The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781421896373
Publisher: 1st World Library
Publication date: 12/01/2007
Pages: 388
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was an American author best known for the novel The Age of Innocence, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, making her the first female winner of the award.

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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 splendor 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 coupe.' To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honorable 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 wantto 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 bookcases 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 he was 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 realization. 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'ma!' 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 molded: 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 disheveled 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 stage-lovers. 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 penwipers 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 center 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 honeymoon 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 recognized 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 analyzing 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 in 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 anyone 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 anyone 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 bumps 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 head-dress, 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 center 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 smoldered 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 honor 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 scrutinized 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"

What People are Saying About This

E. M. Forster

Will writers ever recover that peculiar blend of security and alertness which characterizes Mrs. Wharton and her tradition?

Katherine Mansfield

Is it - in this world - vulgar to ask for more? To entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?

Gore Vidal

There is no woman in American literature as fascinating as the doomed Madame Olenska... Traditionally, Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.

Reading Group Guide


The Age of Innocence is a title both ironic and poignant: ironic because the "age" or period of the novel, 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' " (p. 12). 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" (p. 101). 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" (p. 243). 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" (p. 4) 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" (p. 34). 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" (p. 238). 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" (p. 293). 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.


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.

  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"? (p. 35)
  3. Why does Archer feel "oppressed" when contemplating the "factitious purity" of his betrothed? (p. 37)
  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"? (p. 99)
  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"? (p. 103)
  7. What does Archer mean when he thinks that "it was wonderful that...such depths of feeling could coexist with such absence of imagination"? (p. 154)
  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"? (p. 173)
  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"? (p. 177)
  10. What kind of "code" exists between Archer and May? How does it work? What is its origin? (p. 219)
  11. Why does May decide to host the farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska? Why does Archer think of the dinner guests as "a band of dumb conspirators"? (p. 276)
  12. Why does Archer walk away from a potential reunion with Countess Olenska?
For Further Reflection
  • Must social and emotional security be purchased with the sacrifice of another individual or group?
  • Is it moral and honorable to protect others at the expense of one's happiness? Is duty to one's community more important than duty to oneself?

  • Related Titles

    Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856)
    Emma Bovary, longing to escape her husband and the conformity of bourgeois life, courts financial ruin and social ostracism.

    E. M. Forster, A Room with a View

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    Age of Innocence 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    All Time great read
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Hard read. I didn't like the style of writing. Didn't like the ending.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago