The Age of Innocence
Newland Archer appears to have it all, wealth, class and every imaginable comfort. Life is not difficult for any in his New York circle. In 1870, appearances are everything to high society and marrying the lovely May Welland will make Archer’s life complete. So complete that he can see exactly how his life will play out, every detail, day after day. Despite a vague malaise, he’s resigned to this future until May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, returns to New York, on the run from a disastrous European marriage. That’s when Archer’s internal torment begins.
Eccentric and free-thinking, Ellen does what she wants. And although the powerful Mingotts and Mansons welcome her return to the family, they expect conformity, not scandal. At the helm is Mrs. Manson Mingott, Ellen’s grandmother, who does what she must to keep the family on course.
I highly recommend this 1920 classic which was initially published in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine. The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and portrays a period of time on the verge of change and in which the New York upper class clings to appearances, convention and the subtle, but highly important details that define them. Like all classics, there is plenty of analysis and you can find some of it here on SparkNotes.
Wharton was born in 1862 and grew up in the New York upper class. Her writing style is full of detail, subtle ironic humor and commentary on a way of life she knew well. I particularly enjoyed reading about the different players in Archer’s world and how they plotted behind the scenes. Fashion, interior décor, dinner parties, the opera, winters in St. Augustine and summers in Newport, Wharton’s characters live in an insulated world, but are nevertheless vulnerable to unhappiness. Women especially had few rights or freedoms. They had to conform or be cast out, as Wharton shows in both May and Ellen. I liked Archer because he’s aware of the problem and is surprisingly modern in his thoughts. Wharton also shows how her characters are uncomfortable mingling with the creative bohemian writers and artists in New York, a world which Ellen Olenksa represents. I also enjoyed reading about the newly rich outsiders in the story. Julius Beaufort is a successful banker and host to many New York galas, where Archer and his aristocracy flock, but they quickly distance themselves when he faces financial ruin.
The big questions are if Archer and Ellen can resist their passion and whether May and her family can keep the two apart. Some satisfying confrontations underscore how binding their situations are and, to today’s reader, point to solutions their world was not ready for.
The book finishes with a jump to the future in which Archer contemplates his decisions and how his New York society and the larger world has changed. Perhaps this is where Archer belonged all the while.
I’m all set to watch the 1993 movie version of this classic, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. My work friend Mary tells me the movie is very true to the book, something I love to see!
For more about Edith Wharton, check out this 2009 article from The New Yorker.
I read The Age of Innocence as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book that is considered a classic.
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