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The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence (1920) is a story that includes secret love, affairs, and navigating the aristocratic society of the Gilded Age in New York. The novel was written by Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and is her 12th novel. The Age of Innocence is considered one of Wharton's finest works and delves into themes of social class, acceptance, and love. Although The Age of Innocence has received mixed reviews over the years, it has remained popular with more than five television, movie, and theatrical adaptations!

The Age of Innocence, Harpers Bazaar cover late 19th century, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Age of Innocence (1920) is set in the Gilded Age.

The Author of The Age of Innocence 1920

The Age of Innocence was written by Edith Wharton, a prolific Victorian author who bridged the gap between Victorian literature (1837-1901) and Modernist literature (Early 20th century). Modernist Literature sought to break away from traditional forms of writing and saw an increase in experimentation with form, narration, and style. While Wharton included some traditional elements in her writing, she often experimented with things such as unreliable narration, freedom in form, and new perspectives and points of view. Edith Wharton, therefore, is a leader in the Modernist Literature movement that developed in the early 20th century.

Edith Wharton often wrote novels, such as The Age of Innocence, based on her knowledge of the upper-class societies of the Gilded Age in New York.

The Gilded Age was a period of United States history that lasted approximately between 1870 and 1900. It was a period of rapid economic and social growth. Industrialization was the root cause of productivity in the economy, which allowed people to invest their money and become wealthy fast. This new social class became known as the "nouveau riche", and they lived in wealthy homes in the finest neighborhoods of major cities, like New York City. They were looked down upon by the social class of "old money". The Gilded Age also saw a rise in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, an increase in pollution, and heightened social inequalities.

Wharton was raised in an upper-class household in New York City and became interested in literature reading books in her father's library. Wharton published her first piece, a translation of the German poem "Was die Steine Erzählen" (1877), by the age of 15, though it was in her father's name. Wharton became most well known for her novel, Ethan Frome (1911). Despite Wharton often observing societal rules expected of her, she was unconventional as an author and an upper-class woman. The rebellious spirit of Wharton can be found in The Age of Innocence characters such as Countess Olenska, and the critics of upper-class society are found in characters such as May Welland.

A Summary of The Age of Innocence 1920

Newland Archer, an upper-class wealthy lawyer, has recently become engaged to May Welland, a beautiful and respected daughter of the Welland family. All is well until Countess Ellen Olenska returns to America after separating from her husband, an unfaithful Polish count. Countess Olenska is May's cousin and causes a stir in the aristocracy of New York in the late 19th century. It is rumored the Countess had affairs and the Countess's manner of dress and behavior is considered shocking. Families such as the van der Luydens judge the Countess Olenska's character solely based on rumors of her behavior, and they are quick to ostracize her from society. The van der Luyden's are also quick to turn many influential families' opinions on the Countess Olenska to negative ones.

The Age of Innocence, two ladies, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Countess Olenska is considered quite scandalous in comparison to her cousin May.

Mrs. Manson Mingott, the head of the Countess's family, decides to reintroduce the Countess into New York society, and Archer and May are determined to help her. Archer becomes close to the Countess as he helps her through legal affairs, and he begins to doubt his love for his fiancée. Archer realizes the Countess's unconventional ways, and her humorous outlook on New York society appeals to him more than May's politeness and adherence to class rules.

One day, the Countess Olenska declares she will be divorcing the Count. Archer wants the Countess to feel freedom, but helps the Mingott's convince her to stay married. The Countess Olenska goes away to a cottage in the Hudson, and Archer soon follows. He is now in love with the Countess. Suddenly, Archer leaves and heads to Florida, where May and her family spend the winter on account of her mother's bronchitis. Archer surprises May and begs her to shorten their engagement to marry him as soon as possible.

The Age of Innocence, Man and Woman, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Archer asks May to shorten their engagement.

May becomes suspicious of Archer's haste to marry and believes he is only rushing the marriage to not change his mind and choose another woman. After frankly conveying her feelings to Archer, he tells her she is being silly and that he loves only her. However, when Archer returns to New York he tells the Countess Olenska of his love for her. Things become more complicated when Archer receives news from May that her parents wish to move the marriage up.

Despite Archer's confused feelings, he marries May. They leave for Europe to honeymoon before returning to New York and establishing themselves as a married couple. The Countess recedes to the back of Archer's mind. However, Archer soon runs into the Countess while in Newport. The two still love each other, but the Countess tells Archer she will only stay in America if neither of them act on their love.

Archer returns to New York where he learns that the Countess has actually refused to return to her Husband and that the Countess wishes to stay in New York to care for her grandmother who has had a stroke. Archer and the Countess meet and nearly fall into the temptation of becoming physical with one another. The Countess cannot follow through and decides suddenly that she is returning to Europe. May, who is unaware of the Countess's and Archer's affair, throws the Countess a farewell party. Before the party ends, May tells Archer she is pregnant. It is then revealed the Countess has already learned of the baby two weeks prior.

The Age of Innocence, Pregnant Woman, StudySmarterFig. 4 - May reveals to Archer she is pregnant after the Countess's farewell party.

Countess Olenska leaves and time goes on. Twenty-five years pass by, and Archer is now a widow and father to three children. May had died of pneumonia. Archer and his son decide to go to Paris where Archer is intent on meeting the Countess. However, at the very last moment, Archer decides to send his son to meet the Countess on his own. Archer is happy to simply hold on to his memories of the Countess.

An Analysis of The Age of Innocence 1920 by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence was a novel that won Edith Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 due to her writing style. An analysis of Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is a helpful way to better understand the subtleties of the novel.

Point of View, Tone, and Writing Style

Age of Innocence is written from the limited third-person point-of-view.

The third-person point-of-view is a point of view in which the narrator knows all that is happening in the novel whether it is the action, dialogue, or individual character's thoughts. The limited third-person point of view is when the narrator focuses on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a singular character

Think of the third-person point-of-view as someone observing and retelling what they have seen. They are typically not a character in the novel.

The narrator in The Age of Innocence, while being an outside observer, mainly focuses on Newland Archer's thoughts, feelings, and experiences, which provides the reader with an intimate view into his life. Through this perspective, the reader can also observe the mental turmoil Archer experiences when choosing between unconventionality (represented by the Countess) and conventionality (represented by May Welland).

The Age of Innocence's narrator is one that can perceive and be cynical of the upper-class society's social norms and mores. The commentary remarks on the customs, social manners, and activities of the aristocratic society and often does so in a witty and humorous manner. This gives the novel its engaging writing style.

How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out…" (Chapter 1).

In this quote, the narrator's wit and sarcasm shines through. The narrator had just explained that Archer expects his wife to be worldly, wise, and witty and to behave accordingly in social situations. However, the narrator remarks this will be nearly impossible as indicated by the humorous phrase "How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created…" (Chapter 1).

This effectively provides the novel with a witty and sarcastic tone that can point out the absurdities and cruelties of aristocratic families in New York's Gilded Age. Overall the humorous and witty writing style of the novel gives the novel a lighthearted and sarcastic tone.

Novel Style and Genre

The reader is meant to perceive The Age of Innocence as almost a textbook of events on the happenings of New York's upper-class societies in the Gilded Age—both the good and the bad. Therefore, the novel is written as a study observing the actions of certain characters and their reactions to certain events that take place.

When Countess Olenska comes back from Europe, Mrs. van der Luyden sees her as a scandalous woman. Mrs. van der Luyden turns favor against the Countess, and as a community, the upper-class women of society begin to shun the Countess. This gives the novel a feeling of an observer observing the Gilded Age society of New York City in the 1870s as if it were a newly discovered society.

The novel also belongs to the genre of Satire.

Satire is a genre of literature in which characteristics of humor are used to criticize, emphasize, and expose certain ridiculous or absurd aspects of an individual or a group.

The witty narration uses humor to point out ridiculous and absurd aspects of upper-class New York society, particularly the strict rules and customs they enforce upon themselves.
Packed in the family landau they rolled from one 
tribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon's round was over, parted from his betrothed with the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped." (Chapter 9)

In this quote, Archer has just gotten home from a carriage ride with May, his fiancée. The narrator humorously remarks on how Archer is feeling at that moment. He feels like an animal who has been sent from door to door and shown off. In the Gilded Age, society-suitable matches and engagements between young couples were essential. To display the suitable match of Archer and May, they are shown off to other members of society for approval. The narrator remarks on how absurd this practice is.

Themes in The Age of Innocence 1920

There are a few key themes in The Age of Innocence. Particularly, these themes include social class, specifically new money versus old money; societal acceptance; and love. The three are all deeply interrelated. During this novel set in the 1870s, two types of upper classes formed: old money and new money. Old money families came from long lines of wealth that could be traced back centuries. New money families had become newly wealthy due to investments in ventures, like railroad companies or oil.

The Age of Innocence, Victorian Decorum, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Societal acceptance is an important theme in The Age of Innocence.

Old money families looked down upon new money families who they felt were unrefined and not suited to upper-class customs. In the novel, it is clear that the old money families are threatened. This leads to the next theme: social acceptance. Societal acceptance was of the utmost importance, and those that did not adhere to societal rules were looked down upon. It was incredibly important to remain up to date on the customs and norms, and people did whatever was necessary to stay in everyone's good graces.

In the novel, Countess Olenska is seen as a scandalous woman looked down upon by her upper-class peers for her unconventionality. Her separation from her husband, as well as rumors of her affairs with other men, are seen as beyond what is acceptable. For this reason, she is considered an outcast by many in her society, and it is up to Mrs. Mingott and Archer to bring her back into everyone's good graces.

Finally, the theme of love is significant. Love was not seen as essential for a proper marriage between two people in the upper classes of the Gilded Age in New York. Marriage was seen as a way to bring two influential families together.

In the novel, Archer and May are expected to marry one another, which would combine the Archer and Welland families. However, it becomes clear as Archer falls in love with the Countess Olenska, that he is marrying May out of obligation and duty. In the end, Archer ultimately decides his obligation to society is more important than true love.

Overall, the three themes in the novel combine to create the overall message that humans can be blinded by what is expected of us, and when we break free of those expectations, we run the risk of excommunication. This is a concept Wharton finds absurd.

Literary Criticism of The Age of Innocence 1920

Since its publication, The Age of Innocence has been met with many literary criticism. When the novel was first published, critics admired Wharton's ability to craft such a witty and strong novel that spoke about essential issues like class distinction. Around the mid-20th century, feminist scholars had begun to analyze the text from a feminist point of view, raising the "Woman Question."

The "Woman Question" is a literary critique that originated in France and lasted between the 1400s and 1700s. Many works of literature questioned the nature and role of women in society. As time went on, the critique began to acknowledge the intellectual equality between men and women.

Feminist critiques of The Age of Innocence look to Wharton's representation of women in the novel, particularly May and the Countess. May is considered the ideal societal debutante, while the Countess is an outcast and scandalous woman. The Countess is depicted as a sympathetic character winning the favor of the reader, while May is seen as manipulative. This is particularly true when May decides to tell the Countess that she is pregnant before telling Archer. Although she is actually pregnant, May did it to push the Countess away.

The Countess is seen as a progressive, unconventional woman who rises above societal expectations of women. She is unconventional in that she is seeking a divorce from her unfaithful husband, wears a unique style of dress, and has her own intellectual pursuits.

Oh, centuries and centuries; so long," she said, "that I'm sure I'm dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven;" which, for reasons he could not define, struck Newland Archer as an even more disrespectful way of describing New York society," (Chapter 2).

Newland Archer meets Countess Olenska at the opera. From their first few interactions, Archer can see the Countess is a bit different. In particular, this unconventionality is seen when the Countess compares Gilded Age society to heaven, which Archer sees as disrespectful. This is in contrast to Archer's perception of the Countess later in the novel where he describes her as intellectual and not simple-minded. Overall, this reveals Archer's character development and change of understanding about the world he grew up in.

The Age of Innocence - Key takeaways

  • The Age of Innocence is a novel written by Edith Wharton in 1920.
  • The Age of Innocence (1920) is set in the Gilded Age of New York and observes the customs and ways of the upper class.
  • The novel focuses on Newland Archer and his struggle between his obligation to marry May Welland and his love for the Countess Olenska.
  • The novel is told from a third-person point of view and has a witty, sarcastic tone and writing style which suggests the novel belongs to the genre known as Satire.
  • The Age of Innocence covers important themes such as social class, acceptance, and love.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence was written by Edith Wharton in 1920.

The main characters in The Age of Innocence are Archer Newland, May Welland, and Countess Olenska.

The purpose of The Age of Innocence was to show the customs and ways of the upper classes in the Gilded Age of New York society and the ways they reacted to unconventionality. The novel reveals the ridiculous ways upper-class societies behaved and is meant to be a satirical critique.

The Age of Innocence is set in Gilded Age New York in the 1870s.

The main moral of The Age of Innocence is that as humans we tend to follow societal rules for the purpose of being accepted in society. When someone breaks those rules, they are often ostracized. Wharton believes this to be an absurd concept and wishes humankind to push past this.

Final The Age of Innocence Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Age of Innocence? 

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Answer

Edith Wharton

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Question

Why is the Countess Olenska considered a scandalous woman according to Gilded Age society?

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Answer

It is rumored the Countess had affairs, and the Countess's manner of dress and behavior is considered shocking. 

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Question

Why does Newland Archer find the Countess Olenska more appealing than May Welland?

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Answer

Archer realizes the Countess's unconventional ways and humorous outlook on New York society appeals to him more than May's politeness and adherence to class rules.

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What is the setting of The Age of Innocence?

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Answer

New York City in the 1870s.

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Why is May suspicious of Archer's desire to shorten their engagement?

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Answer

May believes he is only rushing the marriage, so he does not change his mind and choose another woman.

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Who does Archer end up with at the end of the novel?

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Answer

May Welland

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When was the Gilded Age?

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Answer

1870-1900

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What literary prize did Edith Wharton win for The Age of Innocence?

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Answer

The Age of Innocence won Wharton a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. 

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What point of view is used in The Age of Innocence?

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Answer

The third-person point of view

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What is the tone of the novel?

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Answer

Witty and sarcastic

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What genre does the novel belong to?

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Answer

Satire

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How are readers supposed to perceive The Age of Innocence?

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Answer

As a textbook of observations on events and the happenings of New York City's upper class societies. 

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Question

What are the central themes in The Age of Innocence?

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Answer

social class, specifically new money versus old money; societal acceptance; and love. 

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