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 to Ellen, which Ellen reads to him just as he is attempting to advance the intimacy of their relationship. Archer leaves Ellen’s house and finds a similar telegram from May to him. Telling his sister Janey that the wedding will take place within a month, he suddenly realizes that he is now protected against Ellen and himself.
The ornate wedding, the conventional European honeymoon that follows, and May’s assumption of the role of the proper wife soon disillusion Archer. He realizes that he is trapped, that the mores of his society, helped by his own lack of courage, have prepared him, like a smooth ritual, for a rigid and codified life. There is enough intelligence and insight in Archer, however, to make him resent the trap. On his return to New York, he continues to see Ellen. The uselessness of his work as junior attorney in an ancient law firm, the stale regimen of his social...
(This entire section contains 1058 words.)
life, and the passive sweetness of May do not satisfy that part of Archer that sets him apart from the rest of his clan.
He proposes to Ellen that they go away together, but Ellen, wise and kind, shows him that such an escape would not be a pleasant one, and she indicates that they could love each other only as long as he does not press for a consummation. Archer agrees. He further capitulates when, urged by her family, he advises Ellen, as her attorney and as a relative, not to get a divorce from Count Olenska. She concurs, and Archer again blames his own cowardice for his action. The family faces another crisis when Beaufort’s firm, built upon a framework of shady financial transactions, fails, ruining him and his duped customers. The blow causes elderly Mrs. Mingott to have a stroke, and the family rallies around her. She summons Ellen, a favorite of hers, to her side. Ellen, who was living in Washington, D.C., returns to the Mingott house to stay. Archer, who had not seen Ellen since he had advised her against a divorce, begins seeing her again. Certain remarks by Archer’s male acquaintances, along with a strained and martyrlike attitude that May adopts, indicate to him that his intimacy with Ellen is known among his family and friends. The affair comes to an end, however, when Ellen leaves for Paris, after learning that May is to have a baby. It is obvious to all that May triumphs, and Archer is treated by his family as a prodigal returned. The rebel is conquered. Archer makes his peace with society.
Years pass. Archer dabbles in liberal politics and interests himself in civic reforms. His children, Mary and Dallas, are properly reared. May dies when Archer is in his fifties. He laments her passing with genuine grief. He watches society changing and sees the old conservative order give way, accepting and rationalizing innovations of a younger, more liberal generation.
One day, Archer’s son, Dallas, about to be married, telephones him and proposes a European tour, their last trip together. In Paris, Dallas reveals to his father that he knew all about Ellen, and he arranges to visit her apartment. When they arrive, however, Archer sends his son ahead, to pay his respects, while he remains on a park bench outside. A romantic to the end, incapable of acting in any situation that makes demands on his emotional resources, he sits and watches the lights in Ellen’s apartment until a servant appears on the balcony and closes the shutters. Then he walks slowly back to his hotel. The past is the past; the present is secure.
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 Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer love each other for who they are, which is defined largely by the moral vision that they share, a vision forged by their society. To violate that vision would not only harm the others that they cherish, but also would undermine a key part of what each loves in the other.
Their choice of renunciation is a difficult one, and Wharton, who allows her readers to cry out against Newland and Ellen’s decision, understands that although lovers may want to consider society irrelevant, they cannot. Lovers carry their society within them. Social values are a significant part of Ellen and Newland and are a significant reason why each grows to love the other.
Wharton attains her greatest philosophical clarity in The Age of Innocence, the novel for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1921. The Age of Innocence is the work that most clearly articulates her major philosophical conclusions, namely, that individual character is inextricably bound to the society that nourishes, forms, and reforms that character. Another version of this conclusion is that life places individual longings and needs in direct conflict with the needs and desires of others. Which side should have ascendancy is not always clear.