Newland Archer, a handsome and eligible young attorney engaged to lovely May Welland, learns that the engagement will be announced at a party to welcome his fiancé’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. This reception for Ellen constitutes a heroic sacrifice on the part of the many Welland connections, for her marriage to a ne’er-do-well Polish count did not improve her position so far as rigorous and straitlaced New York society is concerned. The fact that she contemplates a divorce action also makes her suspect, and, to cap it all, her rather bohemian way of living does not conform to what her family expects of a woman who made an unsuccessful marriage.
Archer’s engagement to May is announced. At the same party, Archer is greatly attracted to Ellen. Before long, with the excuse that he is making the cousin of his betrothed feel at home, he sends her flowers and calls on her. To him she seems a woman who offers sensitivity, beauty, and the promise of a life quite different from the one that he expects after his marriage to May. He finds himself defending Ellen when the rest of society is attacking her contemplated divorce action. He does not, however, consider breaking his engagement to May but constantly seeks reasons to justify what is to the rest of his group an excellent union. With Ellen often in his thoughts, May’s cool beauty and correct but unexciting personality begin to suffer in Archer’s estimation.
Although the clan defends her against all outsiders, Ellen is often treated as a pariah. Her family keeps check on her, trying to prevent her from indulging in too many bohemian acts, such as her strange desire to rent a house in a socially unacceptable part of town. The women of the clan also recognize her as a dangerous rival, and ruthless Julius Beaufort, whose secret dissipations are known by all, including his wife, pays her marked attention. Archer finds himself hating Beaufort very much.
Convincing himself that he was seeing too much of Ellen, Archer goes to St. Augustine to visit May, who is vacationing there with her mother and her hypochondriac father. In spite of her cool and conventional welcome and her gentle rebuffs to his wooing, her beauty reawakens in him a kind of affection, and he pleads with her to advance the date of their wedding. May and her parents refuse because their elaborate preparations cannot be completed in time. Archer returns to New York. There, with the aid of the family matriarch, Mrs. Manson Mingott, he achieves his purpose, and the wedding date is advanced. This news comes to him in a telegram sent by May...
(The entire section is 1058 words.)
Set in the last decades of the nineteenth century, The Age of Innocence narrates the love story of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. When the novel opens, Archer is engaged to May Welland, a young woman from one of New York’s oldest society families, and Ellen Olenska is married to a Polish count, who has abused her in unspoken ways. Ellen, May’s cousin, returns to New York from Europe because she wants to obtain a divorce in the United States. Her family welcomes her back into the fold, but they want to make it clear that divorce is not accepted in their world.
As a respected attorney who is soon to be a family member, Newland is elected to broach this topic with Ellen. Attempting to discourage the divorce, he explains that the customs of their New York society are based on loyalty to one’s actual family and to one’s social “family.” Over the course of several meetings, during which Ellen and Newland are compelled to discuss matters of deep and delicate feeling, they fall in love. Each grows to admire the other’s rarity and virtuous sincerity.
Realizing that their union would socially ostracize them and hurt others, Ellen and Newland decide to give up each other and walk away from the most genuine love evident in all of Edith Wharton’s writing. In doing so, they adhere to social conventions that may be destructive of the most precious aspect of self—the capacity to love. Wharton makes the reader see, however, that...
(The entire section is 465 words.)