The Age of Innocence Book summary
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a compelling portrait of a young man’s experience of love as a part of the extremely rich social class of Old New York in the post-civil-war 19th century. Edith Wharton is said to have begun writing the novel immediately upon the end of WWI. She later admitted during the writing process she often thought of a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
“It was gay and terrible.”
Edith Wharton is considered to be a part of The Lost Generation, a literary movement that was about the disillusionment of the American youth with their values and culture after the disastrous WWI. She presented a more optimistic view of the American civilization than the other members of her literary ilk, for instance, Hemming Way. This tempered view has been denoted to her advanced age in comparison to her contemporaries. Edith Wharton had been deeply moved by the strength of French culture that had withstood the brunt of terrible aggression through their traditional civic values. This novel was her attempt of finding the strength of culture within the American context, which is precisely why it takes place in the post-civil War era. The core message of this novel can be said to be the realization that there must be a balance between individual liberty and societal responsibility.
The Age of Innocence is a novel of love and sacrifices as it follows the young and wealthy Newland Archer who falls in love with the divorced cousin of his fiancé. He decides to marry May Welland because he wants to settle down in life and follow the customs of the rich world of Old New York. Newland chooses to marry her because she is the absolute idol of all the qualities that make an ideal wife in his society. These same qualities begin to grate within him after he has the opportunity to interact with the frank and independent mind of her cousin, Countess Ellen Olsenka. Ellen’s parents left her orphaned at a young age, and her care was then entrusted to an eccentric aunt who traveled all over Europe with Ellen and had several husbands. She was then married to the Polish Count Olsenka, but his adultery caused Ellen to leave him behind. She returns to New York with the hope of finding comfort among relatives and friends, but she is quite nearly shunned due to New York’s conservative values.
Newland Archer steps in to protect Ellen, with the chief intention of aiding his soon-to-be in-laws, but he soon falls in love with her. Her frank and independent nature forces Archer to confront the ridiculousness of Old New York society and its outdated as well as misogynistic culture. Ellen has a deep admiration for Newland’s character and looks to him for guidance in navigating the shrouded social landscape of New York for a woman of her status. Ellen falls in love with Newland because he helps her understand that happiness that is purchased with the cost of disloyalty and cruelty never lasts. They confess their love for one another, but Ellen forces them to remain apart. She cannot bear being his mistress and does not believe that they could ever be happy if Newland were to break off his engagement with May and marry her instead.
Eventually, Ellen’s family begins to see her continued presence in New York as a mark of their honor and conspires to have her return to her wealthy but morally compromised husband. Newland goes through with her wedding while Ellen relocates to Washington, but they are brought together once again. Just as Newland and Ellen are about to consummate their love for one another, May expertly manipulates them with the news of her pregnancy. Newland comes to realize that May and probably the rest of New York Society had known of their love affair and conspired to keep them apart. Several years afterward, when Ellen has set up a respectable place for herself in Paris, and the widowed Newland has raised three children, they are allowed to meet once again. Newland is unable to bring himself to see Ellen again and prefers to keep the memories of her that he had retained.
Gilded Age, Old New York
D. Appleton and Company