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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton

Book Overview: 

In an era before the advent of electric lights, telephones or motor vehicles, there exists a small cluster of aristocratic “old revolutionary stock” families that rule New York’s social life. Under the rules of this society, “being things” is better than “doing things” and reputation and outward appearances come at the exclusion of everything else. In this Gilded Age, when America’s expansion and increased industrialism produce a group of newly wealthy robber barons and financiers, the patient, time-honored values of the old ruling class, and century, are giving way to the expediencies of the new. Caught at this cusp, a triangle of lovers, who must choose between the expectations of family and society, and the deepest yearnings of the heart.
Newly engaged couple, Newland Archer, a young lawyer, and May Welland, a society debutante, are part of the old world, where the “right people” follow the “correct rules” and marry into “acceptable families.” The arrival from Europe of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, complicates their union, as Ellen’s mysterious past threatens to cast a shadow of scandal over the newly betrothed couple. Newland Archer, at first critical of Ellen’s bohemian lifestyle, and her seemingly wilful ignorance of the rules and customs of his Old New York, is soon captivated by Ellen’s warmth, spirit, and her generous and loving heart. Will he cast off the life for which he’s been groomed, or sacrifice happiness for duty and the greater good of the social order?

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .niture, and the plain new bookcases without glass doors.

The round-bosomed maid came in, drew the curtains, pushed back a log, and said consolingly: "Verra—verra." When she had gone Archer stood up and began to wander about. Should he wait any longer? His position was becoming rather foolish. Perhaps he had misunderstood Madame Olenska—perhaps she had not invited him after all.

Down the cobblestones of the quiet street came the ring of a stepper's hoofs; they stopped before the house, and he caught the opening of a carriage door. Parting the curtains he looked out into the early dusk. A street-lamp faced him, and in its light he saw Julius Beaufort's compact English brougham, drawn by a big roan, and the banker descending from it, and helping out Madame Olenska.

Beaufort stood, hat in hand, saying something which his companion seemed to negative; then they shook hands, and he jumped into his carriage while she mount. . . Read More

Community Reviews

Yes indeedy, what could be more jejune than another early 20th century novelist choosing as her subject the problematic relations between the sexes amongst the idle rich? D H Lawrence and Henry James do the same, the first like a big dog gnawing at a bone and finding something it mistakes for God...more

Appearances can be deceiving, as this superb classic novel reveals...Newland Archer, has the perfect life, rich , young, and good looking, a member in excellent standing, of New York's High Society of 1871, during the Golden Age. These people feel not like prisoners but brave members of a group,...more

The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.
Just when I think a classic unlikely to give me pause, it surprises me with relatable themes. After reading Wharton's short story, "The Muse's Tragedy" (one of the supplemental reads I'll be teaching this Fall), I knew I had to visit one of her l...more

726. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence is a 1920 novel by the American author Edith Wharton. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the prize. The story is set in the 1870s, in upper-class, "Gilded-Age" New York City. Newland Archer...more

“Each time you happen to me all over again.”

Imagine that person you love most in this world, right within your grasp, but somehow out of reach. An invisible thin wall keeping you apart. Apart but not away from each other. Together yet not with each other. This is the worst form of torture, a tor...more

“We can't behave like people in novels, though, can we?”

A few years ago, I read The Age of Innocence and thought it was okay. It has something of an Austen-esque feel - criticisms of middle/upper middle class society, paired with a subtle and clever humour and a love story (here deliciously sc...more

Heading for a hospital stay I decided to treat myself to a pleasant historical novel with a dash of romance. BIG mistake, if this is romantic take me to the nunnery….Okay, the ugliness of the story is offset by the beauty of the writing, and it is gorgeous, I'd read this author again - but still....more

Part of why I love The Age of Innocence so much is for the very reason my students hate it--the subtlety of action in a society constrained by its own ridiculous rules and mores. In Old New York, conformity is key and the upper-crust go about a life of ritual that has no substance or meaning. Bot...more

Myself and the Pulitzer prize have previously not always seen eye to eye, but Finally, I have read one worthy of giving top marks to. This golden oldie captures the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood from a bygone era, where modern ideas...more

‘The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Ole...more

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