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Cengage Learning
The Age of Innocence / Edition 1

The Age of Innocence / Edition 1

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Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is an elegant, masterful portrait of desire and betrayal in old New Yorknow with a new introduction from acclaimed author Colm Tóibín for the novel’s centennial.

With vivid power, Wharton evokes a time of gaslit streets, formal dances held in the ballrooms of stately brownstones, and society people "who dreaded scandal more than disease." This is Newland Archer's world as he prepares to many the docile May Welland. Then, suddenly, the mysterious, intensely nonconformist Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a long absence, turning Archer's world upside down.

This classic Wharton tale of thwarted love is an exuberantly comic and profoundly moving look at the passions of the human heart, as well as a literary achievement of the highest order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395980798
Publisher: Cengage Learning
Publication date: 04/03/2000
Series: New Riverside Editions Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 462
Product dimensions: 5.46(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was an American novelist—the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence in 1921—as well as a short story writer, playwright, designer, reporter, and poet. Born into one of New York's elite families, she drew upon her knowledge of upper class aristocracy to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age.

Colm Tóibín is the author of nine novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections, and Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, a look at three nineteenth-century Irish authors. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Date of Birth:

January 24, 1862

Date of Death:

August 11, 1937

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France


Educated privately in New York and Europe

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

ON A JANUARY evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupé.” To come to the Opera in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one’s own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut book-cases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was “not the thing” to arrive early at the Opera; and what was or was not “the thing” played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in quality that—well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima donna’s stage-manager he could not have entered the Academy at a more significant moment than just as she was singing: “He loves me—he loves me not—he loves me!—” and sprinkling the falling daisy petals with notes as clear as dew.

She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

“M’ama ... non m’ama ...” the prima donna sang, and “M’ama!”, with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim.

Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the back of the club box, turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera, but who was always represented on fashionable nights by some of the younger members of the family. On this occasion, the front of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stagelovers. As Madame Nilsson’s “M’ama!” thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl’s cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to be very beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with the Opera houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights, was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger than the roses, and closely resembling the floral pen-wipers made by female parishioners for fashionable clergymen, sprang from the moss beneath the rose-trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-branch flowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr. Luther Burbank’s far-off prodigies.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul’s impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing.

“The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about.” And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. “We’ll read Faust together ... by the Italian lakes ...” he thought, somewhat hazily confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with the masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege to reveal to his bride. It was only that afternoon that May Welland had let him guess that she “cared” (New York’s consecrated phrase of maiden avowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead of the engagement ring, the betrothal kiss and the march from Lohengrin, pictured her at his side in some scene of old European witchery.

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

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; but he was content to hold his view without analysing it, since he knew it was that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, buttonhole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system. In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York,” and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it would be troublesome—and also rather bad form—to strike out for himself.

“Well—upon my soul!” exclaimed Lawrence Lefferts, turning his opera-glass abruptly away from the stage. Lawrence Lefferts was, on the whole, the foremost authority on “form” in New York. He had probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account for his complete and easy competence. One had only to look at him, from the slant of his bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fair moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his lean and elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of “form” must be congenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes so carelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace. As a young admirer had once said of him: “If anybody can tell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it’s Larry Lefferts.” And on the question of pumps versus patent-leather “Oxfords” his authority had never been disputed.

“My God!” he said; and silently handed his glass to old Sillerton Jackson.

Newland Archer, following Lefferts’s glance, saw with surprise that his exclamation had been occasioned by the entry of a new figure into old Mrs. Mingott’s box. It was that of a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds. The suggestion of this headdress, which gave her what was then called a “Josephine look,” was carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a large old-fashioned clasp. The wearer of this unusual dress, who seemed quite unconscious of the attention it was attracting, stood a moment in the centre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland the propriety of taking the latter’s place in the front right-hand corner; then she yielded with a slight smile, and seated herself in line with Mrs. Welland’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in the opposite corner.

Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass to Lawrence Lefferts. The whole of the club turned instinctively, waiting to hear what the old man had to say; for old Mr. Jackson was as great an authority on “family” as Lawrence Lefferts was on “form.” He knew all the ramifications of New York’s cousinships; and could not only elucidate such complicated questions as that of the connection between the Mingotts (through the Thorleys) with the Dallases of South Carolina, and that of the relationship of the elder branch of Philadelphia Thorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no account to be confused with the Manson Chiverses of University Place), but could also enumerate the leading characteristics of each family: as, for instance, the fabulous stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the Long Island ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths to make foolish matches; or the insanity recurring in every second generation of the Albany Chiverses, with whom their New York cousins had always refused to intermarry—with the disastrous exception of poor Medora Manson, who, as everybody knew ... but then her mother was a Rushworth.

In addition to this forest of family trees, Mr. Sillerton Jackson carried between his narrow hollow temples, and under his soft thatch of silver hair, a register of most of the scandals and mysteries that had smouldered under the unruffled surface of New York society within the last fifty years. So far indeed did his information extend, and so acutely retentive was his memory, that he was supposed to be the only man who could have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker, really was, and what had become of handsome Bob Spicer, old Mrs. Manson Mingott’s father, who had disappeared so mysteriously (with a large sum of trust money) less than a year after his marriage, on the very day that a beautiful Spanish dancer who had been delighting thronged audiences in the old Opera house on the Battery had taken ship for Cuba. But these mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr. Jackson’s breast; for not only did his keen sense of honour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted, but he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.

The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspense while Mr. Sillerton Jackson handed back Lawrence Lefferts’s opera-glass. For a moment he silently scrutinised the attentive group out of his filmy blue eyes overhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustache a thoughtful twist, and said simply: “I didn’t think the Mingotts would have tried it on.”

Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction by Carol J. Singley A Note on the Text I. The Age of Innocence II. Background Readings Questions of Culture Thomas Bender, from "The Metropolitan Gentry: Culture against Politics" George Sanyayana, from "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" Walt Whitman, from "Democratic Vistas" Calvin Tomkins, from "Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art" Ida Van Gastel, "The Location and Decoration of Houses in The Age of Innocence" Marriage and Divorce Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, from Domestic Revolutions J. Foote Bingham, from "For the Wedding Night" Travel and Sport Donald Ross and James J. Schramer, from the Introduction to American Travel Writers, 1850-1915 Henry James, from "Americans Abroad" Henry James, from "Newport" William J. Baker, from "The Lawn Set" III. Other Writings by Edith Wharton Writing The Age of Innocence The Ways of Old New York The Childishness of American Women "The Valley of Childish Things" Winning the Pulitizer Prize IV. Critical Readings Alan Price, from "The Composition of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence" Elizabeth Ammons, from "Cool Diana and the Blood-Red Muse: Edith Wharton on Innocence and Art" Judith P. Saunders, from "Becoming the Mask: Edith Wharton's Ingenues" Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, from "Angel of Devastation: Edith Wharton on the Arts of the Enslaved" Katherine Joslin, from "The Age of Innocence and the Bohemian Peril" James W. Tuttleton, from "Edith Wharton: The Archeological Motive" Nancy Bentley, from "'Hunting for the Real': Wharton and the Science of Manners" Linda W. Wagner, from "A Note on Wharton's Use of Faust" Gary H. Lindberg, from "The Mind in Chains: Public Plots and Personal Fables" Donald Pizer, from "American Naturalism in Its 'Perfected' State: The Age of Innocence and An American Tragedy Ian Christie, from "The Scorsese Interview: On Filming The Age of Innocence" Gore Vidal, "Of Writers and Class: In Praise of Edith Wharton"

Reading Group Guide


  • Wharton's title was an allusion to a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicting a five-year-old girl. What light does this cast on Wharton's view of the world she was chronicling? Do you think the title is ironic?
  • In the early outlines for this novel, Wharton played with the idea of having Newland break his engagement to May and marry Ellen; eventually the two separate and return to their own worlds. Why do you think Wharton, in the end, did not opt for this plot line? What, if she had, would have been different about the "message" of the book? What would you have ultimately thought of the characters?
  • What does Wharton reveal about Old New York and about Newland Archer through the characters of Cynthia Mingott, Ned Winsett, Julius Beaufort, Mr. Welland, and Janey?
  • Do you agree with Newland Archer that he missed "the flower of life"? What would this other life have been like, if he could have lived it without negative consequences to May or anyone else?
  • The Age of Innocence contains both satire and nostalgia for for early twentieth-century New York society. What does Wharton find repellent about old New York? What admirable? How is the relationship between Newland and his son Dallas emblematic of the evolution of Old New York?

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The Age of Innocence (Enriched Classics Series) 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 61 reviews.
stevetempo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found the Age of Innocence to be an incredibly beautiful book. It has been a long time since I've read anything so masterfully written. It is a book that resonated with me on many levels and won't be forgotten very easily. The characters are wonderfully portrayed. It is a story of a romance that struggles against the norms and unwritten rules of the upper-class of NYC in the 1870's. More fundamentally though the book is also about the constraining/bounded environments/communities/affiliations that we all operate within. How some of us strive to breakout or go against the grain of these realms and take the associated risks. It is a novel of breaking free and seeking something more meaningful and deeper. It has my highest recommendation!
dw0rd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Seeing this title as a Playaway audio book at my library finally convinced me to read(?) it. I also downloaded a print(?) version from for "backup." I knew I liked the story from seeing movie versions. I wanted to learn more about why, in the final scene, Newland doesn't go upstairs to see Ellen. It was a different era and society, for sure, but was he exacting some sort of revenge on Ellen? On himself? Just being a jerk? Being senile? Stupid? Honorable? To me, it's a fascinating situation. Don't we all anguish over going to class reunions? Don't we wonder about meeting an old lover? On purpose? By accident? Well, I've skipped the class reunions and I'd probably do a "Newland Archer" for the same reasons, namely, laziness, poor memory, and too much else to do. Angie: Ethan Fromme, Age of Innocence, and House of Mirth!
edecklund on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Seeing this title as a Playaway audio book at my library finally convinced me to read(?) it. I also downloaded a print(?) version from for "backup." I knew I liked the story from seeing movie versions. I wanted to learn more about why, in the final scene, Newland doesn't go upstairs to see Ellen. It was a different era and society, for sure, but was he exacting some sort of revenge on Ellen? On himself? Just being a jerk? Being senile? Stupid? Honorable? To me, it's a fascinating situation. Don't we all anguish over going to class reunions? Don't we wonder about meeting an old lover? On purpose? By accident? Well, I've skipped the class reunions and I'd probably do a "Newland Archer" for the same reasons, namely, laziness, poor memory, and too much else to do. Angie: Ethan Fromme, Age of Innocence, and House of Mirth!
dickcraig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Book Club selection. Great book and discussion. I had heard so much about this book and thought I might not like it, but it surprised me.
drmarymccormack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story!! So well written that you feel the character's pain and love. I love this book.
arelenriel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I first read this book in my Women's Literature class in college. I have loved it ever since. I like Wharton's social commentary on the upper class in the United States during the Gilded Age. She is also magnificent when it comes to describing the New York City of the 1890's
MoniqueReads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After reading The Age of Innocence I can understand why it is considered a classic. The writing is excellent. It is elegant. But since this book was written of 80 years ago, it makes it harder to read. In fact it was slow going. It wasn't that Wharton used words unfamiliar to me but the style made me slow down and absorb what was being written and going on.I am going to say that this is a character based novel. While not as in depth John Steinbeck's East of Eden, the characters (mainly Archer and Olenska) take center stage. I would love to say that I really felt in touch with the characters and that I loved them but I was rather indifferent to them. Maybe because this is a story about old New York society and it's inhabitants and I just couldn't wait. But Wharton does put a lot of emphasis of making sure the reader knows and understands the characters and there actions.The plot of the books was familiar but excellently done. Basically it is a story about "forbidden love" and the chooses people make in their lives and how those chooses affect them later. I am not going to give the story way but I did enjoy getting to take a glimpse into the varies rules of old New York and how they dictates ones actions and decisions.Pros: Writing, Characters, Plot, HistoryCons: Slow readOverall Recommendation:I want to give this novel a great write up but I don't know how to express who much I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed it more for the writing than anything else. For you want to read a well written story than this is it. But if you are looking for action or drama, than skip it.
klarusu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a masterful work by Wharton, set in the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s. It deals with the lives of Newland Archer, his young bride May and her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, against a backdrop of the shallow and exclusive high society that constrained them at the time, surrounded by a wealth of characters who define the world they live in.It is impossible to read this book with anything other than modern eyes. From a female perspective in the 21st century, Newland comes across throughout as weak and patronising with his desire to tenaciously cling to the ideal of a "woman's innoncence" and his position as the worldly man who can educate them. May, his young wife, appears both irritating and frustrating. She is manipulative via her innocent assumptions and unbending will on matters of social conformation. By rights, the reader's sympathy should lie with her, but instead one finds that it is Newland Archer for whom you are rooting, willing him to break free. To a modern reader, Countess Olenska is the character with whom sympathy lies. Her independent mind and spirit fights against constraint by the society that she has returned to as a refuge. It is not until Newland forces her to be aware of it, that she adapts her behaviour at all. Ironic that it should be the case when the rest of the story unfolds.I loved this book when I read it a decade ago and on this re-read I was waiting to understand why I had remembered it as such a classic. As I reached the final third, I realised that this is where it shines. The subtext behind the actions of Newland, May and Ellen and the words unspoken carry such weight that it is suffused with tension and sensuality. Throughout there is the idea that to this society, women were almost sacrificial in the face of scandal. The ultimate irony is that despite Newland's consideration of himself as worldly, his need to educate May, in fact he is as innocent as she in his desire to "get away" with Ellen "into a world where ..... categories do not exist". It is Ellen that is realistic. The idea that May had "spent her poetry and romance on their short courting" whilst Newland remains blameless in his eyes and cannot see that he is as responsible and changed as she. The culmination of the farewell meal for Ellen when Archer finally loses his innocence, his moment of realisation of what has been thought of him by society, what has been observed and supposed, is as painful a description of disillusionment as any I have read. Throughout this book there are moments when you dislike May intensely as she seems controlling and manipulative (irrationally, as she is the victim and has done nothing wrong). However, there are moments, such as after the leaving party for Ellen, when she deserves, and Wharton moves us to give her, sympathy.The book is finally resolved by a poignant and brilliant ending where Newland is shown for what he really is: a man as devoted to convention in his way as any other of his time, a man who cherishes his ideals more than the reality of life when it comes to the final reckoning.A brilliant and restrained book, a real classic!
jddunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this rather desultorily in high school, and didn't think much of it. I still didn't greatly enjoy the bulk of it... I'm just not generally very fond of period pieces about high-society interiors, unless they're of Russian provenance. What did get me this time around is the craft... just how tightly-written it is, and how well-rendered emotions and relationships and the small gestures which serve as their currency are. And the ending was right in a torturous sort of way... not what you're rooting for as the biased reader, but ultimately true to the story and the characters.
jkrejci on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic book, worthy of its status as a classic. Erudite without being arch, poignant without being mushy, Wharton is an enormously talented writer who combines a dry sense of humor with terrific psychological insight and social commentary.
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risuena More than 1 year ago
This was beautifully written, drew you into that time period, old New York, and made you feel the cultural and social pressures of that time. I love how this was seen through the guy's perspective, how Newland had to choose between what he wanted versus what was expected of him. The subtley of gestures and what was not said revealed more, expressed the underlying messages and meanings. The realism of these characters and their situation like May and Newland's conversation at the end, brilliantly represent an age in our history. For all these reasons, I think this book is wonderful. Pride and Prejudice does not compare, though probably more entertaining, but not as well written or multi-layered. This book takes the cake!
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Lisa Wolfe More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful story and a classic however this free copy was terrible many many words spelled incorrectly and symbols added inappropriately made for very difficult reading try to find another copy
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Amy Sanner More than 1 year ago
its rare to find a nook table of contents with links to each chapter. i likey