The Age of Innocence was written by Edith Wharton (1862-1937). This is her twelfth novel, initially serialized in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine in 1920, and later released by D. Appleton and Company as a book in New York and in London. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making it the first novel written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and thus Wharton the first woman to win the prize. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s.
Newland Archer couldn’t be more pleased with his recent engagement to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However, his world is thrown upside down by the sensational arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Recently returned to America after separating from her husband, a philandering Polish count, Countess Olenska shocks the staid New York aristocracy with her revealing clothes, carefree manners, and rumors of adultery. Because the Countess’s family, headed by the powerful Mrs. Manson Mingott, have chosen to reintroduce her into good society, Archer and May feel it necessary to befriend her.
As Archer comes to better know the Countess, he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society. Meanwhile, Archer becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fianceé, May. He begins to see her as the manufactured product of her class: polite, innocent, and utterly devoid of personal opinion and sense of self.
The Countess Olenska soon announces her intention of divorcing her husband. While Archer supports her desire for freedom, he feels compelled to act on behalf of the Mingott family and persuade Ellen to remain married. At a friend’s cottage near Hudson, Archer realizes that he is in love with Ellen. He abruptly leaves the next day for Florida, where he is reunited with May and her parents, who are there on vacation. There, he presses May to shorten their engagement. May becomes suspicious and asks him if his hurry to get married is prompted by the fear that he is marrying the wrong person. Archer reassures May that he is in love with her. Back in New York, Archer calls on Ellen, and Archer admits that he is in love with her. Just then, a telegram arrives from May, announcing that her parents have pushed forward the wedding date.
After their wedding and honeymoon in Europe, Archer and May settle down to married life in New York. Over time, Archer’s memory of Ellen fades to a wistful image. But on vacation in Newport, he is reunited with her, and Ellen promises not to return to Europe as long as she and Newland do not act upon their love for each other. Back in New York, Archer learns that Count Olenski wants his wife to return to him and that Ellen has refused. After the stroke of her grandmother, Ellen returns to New York to care for her. She and Archer agree to consummate their affair. But suddenly, Ellen announces her intention to return to Europe. May throws a farewell party for Ellen, and after the guests leave, May announces to Archer that she is pregnant and that she told Ellen her news two weeks earlier.
Twenty-five years pass. In that time, the Archers have had three children and May has died from pneumonia. Now Archer’s son convinces him to travel to France. There, they arrange to visit the Countess Olenska at her Paris apartment. However, at the last minute Archer sends his son alone to visit her, content instead to live with his memories of the past.
1. What do you make of Newland Archer? Is he a hero, a victim, or something in between?
2. Were his motivations selfless or selfish?
3. Did Newland truly love either May or Ellen?
4. Why do you think Wharton made Newland the lead character in her novel? How might the story be different if told from the Countess Olenska’s point of view? Or from May’s?
5. For which character did you feel the strongest, either positively or negatively? Did your opinions evolve as the story progressed?
6. Would Newland have been happier with Ellen?
7. How might the story have been different if Newland and Ellen had embarked on a full affair, rather than a fairly conservative flirtation?
8. Would you have liked to know more about Newland and May’s courtship? What might those details have revealed about the characters, about their marriage?
9. What does Newland see in May at the beginning of the novel? What does he see in Ellen? What does each woman represent for him? What does each woman see in Newland?
10. Some critics have described May as one of the great villains of American literature. Does that characterization surprise you? Is it a fair assessment? In what ways might she be considered villainous?
11. Can you attach any symbolic significance to May’s skill with a bow and arrow? What does this side of her reveal about her character, about her relationship with Newland?
12. How does the novel portray marriage? How does it portray passion and sexuality? Are the ideas surrounding each applied differently to the male and female characters?
13. Is this a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, of love unrequited—or is it something else, something more? Is it a story of an affair or of a marriage?
14. Some critics have called this novel a story of identity. Would you agree? What do you think it has to say about identity? How might this be a story about belonging?
15. How much of our identity comes from the life we are born into versus the life we create for ourselves? How do you see this question working in the lives and identities of the characters in this novel?
16. What other characters made an impression on you? How significantly did the peripheral characters influence the lives of Newland, May, and Ellen?
17. Think about the title of this novel. Is it meant to be taken literally—was it truly an innocent time? Or is the title ironic? Who among these characters could be described as innocent?
18. Wharton often expressed her dislike of modernity, her unhappiness with the hustle and bustle and lack of courtesy in modern life. Is her novel a piece of nostalgia for the “good old days”? In what ways might it be considered satire?
19. Upon its publication, The Age of Innocence became an immediate sensation. Why do you think that is?
20. Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, but only after some controversy where the prize was taken from its original recipient—Sinclair Lewis for Main Street (a biting social satire of small-town America). The Board of Trustees said Wharton’s novel “presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Was their assessment correct?
21. It’s a novel about the very wealthy. Could a similar story be told about the very poor? What elements would be different? Which would be the same?
22. It is certainly a novel of its time and place. Would you also consider it a timeless story? Do its themes resonate today?
23. The novel ends with Newland deciding not to meet with Ellen later in life. Why do you think he made this decision? Did you want him to see her? What would you have done if you were him?
This week the chairs were filled. All eleven members attended, and all participated in a lively discussion. Each was provided with a character list and this helped somewhat. The truth is, the characters in the book were presented in such a lively fashion that the main characters remained “alive and well” and full of interest.
The prevailing opinion was that this book provided a candid view of the artificial, formalized, and strictly guided life of the chosen few in the society of Manhattan. All had money just because they had it. There was no need to explain the source. Newland Archer was a lawyer, but he didn’t seem to work very hard at it. One exception was that he was diligent in handling Ellen’s divorce options.
Women were a powerful force while functioning in their own way. May as the expert archer belied the feminine demeanor that she exhibited on most occasions. This activity portrayed her as effective and even potentially deadly. May’s preemptive disclosure to Ellen that she was pregnant was one of those “arrows” that struck home. The die in her marriage was cast when she later disclosed this at dinner with her family. This time she really was pregnant.
Ellen was a character who was of interest to all. She entered the story as a sort of temptress with a questionable moral compass. As the story progressed her character became stronger and more selfless. She had the most backbone of anyone in the book. Other minor characters simply set the stage as gossips, philanderers, patricians, under class but intellectually sound, loyal but luckless (Rivera).
Newland was lauded for some as being brave and resolute by not meeting with Ellen at the end. Others saw him as weak and selfish for avoiding Ellen during the many years she was in Paris after May died. It was agreed by the group that the author would have had a mess on her hands dealing with the upshot of Newland and Ellen meeting at the end.
The book was graded with several 10s and one 5 with the group averaging out at a tick over 8.
Several people who saw the movie thought it was superb and that it portrayed Newland in a more favorable light.
Finally, it was pointed out that Edith Wharton’s talent as a writer was remarkable. Her wide range of talent is demonstrated in Ethan Frome, House of Mirth, Summer, The Custom of the Country, and more. One of the group, she taught in France, pointed out that Edith Wharton has a huge following in that country.
The final take away from this book is that it provides an accurate portrait of the strictness of high society in New York at the turn of the century and how fast things can change as when Newland’s son married the illegitimate daughter of the adventurer Julius Beaufort a scoundrel who was accepted only because of the standing of his wife’s family.