Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

This 1875 print of ice skaters in Central Park, in which the women wear long skirts and skate separately from the men, illustrates the constrictive 'Old New York' society of the late 1800s depicted in the novel. Published by Gale Cengage

Wealth in the North
After the Civil War (1861-1865), the South was in ruins, economically and structurally, but the...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The setting is so dominant an element in The Age of Innocence that it almost becomes a character....

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Edith Wharton employs a selective omniscient point of view in much of The Age of Innocence. The story is told by an impersonal...

(The entire section is 98 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Age of Innocence concerns the maturation of Newland Archer. Since in much of the work Edith Wharton limits herself to Archer's...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton recreates the world of New York society in the 1870s. This society is both innocent and...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1870s: The United States is recovering from the Civil War and is not yet a world power. As a result, Americans focus on...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Compare Wharton's depiction of New York society life with what you know about tribal societies, past or present. Do you think that Newland...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

There are a number of literary precedents for this work. The careful, realistic descriptions of social customs and rites that mark the...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 85 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Age of Innocence was made into a highly successful movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska in the 1993 film version of the novel. Published by Gale Cengage

The Age of Innocence was adapted as a silent film by Olga Printzlau, produced in 1924 by Warner Brothers.

In 1934,...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881) is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman...

(The entire section is 156 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

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.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed., Edith Wharton: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1986.

Kellogg-Griffith, Grace, The Two...

(The entire section is 461 words.)