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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence (original 1920; edition 1992)

by Edith Wharton

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8,900200338 (4.03)5 / 881
Title:The Age of Innocence
Authors:Edith Wharton
Info:Scribner (1992), Paperback, 383 pages
Collections:Your library, Read

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

  1. 40
    The American by Henry James (2below)
    2below: Similar plot and themes--both deal with the issue of being an outsider. I find James' prose a bit more vigorous than Wharton's.
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    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (readerbabe1984)
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    The Bostonians by Henry James (jbvm)
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    Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (readerbabe1984)
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    Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (roby72)
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    The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (TineOliver)
    TineOliver: Both look at love and marriage in the upper classes of New York society (however, at different time periods)
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    My Antonia by Willa Cather (sturlington)
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    The Europeans by Henry James (thatguyzero)
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    Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (readerbabe1984)
1920s (14)

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Unexpectedly modern in style and content with its critique of the artifice of 19th century upper class New York mores - which may as well have been of any high society - and its feminist over- and under-tones, the novel was satisfyingly resigned with its non-eventuality compounding how inescapable this pressure to conform is. It is refreshing here to be introduced to 19th century New York - as opposed to the typical England -, so steeped in and restricted by high society rules that it is almost unrecognisable from the one so pervasive in pop culture nowadays for the cultural powerhouse it has become. As Olenska expresses better in chapter 24, this "blind conformity to tradition -- somebody else's tradition... It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country."

The characters with their machinations and ambitions are undoubtedly the highlights. We see Newland struggle between maintaining his privileged, facade-of-lies lifestyle restricted as convention decrees or exposing the ridicules of such affectations and living by his ideals of equality, personified, of course, by two women. Since the novel was through Newland's lens, it was particularly fun when he finally figures out that everybody, except himself maybe, was aware of his infatuation with Olenska, tying in so perfectly with the outward appearance versus inner scheming of this duplicitous crowd. It was a shame how quickly Newland devolved into a possessive-man character pushing blame on his situation on others.

Olenska is clearly great for the modern audience because she sees through such societal masquerades and lives mostly as she wishes, with the minor quibble that she is still an upper class woman who is being supported by "old" money. Yet, May is much more remarkable to me for she is someone who fits perfectly into this sham, capable of conforming to the era's ideals about women while secretly possessing Machiavellian wit - which bursts through in flashes before she has the clever sense to hide it again -, for her underhanded manipulations.

Despite its specific era, the novel conjures up this oppressive institution with painstaking details, with its timeless character studies and themes on self-/deception. A highly recommended classic, especially if you are unfamiliar with the setting

- the novel felt so familiar throughout and only up to page 177 where Newland is willing Olenska to turn around from looking out at the sea did it suddenly strike me that this is The French Lietenant's Woman set in New York without the postmodernism. The main characters even match up pretty perfectly.
- I watched season 1 of Mad Men in between reading the book and it made for an interesting look through the ages and on New York, with the social strata faded away but still present and with some business sway. ( )
  kitzyl | Nov 12, 2015 |
The Age of Innocence seems an appropriate title to begin my first fine press review by a women writer in almost two years. Since I reviewed Rachel Carson’s Undersea published by the Nawakum Press, I’ve reviewed fifteen other books by male writers. Until I researched and wrote my last post about women writers in fine press, I didn’t even think about my innocent neglect because I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I had very few options in my library to review here. So much for my age of innocence.

Be that as it may, Edith Wharton has been treated better than almost any other woman besides Jane Austen by the fine presses over the years. In addition to the 2004 Arion Press edition of The Age of Innocence I am reviewing here, this work by Wharton was published by the Limited Editions Club thirty years earlier. That the LEC published this most popular book of Wharton’s is not surprising. I mention it here mainly because this particular Arion Press edition reminds me of many of the LEC books with their classic, simple, and clean designs.

The design starts with a simple and elegant full cloth binding whose color is reminiscent of the brownstone houses lived in by many of the characters that inhabit the novel. The spine label is superb with gold stamped lettering and a small photograph of an urn. The spine is classically rounded with the textblock of all cotton mouldmade Velata paper from Italy’s Magnani mill mimicking the rounded spine on the fore-edge. The paper smells marvelous every time the book is opened. The Potlatch Vintage paper was chosen to highlight Stephen Shore’s photographs while matching the tone of the Velata. Another nice touch.

While photographs are not usually my favorite medium for book illustration, in this case I feel that Stephen Shore has captured the feel of Wharton’s New York quite remarkably. And I really like the striking photograph of central park that wraps around the slipcase for the book. I’m a big fan of slipcases for functional reasons and it is nice when some design thought is also put into the slipcase, making it an integral part of the overall presentation. I did find it amusing, however, that one of Shore’s photographs contains windows with a couple of air-conditioning units. I’m not sure that the pediment in the picture was beautiful enough to justify a picture that ruins the period feel of the photograph.

The page design and type choices add to the elegance of the book. The Typo Script on the title page is a nice touch along with the DeVinne Outline for the initial letters of each chapter. But for me, it is the Ronaldson used for the text that adds that extra touch. I’m not sure I’ve seen that type before but it works exquisitely here.

Edith Wharton was a remarkable woman in many ways. Although she came from the New York society so vividly portrayed in The Age of Innocence and other books like The House of Mirth, she was very independent. She Age of Innocence 4believed women should be educated and elevated herself above the standards of education typically applied to women of her time and societal standing. She was obviously very autodidactic in that way, as she had to find a way around the barriers put up around the classic female education. She was a gifted interior and garden designer, and traveled extensively. World War I broke out while she was in France and she became very involved in supporting the war effort and helping refugees. Despite being a foreigner, she managed to get close enough to the front to write several articles for Scribner’s Magazine that were later published in a popular book entitled Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. I inherited this book years ago from one of my grandmothers and didn’t realize it was written by “the” Edith Wharton. I’ve moved it up in the “to be read” queue as a result. The Age of Innocence won the Age of Innocence 12Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, albeit at the expense of Wharton’s friend Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street was the first choice of all the fiction judges. The judges were overruled by the conservative board for the prize. Nevertheless, she was the first woman to win the prestigious prize. It makes me wonder if her novel was really read by the those who had the final say. I would be interested to see who would win if the Daphne Award was done for 1921.

All of this is to say that Wharton is much closer to Countess Oleska than May Welland, the two main female characters in the book. May Welland can be summed up by a couple of passages where her fiancé and the book’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is contemplating women in general and her in particular:

"That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas."

And, in another passage,

"And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow."

Archer is also a product of his social system, trapped as well, but with much more room to push against the boundaries than women. Early in the book, he is contemplating the Countess after seeing her at the opera:

"The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up old settled convictions and set them drifting dangerously through his mind. His own exclamation: “Women should be free–as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore–in the heat of argument–the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern."

Another passage that gets to the heart of the dichotomy between men and women occurs later in the book as he muses about an affair of his younger days before becoming affianced to May:

"The affair, in short, had been of the kind that most of the young men of his age had been through, and emerged from with calm consciences and an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed–and pitied. In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts, and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer’s belief that when “such things happened” it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman."

The Age of Innocence treats a mostly vanished time and the city of New York in much the same way that James Joyce treated Dublin. Immortalizing the city of her time and making it as much a character in the book as the people. That’s one reason that Shore’s photography of those places works so well for this particular book. In her insightful introduction, Diane Johnson, writes of the book that “The Age of Innocence, loving in its depiction of New York as a physical entity…is severe on the mores of New York society.” Johnson continues to develop the ties Wharton uses between places and those mores, stating that

"Throughout the novel, her observations of building and decorations as the emblems of the spiritual and intellectual condition of the characters or the community form an essential part of the narrative."


"Along with the contrasts between innocence and experience, and between conventionality and originality, the underlying and central opposition of the novel is that of Europe and America, in the minds of Wharton’s New Yorkers, “the Siren Isle” compared to “the haven of blameless domesticity”. It is a subject sill timely and perplexing today. The attitudes Wharton portrayed as unattractive in her countrymen she might still find to deplore–preoccupation with money, indifference or even hostility to culture, puritanism. Wharton, writing The Age of Innocence in 1920 from her vantage point as a permanent resident of Europe, prefers the Siren Isle, the realm of art and love."

Indeed. I also prefer the realm of art and love even as I remain a rebellious resident of this “haven of blameless domesticity.” And I prefer the brave Countess Oleska to the other characters in the book, having closed it after reading the last lines with a severe distaste for Newland Archer. Her confession in one of the penultimate scenes between Archer and her showed her strength as well as displaying Wharton’s prose at the height of her powers:

"It was impossible to make the confession more dispassionately, or in a tone less encouraging to the vanity of the person addressed. Archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed."

Edith Wharton well deserves of her accolades as a writer and definitely deserving of her inclusion into the “club” of fine press editions. Arion Press has definitely done her justice here and I hope to someday see how the Limited Editions Club treated her.

AVAILABILITY: I believe the Arion Press edition sold out in 2012. (My book is Copy 300 of 300, and was purchased in December that year). Information is still available on the Arion Press website here and occasionally a copy will become available there. It is also occasionally available on the rare books market.
  jveezer | Oct 27, 2015 |
This amazing novel makes me want to read more of the Pulitzer fiction winners. At the beginning, I actually thought about dumping it, but quickly caught on after I read the character description and synopsis by Cliff's Notes. ( )
1 vote bsiemens | Sep 30, 2015 |
I loved every detail of the life of ""Society"" - I just lamented the ending! ( )
  JessLJones | Sep 10, 2015 |
Another book which I saw the movie years ago. Being close to 20 years, it was easier for me to replace the actors with characters of my imagination.

A very well written book. Wharton tells a story of New York society of the 1870s that is foreign to our 21st century ideas. While I am impressed with her use of language, the difference in customs was too difficult for me to hurdle. I just don't have the sympathy for Newland Archer that I should. Maybe that is the point that Ms. Wharton wanted to express. The oppression of the social norms was so hard, that Newland is unable to step forward and take control of his life. He is an old fashioned man that society created and passed by. Tragic. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Sep 6, 2015 |
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So how can Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence possibly be the greatest New York novel of all time? Well, it is. It builds itself, obsessively, out of all the essential New York themes.
The appearance of such a book as "The Age of Innocence" by an American is a matter for public rejoicing. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century and looks like a permanent addition to literature.

» Add other authors (141 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edith Whartonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Auchincloss, LouisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dayne, BrendaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Howard, MaureenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, DianeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lewis, R.W.B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lively, PenelopeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orgel, StephenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raver, LornaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shore, StephenPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, Lawrence BeallIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.
It was the old New York way of taking life" without effusion of blood": the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than "scenes", except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.
When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed.
"That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas."
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Book description
In the conformist, closed world of upper-class New York, Newland Archer anticipates his marriage to May Welland, a young girl "who knew nothing and expected everything". Into this ordered arrangement bursts May's cousin, Ellen, the mysterious and exotic Countess Olenska, on the run from an appallingly unhappy marriage. She alternately captivates and outrages the New York milieu and, as Newland's sympathy for her deepens into love, he not only gains insight into the brutality of society's treatment of women, but discovers the real anguish of loving outside its rules. Critical, compassionate, and acutely perceptive about both the individual and the defensiveness of society, The Age of Innocence is perhaps Edith Wharton's finest work.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 159308143X, Paperback)

Somewhere in this book, Wharton observes that clever liars always come up with good stories to back up their fabrications, but that really clever liars don't bother to explain anything at all. This is the kind of insight that makes The Age of Innocence so indispensable. Wharton's story of the upper classes of Old New York, and Newland Archer's impossible love for the disgraced Countess Olenska, is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in this country was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when "society" had rules as rigid as any in history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:34 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Newland Archer begins to question the values of high society in Victorian New York when he finds himself torn between two very different women--his proper young fiancee and her exotic cousin.

(summary from another edition)

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