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.
Life of New York's idle rich in the 1870s, written by one of their own after WWI, when she has put that society in perspective. Young Newland Archer is engaged to marry the perfectly perfect--but boring--May Welland, when her cousin Ellen returns in semi-disgrace from Europe. Newland finds himself smitten, and oh, what to do? None of the characters are particularly likeable--but they sure live in an interesting world. Old New York is a foreign world to me, and I loved this peek behind it's heavy mahogany doors and layers of velvet drapery.
Recommended for: The language and psychology isn't as tortuous as Henry James, and it's not quite as sharp as Jane Austen (and also not British), but if you like those authors, you'll like this too. It also reminded me a little of Anna Karenina, except much shorter. Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer in 1921, so I'm not the only one to love it.
“The young man, as he followed his wife into the hall, was conscious of a certain reversal of mood. There was something about the luxury of the Welland house and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged with minute observances and exactions, that always stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets, the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and each member of the household to all the others, made any less systematized and affluent existence seem unreal and precarious. But now it was the Welland house, and the life he was expected to lead in it, that had become unreal and irrelevant, and the brief scene on the shore, when he had stood irresolute, halfway down the bank, was as close to him as the blood in his vein.” (Ch 21)
Wharton’s prose is exquisite; I can’t remember when I’ve read such a gorgeous book. The Age of Innocence has become a favourite. Highly recommended!
This could have been a very boring book but it was not at all. In point of fact, I found it to be fascinating. The main character is in love with the young lady that he eventually proposes to, but comes to realize that with her, their marriage will have that boring sameness to it of all the others, that she will be just like all of the other wives which will make him just like all of the other husbands. He meets another young lady who rather than being brought up in old New York was brought up in Europe and finds that she is quite different. She is married to a man whom she has left in Europe due to the very unhappy circumstances in the way he treated her. He becomes fascinated with this woman and even his fiancee tells him that if he should want something different, that she would not want to stand in his way. But...............times being as they were, there are certain standards to be met no matter the happiness or sadness involved.
I enjoyed this Wharton tremendously and have found her to be a wonderful author. I highly recommend the book and have given it 4 1/2 stars.
It is impossible to read this book with anything other than modern eyes. From a female perspective in the 21st century, Newland comes across throughout as weak and patronising with his desire to tenaciously cling to the ideal of a "woman's innoncence" and his position as the worldly man who can educate them. May, his young wife, appears both irritating and frustrating. She is manipulative via her innocent assumptions and unbending will on matters of social conformation. By rights, the reader's sympathy should lie with her, but instead one finds that it is Newland Archer for whom you are rooting, willing him to break free. To a modern reader, Countess Olenska is the character with whom sympathy lies. Her independent mind and spirit fights against constraint by the society that she has returned to as a refuge. It is not until Newland forces her to be aware of it, that she adapts her behaviour at all. Ironic that it should be the case when the rest of the story unfolds.
I loved this book when I read it a decade ago and on this re-read I was waiting to understand why I had remembered it as such a classic. As I reached the final third, I realised that this is where it shines. The subtext behind the actions of Newland, May and Ellen and the words unspoken carry such weight that it is suffused with tension and sensuality. Throughout there is the idea that to this society, women were almost sacrificial in the face of scandal. The ultimate irony is that despite Newland's consideration of himself as worldly, his need to educate May, in fact he is as innocent as she in his desire to "get away" with Ellen "into a world where ..... categories do not exist". It is Ellen that is realistic. The idea that May had "spent her poetry and romance on their short courting" whilst Newland remains blameless in his eyes and cannot see that he is as responsible and changed as she. The culmination of the farewell meal for Ellen when Archer finally loses his innocence, his moment of realisation of what has been thought of him by society, what has been observed and supposed, is as painful a description of disillusionment as any I have read. Throughout this book there are moments when you dislike May intensely as she seems controlling and manipulative (irrationally, as she is the victim and has done nothing wrong). However, there are moments, such as after the leaving party for Ellen, when she deserves, and Wharton moves us to give her, sympathy.
The book is finally resolved by a poignant and brilliant ending where Newland is shown for what he really is: a man as devoted to convention in his way as any other of his time, a man who cherishes his ideals more than the reality of life when it comes to the final reckoning.
A brilliant and restrained book, a real classic!
Ultimately, within the rich comforts of the smug Social Register set there is no indulgence for an independently operating female, especially a "foreign" one, even if she's family.
Newland Archer, engaged then married to the embodiment of NYC perfection in young women, May Wellend, is the starch stiff representative of the best young man NYC can produce until Ellen Olenska, his bride's cousin and herself a woman married but separated from her European husband, arrives.
What ensues is a sustained waltz of suppressed emotions within and between Newland and Ellen that are buried under the weight of their conventionality, in his case; moral compunctions, in hers; and the manipulative pressures of their kin and friends determined to maintain the glass smooth surface of appearances against their ambitions to upset the status quo. Everyone's efforts to protect others from the truth and probably harm, to preserve their individual and collective innocence, devolves ironically into an age of conspiracy.
Faithful in his body to his wife, Newland divorces himself from her emotionally and spends his "real" life sequestered among his books and memories inside his library. Faithful to her principles, Ellen eventually divorces herself from Newland's presence when she returns to Europe, unable to sustain an existence among those who initially embrace her then subtly push her out of the "tribe." "The Age of Innocence" is a novel about marriage and society that tells us they both are devoted to traditions bent on restricting individuality and killing love.
The action is entirely domestic, consisting of meetings in homes, at dinner parties, balls, operas, and stolen moments in carriages and aboard steamers. It is largely internal action that raises tension when the pair break small societal rules, yet are never quite able to sever the restraints that tie them to earlier commitments. The tension spirals upward only to collapse on itself as Newland is incapable of decision and Ellen is disinclined to make him choose.
Wharton's novel is atmospheric, period perfect, and damning in the most polite and socially acceptable way. Put it on your Must Read List.
We first meet our protagonist, young Newland Archer, on the night of his betrothal, admiring his fiancée across a crowded opera house. He strikes us as a rather silly young man, so earnest is he in his effort to appear “correct” in the eyes of his peers, his betters and their betters, all equally silly in our eyes as they pose and prance and take one another’s upturned noses very seriously. But very soon the author abandons the attempt to poke fun at these people, and draws us into Newland’s fascination with his old childhood friend, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has recently separated from her husband the Count. She is also at the opera that night, dressed inappropriately and steeped in scandal as a result of her failed marriage.
Ellen – raised abroad and married there -- is everything that the very American Newland, and his innocent young fiancée May, are not: strangely foreign, creative, flamboyant, intellectual, passionate, but also loyal, sensitive and ultimately ethical. Worst of all, she is apparently oblivious to the constricting rules that society expects her to observe, and in the most endearing way she goes about trying to live her life honestly. Newland is both drawn to her and terrified of her, comfortable with May and repelled by May. Thus he will find his way through a conflicted life, and the reader is likely to find his personal struggle and the life he leads not terribly unlike his or her own. This novel is at its core timeless. Society will always demand that we act one way when in fact we might prefer to act another way entirely, and there will always be choices and regrets on the path we choose among those options.
What I’m describing is a classic love triangle immemorial, and The Age of Innocence is truly an old-fashioned romance story. In fact, a story so old-fashioned even in Wharton’s time that she set it in the 1870s. It’s also the kind of story my brother is always bemoaning I like all the time, where nothing much happens in terms of external action, only people meeting and speaking up the silence of not saying what they’re really thinking, and eventually actually manage to say what they think—at which point the gulf between their thoughts and reality becomes the next looming silence. Basically, it’s what he’d call “boring” (and in lesser hands, I’d dismiss as “rich people problems”).
He’s wrong, at least in this case. We might know how this old rag of a love triangle plays out—how it always plays out—but what elevates the formula is the well-observed detail Edith Wharton suffuses into every step of the way.
Wharton clearly knows the high-society New York she’s describing, down to every single dinner menu (and doesn’t she not shy from showing it!). But more importantly, she knows every gesture it yields in the upholding of its every specific more and dishes it out with insights frequently satiric and even subtlely funny. And its ultimate hypocrisy, which she dishes out frequently chilling or even heart-breaking. See here after Newland proposes eloping to May:
"Newland! You’re so original!” she exulted.
His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make—even to the point of calling him original.
Her attention to detail extends to the characters as well, including the many supporting characters whose idiosyncrasies (Sillerton Jackson’s rumor-mongering, Catherine Mingott’s stinginess with serving food, Lawrence Leffert’s fake moral outrage) lend that biggest of Wharton characters, “Society”, a richer presence than merely being a monstrous looming antagonist. But most profoundly, Wharton turns her eye to the two fascinating cousins at the heart of it, May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, whose complexities are only glimpsed at (and often misunderstood) by the Newland, hampered he is by his feelings and his pride.
All this characterization is so important because behind the veil of gentility, The Age of Innocence is at its heart, an intense battle of wills between the main characters. There’s none of that flashy ‘external action’ here—not silly misunderstandings or missed letters or last-minute chases that seem so endemic to romances. But you can’t mistake that for ‘boring’ because when the characters clash it’s with the force of society fighting itself, in so much that Wharton’s characters are individuals, yes, but also so much where they come from (and how they come from it). And though at time I think Wharton leans too heavily on the constrast between stodgy New York and artistic Europe as her theory of everything, the result is a novel constructed out of remarkable unity between character, theme, and plot. Everything that happens is so much out of what the characters do and everything that the characters do is so much out of who they are and everything who they are is where they come from…
(And that ending!) So now, I can feel exasperated with Newland; I can feel sad at his losses and happy at his gains. But I can’t pity him because pity, pity is dismissal, pity is putting something in the past—and the world of The Age of Innocence, so specifically rendered in its pages, is not.
Symbolically, Newland represents an America on the cusp of modernization, the awkward period of transition between the Victorian era and World War I. At first a devout member of New York aristocracy, Newland is awakened as one from a trance with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen decides to separate from her abusive husband, Count Olenski, and is rumored to have escaped the Count by having an affair with his secretary--a scandalous circumstance that brings her back home to her native New York. Vibrant, intellectual, and free-spirited when compared with the dowdy and restrained women he's known, Ellen's predicament is a revelation to Newland. As he himself has just ended an affair with a married woman and seen the ease with which society forgave his indiscretion when contrasted with Ellen, Newland begins to acknowledge the inequality amongst the sexes. However, there's a serious roadblock to Newland ever being with the captivating Ellen: Ellen is the cousin of May Welland, Newland's fiancee.
Wharton writes with cutting wit about the hypocritical and ludicrous customs of blue blood society and cunningly plots events to work against Newland, the archer whose target is a "new land" in which he and Ellen can be together. The pity is that, ultimately, May proves to be the more cunning huntress who cleverly hunts and traps her quarry in the labyrinth of society.
Wharton's descriptions are well done; I had an easy time visualizing each situation, and I could even hear the conversations - even the stifled ones. Certain characterizations were really funny - Catherine Mingott cut a really legendary figure. Newland is almost an idealist, but comes out like a deflated balloon after a while. The story is romantic without really being passionate. I ended up enjoying the story as well as how it turned out, though not feeling at the edge of the seat as I'd thought I'd be by the end. I could see rereading this one, as it's fun to be taken into the glamorous yet constipated society that I could never be a part of.
The early Pulitzer Prize winners were concerned with documenting and commenting on the effects that rapid social and technological changes had on “society”, whether that of a Midwestern town evolving into a large industrial city or of “old” New York. The most sharply observant, critical, and personal is The Age of Innocence, in which Wharton describes a set of mores governing behavior for the wealthiest families so stultifying that even reading it 85 years later produces claustrophobia and a sense of being unable to breathe.
The protagonist of the book, Newland Archer, is one of the more conscious of his set. At the beginning of the book, as a young man in the early 1870’s, Archer is quite taken up with his own class and wholeheartedly subscribes to “form”, that unwritten code of what is allowed and far more important, NOT allowed in Old New York society. He realizes that these constitute constraints on his actions but accepts them as de rigueur and necessary to the survival of his way of life.
However, he meets an alien who has suddenly appeared in the midst of this hierarchical, rigid society—the beautiful Countess Olenska, a member of one of the most prominent families whom Archer knew as a child, who married a Polish count, and moved to Europe. After an unspecified number of years, she has left her husband and moved back to New York under mysterious and even scandalous circumstances. Being a member of a distinguished family and somehow “foreign”, the Countess Olenska’s behavior baffles society; they alternately rally around and shy away from her depending on which by-law of the social code she has most recently “transgressed”—usually unwittingly.
Archer, engaged and then married to May Welland, one of the most beautiful as well as most unimaginative and uncreative daughters of an Old New York family, falls under the Countess’ spell. She evokes within him a vaguely intuited, dormant but not yet fully suppressed streak of independence and rebellion, a dread of living out the rest of his life in the sterile, iron-clad environment of High Society.
The story centers around Archer’s feeble and ineffectual attempts to transcend the rules and mores of his class and strike out for a life in which he can grow. In one of the more telling quotes:
“His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever going to happen.”
At each critical moment, in which he seems poised to break out, Fate, in the person of May, presents him with a choice between personal freedom and a shot at happiness and duty. Duty, in the form of his refusal to grasp at his own happiness at the expense of others’ pain—and May—win each time. Archer spends the rest of his life conforming to the code of behavior expected of a man of his class; the Countess Olenska moves to Paris. The scenes are underwritten, but in the most chilling prose.
The end of the book is poignant, even heart-rending.
The prose style is quite sharp, even unforgiving, as Wharton, at times in great detail, presents a way of life that worships Form and correct behavior; it is clear that she despises this life. It is a life that is inconceivable to us today, but through near-perfect writing, she makes it real for us, a staggering achievement.
Newland wanted the Countess Olenska, even though he publically disparaged her. You could FEEL how much he wanted her in this book.
Can't say a lot about this classic without saying too much, I suppose. I found the ending to be excruciatingly sad, although everyone lived relatively happily ever after.
I found it very interesting that just within Newland's life, radical changes had occurred within the social structure, such that his own son would be marrying someone who would've been inconceivable in Newland's earlier days.
Something I thought was very interesting throughout the book is that Newland would imagine an entire conversation with his fiance, and then take action on this imaginary conversation as if it actually occurred.
I think that there was only one innocent person in the whole book, and that was the Countess herself, who didn't seem to be pretending to be someone else, like everyone else was.
More than a month after finishing reading this book, and it still resonates with me, which I think is a sign of a great book. This book invoked feelings of frustration, longing and sadness. So, 5 stars!
The tale is beautifully told, with lots of sly glances at the ills and illogicality of society. You do think that Newland is going to set the world afire, but he kind of backs off and it becomes clear he hasn't, but it seems his offspring might.
Newland Archer is a member of upper-crust, Gilded Age New York Society, about to marry May Welland, a naive heiress. He becomes attracted to May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, back in New York after disgracing herself. Part of her attraction for Newland is the fact that she is so free-spirited, and so a struggle ensues: will Newland choose the conventional path with May, or will he flaunt society’s expectations of him and choose the Countess?
Edith Wharton’s observations of Gilded Age New York are extremely incisive; although she was a part of the society she wrote about, she was nevertheless able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. The society she writes about was limiting, in which everyone did more or less the same things over and over again, day after day; so it’s easy to see why Newland finds the Countess Olenska so fascinating. I think he’s not so much in love with her as he is with the lifestyle she represents. It’s also easy to see, conversely, how New York society sees her as a threat, too. The Age of Innocence was written in 1920, nearly fifty years after it’s set; and so the novel is not so much a polemic about an ongoing issue. But it’s a fascinating look into the way that things were; and, maybe, still are in upper-crust New York society. I love Edith Wharton’s prose style, too; it’s not sophisticated, but she gets her point across succinctly.
This edition has a great introduction by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who among other thing points out a truth in Wharton's fiction, that "The real challenge that confronts each man and woman, then, can never be that of finding perfect happiness; rather, it must be that of creating some form of possible happiness...In this life, no one can expect more."
"...once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas."
"He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an unescapable duty."
"As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty, or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland."
"...he had watched Mrs. Thorley Rushworth play toward a fond and unperceiving husband: a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchful and incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and every quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence."
On the double standard:
"In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts, and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief that when 'such things happened' it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simpleminded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him."
"Every one in polite circles knew that, in America, 'a gentleman couldn't go into politics.' But, since he could hardly put it in that way to Winsett, he answered evasively: 'Look at the career of the honest man in American politics! They don't want us."
"Ellen! What madness! Why are you crying? Nothing's done that can't be undone. I'm still free, and you're going to be.' He had her in his arms, her face like a wet flower at his lips, and all their vain terrors shrivelling up like ghosts at sunrise. The one thing that astonished him now was that he should have stood for five minutes arguing with her across the width of the room, when just touching her made everything so simple."
"I mean: how shall I explain? I - it's always so. Each time you happen to me all over again."
"But in Archer's little world no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering after marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.
Archer had always shared this view: in his heart he thought Lefferts despicable. But to love Ellen Olenska was not to become a man like Lefferts: for the first time Archer found himself face to face with the dread argument of the individual case. Ellen Olenska was like no other woman, he was like no other man: their situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they were answerable to no tribunal but that of their own judgment."
"Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects - hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles - made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
'It seems cruel,' she said, 'that after a while nothing matters ... any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled: 'Use unknown.' "
On the miracle of technology:
"Dallas seemed to be speaking in the room: the voice was as near by and natural as if he had been lounging in his favourite arm-chair by the fire. The fact would not ordinarily have surprised Archer, for long-distance telephoning had become as much a matter of course as electric lighting and five-day Atlantic voyages. But the laugh did startle him; it still seemed wonderful that across all those miles and miles of country - forest, river, mountain, prairie, roaring cities and busy indifferent millions - Dallas's laugh should be able to say: 'Of course, whatever happens, I must get back on the first, because Fanny Beaufort and I are to be married on the fifth."
On old age:
"Sitting alone at night in his library, after the household had gone to bed, he had evoked the radiant outbreak of spring down the avenues of horse-chestnuts, the flowers and statues in the public gardens, the whiff of lilacs from the flower-carts, the majestic roll of the river under the great bridges, and the life of art and study and pleasure that filled each mighty artery to bursting. Now the spectacle was before him in its glory, and as he looked out on it he felt shy, old-fashioned, inadequate: a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being..."
And memories of an old love:
"During that time he had been living with his youthful memory of her; but she had doubtless had other and more tangible companionship. Perhaps she too had kept her memory of him as something apart; but if she had, it must have been like a relic in a small dim chapel, where there was not time to pray every day...."
When Ellen Olenska returns to New York to escape her husband, she shakes up Newland Archer's carefully ordered world and challenges his assumptions about what his life could and should be like. As the two carry on an affair mostly of the heart, consummated only by a few stolen kisses, the ramifications of his actions are felt throughout the tiny community of New York society. My favorite thing about this novel was the ending. As I read along, I was expecting some dramatic, tragic ending for Newland and Ellen. Instead, she returns to Europe and he stays with his pregnant wife. As time passes the supposedly all-consuming love fades and the two are content, if not blissful, in their separate lives. This seemed to me much more realistic than the tragic fates that await other unfaithful lovers in many novels. It wasn't a happily-ever-after story, but it was, in a strange way, a happy ending.
Wharton does an excellent job of depicting ~1880s New York society, a construct so brittle that the mere expression of individuality, ambition or temperament threatens to shatter it. Then she creates two fairly empathetic characters, the "restless young man" Newland Archer and the simultaneously worldly/naive Ellen Olenska, sets them against the system and explores - with a brutal honesty that allows for no hope of literary intervention (fate, coincidence or anachronism) - the hypocrisy forced upon them ... and, to be fair, the hypocrisy they force upon themselves.
Had Jane Austen undertaken this tale, she might have told it with more humor but with less honesty. What both authors share, however, is an ability to satirize the often arbitrary, often absurd constraits of "propriety" while simultaneously acknowledging their force and enduring power.
The Book Report: Society marriages and mores of 1870s New York. Very beautifully constructed. Pusillanimous young lawyer marries frail, fainting flower with a rod of steel up her backside, falls in love with her cousin, and no one gets away happy.
My Review: I've always said mixed marriages don't work. Expecting someone not like you in fundamental, crucial ways to "get" you, to support you, to really be there for you, is not a good bet. Men do not need to be marrying women. Throughout human history, the basic dumbness of the idea has kept all societies of hunter-gatherers from engaging in this horrible, painful, and absurd custom.
We abandon the wisdom of our elders at our peril. Wharton reminds us of why this is so.