15 Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Ms. Aseya Mirza

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Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, short story writer and designer. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. Wharton combined her insider’s view of Americans privileged classes with a brilliant natural wit to write humorous incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight.


The age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Her protagonist are most often tragic heroes or heroines and portrayed as intelligent and emotional people who want more out of life. Wharton’s protagonist challenge social taboos but are unable to overcome the barriers of social convention. Wharton’s personal experiences opinions and passions influenced her  writings.



The age of innocence centers on an upper class couples impending marriage, and the introduction of the bride’s cousin plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870’s New York society, it never develops into an outright condemnation of the institution. The novel is noted for Wharton’s attention to detail and its accurate portrayal of now the 19th century East Coast American Upper class lived.



New land Archer, gentle man lawyer and heir to one of New York city’s best families, is happily anticipating a highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of counters Ellen Olenska, May’s exotic and beautiful 30 years old cousin. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself from a bad marriage to a Polish count. At first Ellen’s arrival and its potential taint on the reputation of his bride to be’s family disturb Newland but he becomes increasingly intrigued by the wordily Ellen who flouts New York society’s fastidious rules. As Newland’s admiration for the counters growth so does his doubt about marrying May a perfect product of Old New York society his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.


Ellen’s decision to divorce count Olenski causes a social crisis for the other members of her family who are terrified of a scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family’s reputation a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from divorcing the count. He succeeds but in the process he comes to care for her, afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date.


Newland tells Ellen he loves her, Ellen corresponds but is horrified that their love will aggrieve May. She agrees to remain in America, separated but still married to Count Olenski, only if they do not sexually consummate their love. Newland and May marry. He tries unsuccessfully to forget Ellen. His society marriage is loveless and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington, and has and has remained distant he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while head May is in New port, Rhode Island. Newland discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen to return to him, but she refused although her family wants her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe, frustrated by her spirit of fierce independence the family has cut off her money as the Count had already gone.


Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen obsessed with how to finally possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he urges her to become his mistress. Then Ellen is recalled to New York to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance. Back in New York and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However then Newland discovers that Ellen has decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night after the party Newland resolves to tell May that he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to announce that she is pregnant! And she reveals that she has also told Ellen about her pregnancy two weeks earlier. Despite not being sure of it at that time. The implication is that she did so because she suspected the affair. Newland guesses that this is Ellen’s reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped Newland decides not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his children, remaining in a loveless marriage to May.


26 years later after May’s death, Newland and his son are in-Paris. The son learning that his mother’s cousin lives there has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building Newland sends up his son alone to meet Ellen and he waits outside. Watching the balcony of her apartment. Newland considers going up but in the end decides not to he walks back to his hotel without seeing her.



Newland Archer couldn’t be more pleased with his recent engagement to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However his world comes tumbling down with the advent of a sensational Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin from Europe. She has abandoned her husband in Poland and returns to shock the staid New York aristocracy with her revealing clothes carefree manners and rumors of adultery. Because the Countess family headed by the powerful Mrs. Manson Mingott gave chosen to reintroduce her into a good society, Archer and May feel it necessary to befriend her. As archer comes to know the Countess better he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society. Meanwhile Archer becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fiancée. 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 her. HE abruptly leaves the next day for Florida where he is reunited with May and her parents, who are there in vacation. There he urges May to shorten their engagement, May becomes suspicious and asks him if his urgency to get married is prompted by the fear that he is marrying the wrong person., But archer reassures her of his love, back in New York Archer calls on Ellen and admits that he truly loves her, but 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 away to wistful image but now on  vacation at Newport he is reunited with her and Ellen promises not to return to Europe as long as she and Newland so 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 case 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 offer the guests leave May announces to Archer that she is pregnant and that she has spoken to Ellen about it two weeks earlier.


Twenty five years pass, in that time the Archer 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 but at the last moment, Archer returns without meeting Ellen.



Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is probably one of her most successful books because it offers an inside look at a subject the author knew very well i.e. New York society during the 1870’s. That was her milieu and her imagination has grasped the atmosphere of an aristocratic society of New York as its inhabitants move about in their world of subtleties, innuendos and subject adherence to the dictates of a fashionable society.


Wharton’s most successful theme was the plight of the young and innocent in a world that was most complicated than that for which they were prepared. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska found the society of New York intricate and demanding and as such to be an impediment to their personal searches for happiness and some degree of freedom. The Age of Innocence is a careful blending of a  nostalgiafor the 1870’s  with a  subtle  but   nevertheless   inescapable   criticism  of  its  genteel  hypocritses  and  clever  evasions. The  novel’s  city  is  the  “Old  New  York”,  of the  second  half  of  the  19th  century,  comprising  of  affluent  families  who  descended  from earlier settlers and revolutionaries. Presided over by well – off lawyers , bankers , businessmen and their  fashionable  families , and  their  fashionable  wives , the  community  was situated in Lower Manhattan, in areas such as Lafayette street or Washington square .


The social lives of these old New Yorkers was governed by church – going dinner parties , and balls  in  individual  homes  and  ritual  attendance  at  the  Academy  of  Music’  a luxurious  Opera  House, in the elite part  of  the  city . Children  were  reared  to a  strict  standard of  morals  and  manners,  which  allowed  little  independence  or  originality.  Although narrow minded and exclusive, this society lived well, with the women attired in impeccable dresses, jewels and elaborate hair styles  and  the  men  exuding  an  aura  of affluence and entitlement. Fearful of innovation or  change  , this  dignified  society  was  engaged in forestalling the future tenements and secured their power by encouraging  conservative views and marriages  only  within their  established  social  set. The  powerful  effect  of this  established  place  is  overwhelming  and  individuals  were  often  defeated  in their efforts to overcome its influence on their personal lives and choices. For  example ,  Archer’s passion for Ellen Olenska is “stifled. “ In fact  , in  actuality  hidden  and  stifled  passion can be even more intense  than  that  which  can  be  easily  exhibited.  There  is  a  certain draw to the characters  when  Archer  is ,  quite  literally unable  to  convey  or  keep  away from Ellen. The novel is full end up proving both the positive aspects of  living  a life within the absolute control of the society  as well as  the  negative  aspects  of  living  a life within society’s grasp. At the  end  of  the  novel, Archer’s  whole  future  seemed  suddenly  to be unrolled before him and slipping down  to  endless  emptiness; he  beholds  a dwindling  figure of a man to whom nothing was to ever happen.


Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of  Innocence  is  a  story  of  unrequited love with Newland  Archer’s  decades’  long  passion  for  Ellen  driving  the  narrative forward through societal, personal and professional transmutations, that affect the characters along the way. From the  beginning of  the  novel, Wharton  makes it clear  that  Archer is apparently not suited to his life as a representative of the socially elite. Archer therefore, is only going through the motions. He  appreciates the  quality  of  life  as  one  of  New York’s high standards. But he is bored by the stultifying atmosphere  in  which  proper ladies and gentlemen live. “ He was at heart  a  Dilettante ,”  meaning that  his  interest  in  society is only  “skin – deep”.  And  so  Newland  Archer  muddles  along  in the life  to which  he has been thrust into by virtue of pre- destination. His circumstances are inflexible and precisely this lack of self control rules over his life.  He  dutifully  attends  Law  school  ,  marries, has children and attends social events and the Opera with a  dogged  regularity that  befits one being groomed for success. Due to his ironical circumstances , however, he is condemned  to  live  through  a  loveless  marriage  and  it  is  so  because  he  is  unable  to  break the fetters that invincibly bind him to an  organized  society  and  hollow  words  of  honour. Apart from the fact that he has lost  Ellen  forever , he  also  cannot  accept  that the  years have  inalterably  transformed  all  those  concerned. He  prefers  to  remember  Ellen as  she had been but not as she is now.

Conclusively, the fact  remains  that  Newland  Archer  is  so  concerned  about respectability and appearance, that it traps  him  in  the  era’s  social  conventions,  although Archer repeatedly claims  to  be  unconventional  and  a  free  thinker. Yet he has  grown up internalizing the very conventions he pretends to despise. May Welland, the woman destined to be his wife, is the product of these artificial  social  norms  and  although  he  feels that she is intellectually incompatible and unsuitable, he cannot bring himself  to  abandon her  for the unconventional Ellen. Ellen herself is trapped in the era’s cult of respectability , as even in New York she is constantly challenged by the rumors about her  first  disastrous  marriage in Europe and rumors running strife of an improper affair with her  husband’s  secretary. Because of this personal turmoil , she eventually  returns  to  Europe, basically  because she finds it impossible to build a new life for herself in America.


Newland may keenly feel the hypocrisy of Old New York but he is not exempt from it himself. The most notable example of his double standards comes with his ideas on women. In Book 1, he remarks privately that he wishes that May would learn to think independently despite the upbringing that taught her never to question authority. Yet he also feels a proud sense of passion over May. On a broader scale Archer claims that women should be granted the same rights as men and should not be censured by having private relationships. Yet he also makes a judgment distinction between the women on loved and the women one pitied.


Archer can also be remarkably naive, while he is astute to the complex authority the Mingott family wields he underestimates its cleverness. While he feels he can defy the family’s powerful solidarity by contraindicating their opinions Archer realizes with s start in Book 2 that he had simply been excluded from consultation. He is also naive in the sense that he feels that he is somehow exceptional to the usual codes and judgment of good society. He quixotically hopes that somehow Ellen and he can form a relationship that will defy the usual dreary terms of adultery. It is Ellen who must keep Archer’s feet planted to the ground.


One of the themes central to the Age of Innocence is the struggle between the individual and the group. Newland Archer has been raised into a world where manners and moral codes dictate how the individual will act and in some cases ever think. At many points throughout the Book both Archer and Ellen Olenska are expected to sacrifice their desires and opinions in order not to upset the established order of things. In the Age of Innocence this established order most often takes its most concrete form as the family. One of the individual’s foremost duties is to promote and protect the solidarity of his tightly knit group of bloods and marital relationship. In the second chapter his initial unwillingness to associate with the scandal garnering Countess Olesnka to enter the Mingott family’s opera box in order to support their decision to bring the Countess out in public. Later, in the novel, when Ellen wishes o reclaim her freedom by divorcing her philandering husband she is discouraged from this action because the family fears unpleasant gossip. And of course Ellen and Archer’s decision not to consummate their love is based largely on their fear of hurting the family.


Ostensibly this duty to the family and to society ensures that each individual will behave accordingly to a strict code of morality, However Wharton is quick to demonstrate how easy it is find loopholes in this code. Hypocrisy runs rampant in Old New York city. For example Larry Lefferts who self righteously proclaims himself to be a pillar of moral rectitude is also one of the biggest philanderers in the novel. The upstanding families who so eagerly attend Julius Beaufort’s balls and depend on his lavish hospitality are the same people who continually disdain his “Commonness” and who will mercilessly exile him following his business collapse.


This profound sense of irony leads, inevitably to the question of Wharton’s choice of title. To what extent is the era of Old New York Truly an age of Innocence? For this doubtless, a decay lurking beneath the surface of this gilded cage. Yet along with it there is the purity of May Welland a character brought up to remain innocent of the corruption that surrounds her. Archer too for all his passion and discontent is naively innocent in believing that a love affair with Ellen could escape being branded by society as anything other than a common act of adultery. And on a larger level, Old New York itself is an innocent society one so immersed in the minutae of its social codes that it could not begin to imagine the chaos and destruction that would come with the 20th cent. In these ways, Wharton’s title is neither purely earnest non purely ironic.

Do You KNOW?

  1. Newland Archer is the story’s main protagonist successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in New York engaged to May Welland.
  2. Mrs. Manson Mingott : The matriarch of the powerful Mingott family and grandmother of Ellen Olenska and May. She has ensured her family’s social position through her shrewdness and force of character. She controls the money.
  3. Mrs Augusta Welland: May’s mother and daughter of Mrs Manson Mingott.
  4. May Welland: Newland Archers fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother. She follows and perfectly obeys all of society’s customs. Mostly she is the shallow and uninteresting woman that New York society requires.
  5. Ellen Olenska: She is May’s cousin and Mrs. Manson’s grand daughter . She became a countess by marrying a polish count Olenski. A European nobleman.
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