after. Read it over the holidays. Just a brilliantly written tale of a remarkable time. How NYC lives and breathes in this classic novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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 July 27, 2012
Posted October 7, 2011
Posted August 30, 2011
Just a warning to those ordering this for a fall 2011 class. Description says that this "usually ships in 24 hours." I ordered it yesterday, Aug. 29, 2011, and I received notice that it will not ship until Sept. 20, 2011. Too late for me. Hard to believe that a Mass Market paperback and a classic such as this would not be readily available. I'll just have to suck up the cost and get it from the school bookstore. (Can't afford to wait 'til 9/20 and then get a notice that they were unable to procure a copy at all-that's happened to me too.)
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 May 13, 2011
I Was at Barnes and Noble Classics Section when i came across this book, as shallow as it seems, what attracted me to this book was the title, it sounded very interesting, i read the description and found myself buying this book, Up To The Scene where "NEWLAND ARCHER" Kisses his bethrothed "MAY WELLAND" I finally understood what they where all talking about, since it is in fact old english, & I AM 13 Years old, i decided classic novels where a good way to expand my vocabulary, and critiscism toward simple minded books. I Must say though, that i can no longer get a book, in my school's library because the words are just too easy to comprehend.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 August 2, 2010
I Also Recommend:
With cutting humor and sharp insight, Wharton writes a layered novel that will have you despising in turn each of the three parties involved in its central affair. Likewise, their individual sacrifices -- however much driven by vanity, self-importance, or sincerity -- make Ellen Olenska, Newland Archer, and May Welland complicated, faceted characters who are also strikingly sympathetic; each burdened by a sense of propriety that removes them so far from their own understanding of their needs, the reader probably has as clearer a line of sight on the convoluted motivations leading them to their hearts, if only for the distance. This is a novel too of a lost New York, and a naïvely separatist America, though this novel's well drawn Puritan ghost still runs, finely shod while scandal hungry, across the continent, in and out of the doors of the nation's literature, for we are nothing American without the noise of gossip to cover the lusts that we savor. This brilliant novel, with its heartbreaking, soft-handed finale, captures a country we never met, but whose behavior is completely our own. Perfect literature. (originally published at Goodreads.)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.