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Age of Innocence (Wharton)

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton, 1920
~300 pp. (varies by publisher)


Summary
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. (From Barnes and Noble.)



Author Bio
Birth—January 24, 1862
Where—New York, NY
Death—August 11, 1937
Where—Paris, France
Education: Educated privately in New York and Europe
Awards—Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, 1921,
   French Legion of Honor, 1916


One of America's most important novelists, Edith Wharton was a refined, relentless chronicler of the Gilded Age and its social mores. Along with close friend Henry James, she helped define literature at the turn of the 20th century, even as she wrote classic nonfiction on travel, decorating and her own life.

More
Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, and (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton's novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton's first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable Literary Success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton's reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 — the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.

Extras
• Surprisingly, in addition to her career as a fiction writer, Wharton was also a well-known interior designer. Her book, The Decoration of Houses was widely read and is today considered the first modern manual of interior design.

• Upon the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton became an instant celebrity, and the the book was an instant bestseller, with 80,000 copies ordered from Scribner's six weeks after its release.

• Wharton had a great fondness for dogs, and owned several throughout her life. (From Barnes and Noble.)



Book Reviews
(Older works have few, if any mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon or Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

The Age of Innocence is a title both ironic and poignant: ironic because the "age" or period of the novel, the late nineteenth century, teems with intolerance, collusion, and cynicism; poignant because the only innocence lost is that of Newland Archer, the resolute gentleman whose insight into the machinations of aristocratic life comes late. The novel proceeds from a working assumption that is best summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance": "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." Edith Wharton advances this belief with a vengeance, and it gives tragic depth to the life of Newland Archer, a life that might otherwise seem pedestrian and unworthy of close examination....

Few things in a Wharton novel can be understood as strictly black or white, this or that. The demands and consequences of duty are laid out before Archer clearly enough, but how he should respond to them, and how we respond to him, is complicated by the possibilities of social conspiracy and romantic fulfillment. The decisions that Archer makes concerning his life with May Welland and a life with Countess Olenska speak to his sense of obdurate responsibility. Archer's son, recounting his mother's words, says to Archer, "she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted" (p. 293). Must security be purchased with sacrifice? Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one's happiness? Or is Archer a puppet, incapable of claiming morality or honor because his actions are forced upon him by the designs of others? Is duty to one's community more important than duty to oneself? Can and should any society determine the right course of action for an individual? In the end, if we as readers feel safe with Newland Archer, it is because he upholds his obligations, his duty to wife, children, and society. He manages, through strength or resignation, to keep things in order. We pity him as well.
Penguin Group Publishers (cover image, top-right



Discussion Questions
1. Why does Archer neglect to tell Countess Olenska of his engagement to May Welland, despite the fact that May has instructed him to do so?  

2. Why does Archer suddenly realize that marriage is "not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas"? (p. 35)  

3. Why does Archer feel "oppressed" when contemplating the "factitious purity" of his betrothed? (p. 37)  

4. Why is Countess Olenska a threat to the social order that claims Archer as one of its kind?  

5. Why is the neighborhood where Countess Olenska resides a "queer quarter for such a beauty to settle in"? (p. 99)  

6. To what is Archer referring when he thinks about his peers that "over many of them the green mould of the perfunctory was already perceptibly spreading"? (p. 103)  

7. What does Archer mean when he thinks that "it was wonderful that...such depths of feeling could coexist with such absence of imagination"? (p. 154)  

8. How does Archer feel about May's talent with her bow and arrow? Why does he so often feel "cheated...into momentary well-being"? (p. 173)  

9. When Archer, at the request of Mrs. Mingott, follows the path to the shore to fetch Countess Olenska, why does he say to himself, "If she doesn't turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I'll go back"? (p. 177)  

10. What kind of "code" exists between Archer and May? How does it work? What is its origin? (p. 219)  

11. Why does May decide to host the farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska? Why does Archer think of the dinner guests as "a band of dumb conspirators"? (p. 276)  

12. Why does Archer walk away from a potential reunion with Countess Olenska?

13. Must social and emotional security be purchased with the sacrifice of another individual or group?  

14. Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one's happiness? Is duty to one's community more important than duty to oneself?
(Questions issued by Penguin Classics; cover image, top right.)

                    
Also, check out LitLovers free online courses, especially LitCourse 8 on Irony: the course reading is Wharton's short story "Roman Fever."

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