The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton, 1920
~ 300 pp. (varies by publisher)
The Age of Innocence takes place in the top echelons of old New York Society, in the 1870's. Newland Archer, comfortably, even smugly, ensconced within his class, the conventions of which he venerates, is set to marry May Welland. His smugness crumbles upon meeting May's first cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen is estranged from her Polish husband and newly returned from Europe.
New York society is scandalized by the Countess. But Newland recognizes in her a vibrant, creative curiosity, a freedom of thought that highlights the suffocating narrowness of his peers. The two fall in love, and therein lies the struggle: desire for what Newland now holds most dear...at the expense of violating what he once held most dear.
Newland's only escape is to leave the country, to find a world where he and Ellen "shall simply be two human beings who love each other." Ellen responds,
Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there? I know so many who've tried to find it...and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.
It's tempting to read Wharton's novel as a condemnation of New York's highest social circles. But Ellen's renunciation implies her embrace of a code of standards within those circles. It's a code that preserves a degree of honor and goodness, one in opposition to dinginess and promiscuity which lie outside society's circles...a dinginess Ellen has witnessed first-hand.
The novel's final chapter is poignant, even devastating. There are no spoilers here, but to my mind, it's worth the price of admission. The chapter is elegiac, a summing up that's heartbreaking yet filled with a kind of beauty as Newland looks back on the life he's lived.
See our Reading Guide for The Age of Innocence.
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