Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Release date: originally 1920; republished July 1997
Publisher: originally D. Appleton and Company; republished by Dover
Formats: Paperback & audiobook
Sources: Personal collection & Lit2Go
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Age of Innocence begins in New York City in the 1870s, in a social strata so high I almost got a nosebleed.
Newland Archer has everything he could want: social prominence; a private box at the Academy of Music in New York; a fine cigar in the family study every night after his work at a law firm; an almost certain union with pretty and affluent May Welland.
But just when his life is going so well, he encounters May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Rumored to be home from Europe after a messy break-up with her philandering husband, Ellen immediately captures Newland’s attention. Newland struggles to control his feelings for this vivacious woman who certainly doesn’t act shamed, despite the scandalous rumors encircling her.
As their forbidden relationship evolves, Newland begins questioning the tenets of society that had previously contented him; through the lovely and unconventional eyes of Ellen, Newland begins to see the inherent hypocrisy and cruelty of the highest echelons of the New York social scene.
As he struggles to reconcile his outward actions and his inward desires, Newland must decide between the safe and socially acceptable woman and the bewitching outcast who has stolen his heart.
After reading The House of Mirth for my New York Stories class as an undergrad, I was hooked on Edith Wharton. No one explains the New York upper crust at the turn of the century better than she, partly because she was a card-carrying member of the high society of which she writes.
When I began reading this paperback, I found the old-fashioned prose and dialogue a little off-putting—enough to set it down for a few years. The stilted, once-fashionable speech of the characters first seemed to be a reflection of Wharton’s lack of imagination; the book seemed a tad boring and slow-moving at times.
But once I began listening to it on audiobook, I enjoyed the book much more. Wharton, intimately acquainted with the charm and wit—and the machinations and whims—of New York society, transports the reader into the inner sanctuary of the city’s wealthiest, a circle with deeply embedded customs and manners as incredible as any fantasy novel.
She acts as a kind of anthropologist, recording the native tongue and strange mannerisms of a society that had already begun to change radically. Newland’s stuffy, stodgy generation is contrasted against one greatly altered (and liberated) by World War I.
Though the story seems mired down by the unique customs and traditions that Wharton seeks to encapsulate, the story is, at its heart, a universal one. Who has not yearned for freedom from normative restraints? Who has not felt the desire to rebel against what you should do, to buck tradition and follow your heart?
Edith Wharton received the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman in 1921 for The Age of Innocence. Though at first I wondered how such cautious, traditional prose could win the award, by the end I had realized that Wharton’s combination of anthropology and art made this a unique and important book.
Wharton uses her extensive knowledge of this high society’s manners and speech to fully immerse the reader in an authentic and complex world, while simultaneously exploring the extent to which societal norms and expectations shape a person.
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