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...
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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...
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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...
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Wealth in the North
After the Civil War (1861-1865), the South was in ruins, economically and structurally, but the North flourished. While wealth in the South declined by sixty percent, wealth in the North increased by fifty percent. As a result, there was a growing class of wealthy New Yorkers in the 1870s. This trend is represented by the character of Julius Beaufort, who has become a millionaire. Although the tight social circle of New York does not favor outsiders, he is allowed in by virtue of his marriage to Regina Mingott, a member of a very respectable family.
As people in the North gathered wealth, New York became especially showy. The upper class enjoyed attending the theater and the opera and hosting extravagant parties. A woman named Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish held a dinner party in New York City to honor her dog, who arrived at the party wearing a $15,000 diamond collar. In The Age of Innocence, this lifestyle is depicted in the lavish parties and luxuries the wealthy enjoy.
As the century came to a close, there was a growing lower class as most of the wealth was concentrated in the...
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The setting is so dominant an element in The Age of Innocence that it almost becomes a character. Through detail and lush description, Wharton brings to life the social world of the wealthy in 1870s New York. The environment is so critical to the work that Wharton opens the novel with the grand scene in which everyone is dressed in their finery for the opera. This immediately alerts the reader to the novel's dramatic setting. Because the modern reader is unfamiliar with the "trappings" of old New York, details of the carriages, visiting practices, and attire provide a much-needed context for the story.
James W. Tuttleton in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume Twelve: American Realists and Naturalists comments, however, that modern readers are less interested in the details of daily life in old New York than they are in "the spiritual portrait of the age," which is another component of the setting.
The society depicted is closed to outsiders and revels in its elite membership. Carol Wershoven in The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton notes that the elimination of "undesirables" from the social circle is the product of a fear of reality. In this closed community, matters of reputation, manners, and decorum are valued highly, and the dignity of one's family name is of extreme importance. Every event, from a wedding to a...
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Edith Wharton employs a selective omniscient point of view in much of The Age of Innocence. The story is told by an impersonal third-person narrator, but in large sections of the novel the reader mainly learns what Newland Archer thinks and sees. This technique suits Edith Wharton's purpose since Archer's awakening conscience is the main focus of the novel.
Other sections of the novel, particularly the description of New York social rites at the opera or dull parties, are obviously satiric in spirit. Here Wharton exposes the limitations and cultural ignorance of what is essentially a provincial world.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The Age of Innocence concerns the maturation of Newland Archer. Since in much of the work Edith Wharton limits herself to Archer's point of view, an important consideration is the reliability of Archer's perception of what is happening. One avenue for group discussion may be whether May Welland Archer and Countess Olenska understand things about their situation that Archer fails to perceive. Another issue is whether there is some sort of familial/societal conspiracy against Archer, or whether he imagines the whole thing. Still another issue is whether Archer actually changes or grows as a result of his relationship with Countess Olenska.
Other issues are also raised in The Age of Innocence. One might consider what Wharton wants the reader to make of the contrast between European decadence and American morality, why she equates the respectable with the dull and boring in this novel, what the role of the artist was in this New York world, and whether New Yorkers did not have ways of accommodating immoral behavior that were as effective as the European ways that so scandalized them.
1. Is the title of Edith Wharton's novel appropriate? What connotations of the word innocence seem appropriate to the New York of the 1870s?
2. May Archer is seen as a dull, unimaginative woman by Newland Archer once he has married her. Besides the revelation at the end of the novel, is there any evidence that Archer is misreading his...
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In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton recreates the world of New York society in the 1870s. This society is both innocent and tyrannical. Even though the ladies and gentlemen who belong to the ruling elite are ignorant of the full range of human emotion and endeavor, they nonetheless expect total submission to the rules and forms of their world. Appearance — the appearance of moral probity and social conformity — is all important: "What was or was not 'the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago."
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Compare and Contrast
1870s: The United States is recovering from the Civil War and is not yet a world power. As a result, Americans focus on internal issues and resources, and tend to identify themselves in regional terms.
Today: The United States has a major world presence, both economically and militarily. Americans are interested in both domestic and foreign issues and events. While people often retain a sense of pride in their regional culture, citizens of the United States generally think of themselves as Americans.
1870s: The society described in The Age of Innocence strives to preserve itself against unpleasantness. Members of this society will not even consider allowing intellectuals, artists, or writers into their circle, as they are likely to bring with them new ideas and points of view.
Today: "Unpleasantness" is not only pervasive, but is often sought out by average Americans. Movies and songs containing violent and profane content are routinely consumed by the American public. Individuals and families—not society—are responsible for censoring what they are willing to see or hear. Many parents make the effort to install blocking devices on their home computers in order to protect their children from the controversial material that is so readily available on the Internet.
1870s: After dinner, wealthy men often retire to their private...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare Wharton's depiction of New York society life with what you know about tribal societies, past or present. Do you think that Newland Archer's use of anthropological terms to describe his community is justified? If so, what can you conclude about human nature? If not, why do you suppose Newland thinks of his environment in this way?
Compare and contrast Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence and Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
Consider the novel's title, and make a case for why you believe Wharton chose it. Do you find that there are multiple meanings, or does the title refer to one specific character or event in the novel?
Do you think Newland would have followed Ellen to Europe if May had not announced her pregnancy?
Research three different psychological theories (i.e., behaviorism, gestalt, rogerian, etc.), and make a prediction based on each one.
At the end of the novel, Newland muses on how things have changed between his generation and Dallas' generation. Research American history at the turn of the century to get a better idea of what major changes took place at this time.
Draft a new ending for the novel in which Newland decides to meet with Ellen in Paris. As you imagine this turn of events, do you gain appreciation for the skill of novelists?
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There are a number of literary precedents for this work. The careful, realistic descriptions of social customs and rites that mark the opening chapters of The Age of Innocence recall Henry James's descriptions of similar scenes in works like The American (1877), Washington Square (1881), and The Bostonians (1886). Blake Nevius points to a similar love theme in Madame de La Fayette's The Princess of Cleves (1678), which Wharton praised for its "story of hopeless love and mute renunciation." Nevius also sees Balzac as an important antecedent: "Balzac's endless curiosity about the minutiae of business and legal transactions, property rights, and the arts of decoration is almost matched by Edith Wharton's passion for the detail of costume and decor; and her notation of the manners of her class is as scrupulous as Balzac's notation of bourgeois manners in Cesar Birotteau or Eugenie Grandet."
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In the Age of Innocence, Wharton is looking back at the New York society of her youth from the perspective of an expatriate living in France fifty years after the events of the novel. In 1924, Wharton would rework the same vein in the form of novellas that make up Old New York. In these extended stories, Wharton gives vivid pictures of New York social life from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, drawing heavily on her knowledge of New York settings, customs, and values.
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The Age of Innocence was made into a highly successful movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska, and Winona Ryder as May Welland Archer, and directed by Martin Scorsese in 1993. The movie is remarkably faithful to the novel. There are a few significant omissions or changes: Medora Manson and Ned Winsett are prominent characters who have been eliminated from the film, and the name "Dallas" has been changed to "Townsend" for obvious reasons since it would have a whole set of associations today that Edith Wharton could not have anticipated. Scorsese follows the sequence of events in the novel, using the voice of Joanne Woodward to provide narrative continuity. The careful attention to detail gives the movie an unusual sense of authenticity. In choosing his two leading ladies, Scorsese has gone against typecasting. Based on their physical types, Pfeiffer, who is blonde and robust, should have been cast as May Welland, and Ryder, who is pale and fragile, should have been cast as Countess Olenska. In this instance, the reverse typecasting works. Both actresses more than meet the demands of their roles, giving the movie a rich emotional undercurrent.
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The Age of Innocence was adapted as a silent film by Olga Printzlau, produced in 1924 by Warner Brothers.
In 1934, Margaret Ayer Barnes, Victor Heerman, and Sarah Y. Mason adapted the novel as a film in a production by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Most recently, in 1993, Martin Scorsese directed a Columbia Pictures adaptation of the novel by Scorsese and Jay Cocks. The film starred Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska, and Winona Ryder as May Welland.
A well-received stage adaptation was performed on Broadway in 1929.
Numerous audio adaptations have been made for listeners to enjoy the story on tape. These include releases by Books on Tape, 1982; Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1992; Bantam BooksAudio, and Random House, both 1993; Big Ben Audio, Blackstone Audio, Dove Entertainment (read by Joanne Woodward), and Penguin Audiobooks, all 1996; Bookcassette and Brilliance Corp., both 1997; and Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 1999.
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What Do I Read Next?
Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881) is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who comes into wealth and leaves for Europe, where she will test her mettle. This novel is considered by many to have been an inspiration for The Age of Innocence.
Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) vies with The Age of Innocence as Wharton's best work. Like The Age of Innocence, this novel is set in late nineteenth-century New York; here, however, she portrays Lily Bart's fall from social grace.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a classic novel of manners. Featuring one of literature's most memorable heroines, this novel depicts the struggles of romance in a time dictated by manners and class structures.
Published in 1995, The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America, edited by Charles W. Calhoun, is a collection of essays about the United States between 1865 and 1898. Topics include politics, women, law, and the African-American experience.
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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.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of ten essays that analyze both her stories and novels. The essays are arranged chronologically; the first appeared in 1968, the last in 1985. They are each brilliant and full of useful information. An index and a bibliography are provided.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An important inquiry into the meaning of actual and imagined spaces in the works of the two women writers. Explores Wharton’s anthropological knowledge in the structure and characterizations of The Age of Innocence....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed., Edith Wharton: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1986.
Kellogg-Griffith, Grace, The Two Lives of Edith Wharton: The Woman and Her Work, Appleton-Century, 1965.
McDowell, Margaret B., Edith Wharton, in Twayne's United States Authors, G.K. Hall and Co., 1999.
Mizener, Arthur, "The Age of Innocence," in Twelve Great American Novels, New American Library, 1967, pp. 78—80.
Nevius, Blake, Edith Wharton, A Study of Her Fiction, University of California Press, 1953, pp. 185-7.
Phelps, William Lyon, "As Mrs. Wharton Sees Us," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 53, October 17, 1920, pp. 1, 11.
Tuttleton, James W., "Edith Wharton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume Twelve: American Realists and Naturalists, edited by Donald Pizer, Gale, 1982, pp. 433-50.
Van Doren, Carl, "Edith Wharton," in Contemporary American Novelists 1900-1920, Macmillan 1922 pp. 95-7.
Wershoven, Carol, The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982, pp. 91-3.
Wharton, Edith, The Age of Innocence, introduction by Paul Montazzoli, Barnes & Noble, 1996.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, "Edith Wharton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume Nine: American Novelists,...
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