The Age of Innocence

Author: Edith Wharton

Reading Notes

Reading Notes

Book Club Notes for The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Book Summary

The Age of Innocence is a title both ironic and poignant: ironic because the 'age' or period of the book, the late nineteenth century, teems with intolerance, collusion, and cynicism; poignant because the only innocence lost is that of Newland Archer, the resolute gentleman whose insight into the machinations of aristocratic life comes late. The novel proceeds from a working assumption that is best summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay 'Self-Reliance': 'Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.' Edith Wharton advances this belief with a vengeance, and it gives tragic depth to the life of Newland Archer, a life that might otherwise seem pedestrian and unworthy of close examination.

Wharton presents Archer as a man of refined sensibilities, well educated, responsible, alert to expectations. He works in an old law firm just enough to achieve an air of respectability and importance. He attends opera, keeps up with the galleries in Europe, and thinks 'few things seemed...more awful than an offence against 'Taste' '. At the same time, Archer is a harsh judge of his fellow man. He attributes to Ned Winsett 'the sterile bitterness of the still young man who has tried and given up'. He thinks Sillerton Jackson a gossip, Lawrence Lefferts a philanderer, and Julius Beaufort a crude scoundrel of business. He is perhaps most judgmental-and incorrect-about May Welland, the debutante who becomes his wife, deciding not long after their marriage 'that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion'. Archer also criticizes himself, but he is not altogether thorough, and he turns a blind eye to his central flaw, failing to recognize his own immaturity, his own naïveté about the ways of his world. He fails to see himself as a 'dilettante' making claims to intellectual and moral superiority. But it is this characteristic that makes Archer a true innocent. In many ways, he pictures himself standing apart from his milieu, believing that he is somehow a free agent, less susceptible to the claims of the social world.

Archer possesses one other characteristic that contributes largely to his innocence-imagination. This is not to say that Archer's contemporaries lack this particular facility, but rather that his own turns of fancy tend toward the untried and the unorthodox. Having an after-dinner cigar with Sillerton Jackson, Archer declares that 'women ought to be free-as free as we are'. And when Countess Olenska, the woman he loves, asks if she is to be his mistress, Archer says, 'I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that-categories like that-won't exist'. Archer is something of a dreamer, a romantic, and it is his story of lost love that makes him, if not a hero, then a sympathetic Everyman. Archer's imagination allows him to see beyond his perfect match with May Welland, his prestigious but inconsequential law practice, and the formidable social strictures directed against the Countess Olenska. But somehow the plots and intrigues of high society-of drawing room and library, of wife and friends-escape him, and when Archer finally understands his life as being subject to powers outside his control, it is too late. Is there a social conspiracy against Newland Archer? Is he manipulated to do what his community wants without regard to his desires or happiness? Or is it Archer's naïveté and his romantic preoccupations that entrap him? Is a man of affluence and position a master of his own fate, or is he mastered by tradition, expectation, and prescribed morality? These are just a few of the questions that The Age of Innocence raises.

Few things in a Wharton novel can be understood as strictly black or white, this or that. The demands and consequences of duty are laid out before Archer clearly enough, but how he should respond to them, and how we respond to him, is complicated by the possibilities of social conspiracy and romantic fulfillment. The decisions that Archer makes concerning his life with May Welland and a life with Countess Olenska speak to his sense of obdurate responsibility. Archer's son, recounting his mother's words, says to Archer, 'she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted'. Must security be purchased with sacrifice? Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one's happiness? Or is Archer a puppet, incapable of claiming morality or honor because his actions are forced upon him by the designs of others? Is duty to one's community more important than duty to oneself? Can and should any society determine the right course of action for an individual? In the end, if we as readers feel safe with Newland Archer, it is because he upholds his obligations, his duty to wife, children, and society. He manages, through strength or resignation, to keep things in order. We pity him as well.

About the Author

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), born to a wealthy and fashionable New York family, was raised and educated by governesses and tutors as the family moved between houses in Paris, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island. She published her first book, a slim volume of poetry, at the age of sixteen. Wharton's patriarchal and socially conservative family disregarded her literary work, thinking it an inappropriate, even embarrassing, eccentricity.

Wharton married Boston banker Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885, but the marriage was not a particularly happy one. Wharton moved to France in 1907 and the couple divorced in 1913. After publishing a number of stories in popular magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and Scribner's, she set out to write serious fiction. Following the example of her friend and mentor, Henry James, Wharton took up the novel of manners, chronicling the customs and beliefs of her social class. Over the next forty years, she published eleven collections of stories and sixteen novels, including The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920), the last of which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. She also published works on travel and interior design.

In Paris during World War I, Wharton worked tirelessly as the head of the American Hostels for Refugees and wrote of her experiences in Fighting France (1915). For her work during the war, she was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. She filled her later years with the company of artists and intellectuals, a coterie that, in addition to Henry James, included Jean Cocteau and Sinclair Lewis, who dedicated Babbitt to Wharton. She was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to receive an honorary doctorate of letters from Yale University. Wharton died of a stroke in her home in France, having lived as an expatriate for much of her life.

Book Club Discusison Questions

  1. Why does Archer neglect to tell Countess Olenska of his engagement to May Welland, despite the fact that May has instructed him to do so?
     
  2. Why does Archer suddenly realize that marriage is 'not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas'? 
     
  3. Why does Archer feel 'oppressed' when contemplating the 'factitious purity' of his betrothed? 
     
  4. Why is Countess Olenska a threat to the social order that claims Archer as one of its kind?
     
  5. Why is the neighborhood where Countess Olenska resides a 'queer quarter for such a beauty to settle in'?
     
  6. To what is Archer referring when he thinks about his peers that 'over many of them the green mould of the perfunctory was already perceptibly spreading'?
  7. What does Archer mean when he thinks that 'it was wonderful that...such depths of feeling could coexist with such absence of imagination'? 
     
  8. How does Archer feel about May's talent with her bow and arrow? Why does he so often feel 'cheated...into momentary well-being'? 
  9. When Archer, at the request of Mrs. Mingott, follows the path to the shore to fetch Countess Olenska, why does he say to himself, 'If she doesn't turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I'll go back'?
     
  10. What kind of 'code' exists between Archer and May? How does it work? What is its origin?

Also by Edith Wharton

{View all}
Book Cover:  Ethan Frome: Penguin English Library
One of American fiction's finest and most intense narratives, Ethan Frome tells a story of ill-starred lovers and their tragic destinies.
One of American fiction's finest and most intense narratives, Ethan Frome tells a story of ill-starred lovers and their tragic destinies.
Published: 21/11/2012
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780141389400
RRP: $9.95
Book Cover: The House of Mirth: Penguin English Library

A searing, shocking tale of women as consumer items in a man's world, The House of Mirth sees Lily Bart, beautiful and charming, living among the wealthy families of New York but reluctant to finally commit herself to a husband. In her search for freedom and the happiness she feels she deserves, Lily is ultimately ruined by scandal.

Edith Wharton's shattering novel created controversy on its publication...

A searing, shocking tale of women as consumer items in a man's world, The House of Mirth sees Lily Bart, beautiful and charming, living among the wealthy families of New York but reluctant to finally commit...

Published: 04/05/2012
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780141199023
RRP: $9.95
Book Cover:  Three Novels of New York:The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

For the 150th anniversary year of Edith Wharton's birth: her three greatest novels in a couture-inspired deluxe edition featuring a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen.

Born into a distinguished New York family, Edith Wharton chronicled the lives of the wealthy, the well born, and the nouveau riches in fiction that often hinges on the collision of personal passion and social convention. This volume...

For the 150th anniversary year of Edith Wharton's birth: her three greatest novels in a couture-inspired deluxe edition featuring a new introduction by Jonathan Franzen.

Born into a distinguished New York...

Published: 01/05/2012
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780143106555
RRP: $29.95
Book Cover:  Ethan Frome

A marked departure from Edith Wharton's usual ironic contemplation of fashionable New York society to which she belonged, Ethan Frome is sharply etched portrait of the simple inhabitants of a nineteenth-century New England village.  The protagonist, Ethan Frome, is a man tormented by a passionate love for his ailing wife's young cousin.  Trapped by the bonds of marriage and the fear of public...

A marked departure from Edith Wharton's usual ironic contemplation of fashionable New York society to which she belonged, Ethan Frome is sharply etched portrait of the simple inhabitants of a nineteenth-century...

Published: 07/12/2011
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780451531315
RRP: $7.95
Book Cover: The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton's novels of manners seem to grow in stature as time passes. Here she draws a beautiful social climber, Undine Sprague, who is a monster of selfishness and honestly doesn't know it. Although the worlds she wants to conquer have vanished, Undine herself is amazingly recognizable. She marries well above herself twice and both times fails to recognize her husbands' strengths of character...
Edith Wharton's novels of manners seem to grow in stature as time passes. Here she draws a beautiful social climber, Undine Sprague, who is a monster of selfishness and honestly doesn't know it. Although...
Published: 01/03/2007
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780143039709
RRP: $9.95
Book Cover:  House of Mirth

The beautiful Lily Bart lives among the nouveaux riches of New York City - people whose millions were made in railroads, shipping, land speculation, and banking. In this morally and aesthetically bankrupt world, Lily, age twenty-nine, seeks a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of wealth. Her quest comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being...

The beautiful Lily Bart lives among the nouveaux riches of New York City - people whose millions were made in railroads, shipping, land speculation, and banking. In this morally and aesthetically bankrupt...

Published: 05/10/1993
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780140187298
RRP: $9.95
Book Cover:  Ethan Frome

A tale of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents in the New England countryside

Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeenie. But when Zeenie's vivacious cousin enters their household as a 'hired girl,' Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness...

A tale of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents in the New England countryside

Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult...

Published: 01/11/2005
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780142437803
RRP: $9.95
Book Cover:  Ethan Frome (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

These novels played a unique and lasting role in the development of American literature, and each one remains a beloved and widely read work of fiction. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -arguably the great American novel. Ethan Frome -an enduring rural tragedy. And Moby-Dick or, The Whale -a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. Now, Penguin Classics is proud to present...

These novels played a unique and lasting role in the development of American literature, and each one remains a beloved and widely read work of fiction. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -arguably the...

Published: 13/01/2010
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780143105930
RRP: $19.95
Published:17/09/1996
Format:Paperback, 368 pages
RRP:$9.95
price:AUD $9.95
ISBN-13:9780140189704
ISBN-10:014018970X

News

{ view all }
15 Apr 2014
Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards Results 2013
Congratulations to both Malcolm Knox and Iain McCalman recently commended in the FAW Excellence in Non-Fiction Awards. Established in 1978, this is an award for a non-fiction book of sustained quality and distinction with an Australian theme, first published in Australia.Highly Commended
Boom: The underground history of Australia from gold rush to GFC by Malcolm Knox

Social Feed

{ }

Penguin TV

{ }

Pictures

{ }