Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New York City
*New York City. The novel’s city is the “Old New York” of the second half of the nineteenth century, comprising affluent old families who descended from earlier settlers and revolutionaries. Presided over by well-off bankers, lawyers, businessman, and their fashionable wives, this community was situated in lower Manhattan, in areas such as Lafayette Street or Washington Square, rarely venturing north of Thirty-fourth Street. 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 on Fourteenth Street. Children were reared to a strict standard of manners and morals, which allowed for little independence or originality. Although narrow-minded and exclusive, this society lived well, with the women attired in impeccable dresses, jewels, and elaborate hairstyles, and the men exuding an aura of affluence and entitlement. Fearful of innovation or change, this dignified society was engaged in forestalling the future and secured their power by encouraging conservative views and marriages only within their established social set. This “Old New York” background is a deep subject in this novel; the power of this particular place is overwhelming, and individuals are often defeated in their efforts to overcome its influence on their personal lives and choices. At the end of the novel, however, after World War I, it is clear that Old New York has lost its power and prestige. What had seemed inalterable...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Edith Wharton opens The Age of Innocence at the opera, and the reader first glimpses the heroines through Lawrence Lefferts’ opera glass. It is a privileged glimpse, as is most of Wharton’s fiction; she lets the reader view an entire society through her eyes. This affluent New York society operates on a strict set of unwritten rules. Things happen the same way year after year; no one dares to deviate from the established traditions. Each year, always on the night an opera is seen, the Beauforts hold a ball. It is the only night of the year that they use their house’s ballroom. People know that the ball will begin in half an hour when Mrs. Beaufort rises at the end of the opera’s third act.
Something unusual happens, however, at this particular opera. Lawrence Lefferts spies Ellen Olenska in Mrs. Manson Mingott’s box. Since Ellen returned from Europe in disgraceful circumstances (having left her husband, a Polish count), it is considered a breach of form and good taste to invite her to one’s box. Gossip begins at once; people hardly watch the opera. Newland Archer, always the gentleman, goes to the box in midperformance to introduce himself. His fiancée, May Welland, is also in the Mingott box; she is beaming because of their recent engagement, that very afternoon. She and Newland are so thoroughly steeped and versed in their society’s way of thinking that they practically hold a conversation with their eyes alone. Ellen, on the...
(The entire section is 575 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Edith Wharton was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize, winning it for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Her novels were enormously popular, and they were also critical successes. Nearly all of her work indicts society’s treatment of women. Wharton believed that American society did not grant women freedom, instead encouraging them to remain as children. The men in her novels do nothing to change the status quo, but with a few exceptions, the women do nothing as well. Women such as May Welland and Newland’s mother do everything that they can to preserve the society’s traditions. Ellen’s vibrant sexuality and her wish for a divorce are perceived as threats to the society’s stability. So in the end, she is banished to Europe. The society cares far less for her individual freedom than it does for its collective security and the perpetuation of its values.
May is described as a product of the social system, while Ellen is portrayed as a rebel. Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth (1905), and Charity Royall, in Summer (1917), are two other Wharton heroines who rebel against the norm. Lily Bart refuses to marry a rich husband or to become a mistress, despite enormous societal pressure. The society casts her off, and she dies of a drug overdose in a run-down boardinghouse. Charity Royall, an orphan, is reared by a man who wants to marry her. She longs to run away with a young man who comes to town, but she is seduced and...
(The entire section is 409 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. An insightful study that chronologically traces Wharton’s evolving point of view and her complaints with American society from the female perspective. Extremely well written and particularly useful for feminist issues, the text covers all Wharton’s works. Contains bibliographical notes and an index.
Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. New York: Viking Press, 1971. An excellent biography that contains many photographs of Wharton and her houses, friends, and travels.
(The entire section is 487 words.)