The Age of Innocence – Review

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Age: Teen and up
Genre: Fiction
Location: New York

Set in the early 1900′s in New York, The Age of Innocence is a story about love, betrayal, etiquette and social norms. Newland Archer is the typical upperclass New Yorker, set to wed May Wellend. When May’s cousin Madame Ellen Olenska comes to the New York seeking refuge from her husband in France, Newland’s views of his ideal world begin to tear as he discovers a new way of living and thinking through Ellen.

Edith Wharton’s classic is much like Pride and Prejudice; filled with social commentary and distaste for elitist norms and customs. It did, however, lack the wit and humor that made Pride and Prejudice a fun read. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Age of Innocence, particularly towards the end. The first half was very dry and very, very little happened. Most of the first half was laying the foundation for the future relationship between Newland and Ellen. I did enjoy Wharton’s descriptions of New York during that era, and the personalities she crafted that embodied certain archetypes of the time.

May Wellend represents naive innocence (not seeing any reason or cause to change), Newland represents trapped innocence (wanting to change, but unable to), Ellen lacks all innoncence as she represents change.

The book is also ripe with Wharton’s frustrations with American customs in regards to traditions, appearance and social class. Although Wharton herself comes from upper class of New York, I think this gives her an insider’s perspective of the lifestyle that she mocks in this story.

The girls in my bookclub were very unsatisfied with the final ending between Newland and Ellen Olenska, but I liked it. I have a bias towards the not-so-happy endings. They seem more realistic to me. I did think that the ending was incredibly rushed through, when compared to the rest of the book. So much happened in the last 20 pages, and it took the first 140 to lay all the groundwork.

I do want to read more of Wharton, I love learning about the elite New York aristrocrasies that reigned over classic New York. I think this book would be a logical step up from fans of Anna Godberson’s The Luxe series, although Age of Innocence lacks the intense drama and raw passion that carries The Luxe series. Age of Innocence is a more quiet, subtle and accurate portrayal of this era.

This book was read for the OATES Challenge as well as the Read, Remember, Recommend Challenge.

The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
The Modern Library Classics, 1920
ISBN 0375753206
270 pages

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Find this book at your local library

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2 responses to “The Age of Innocence – Review

  1. This one is one of my all-time favorites. I can’t imagine another author that could describe the food and setting of a dinner and keep me interested. Plus I felt so much a part of the time and place and had such a great understanding of the characters.

  2. Warning: Major spoilers and minor rant. I tend to get very passionate when discussing good literature, and my comment is not meant to offend anyone. :)

    Like you, I very much enjoyed the Age of Innocence. However, I must protest to several points made in this review, particularly your assessment that “very, very little happened” in the first section. I, for one, found all hell breaking loose every few chapters. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, very little happens, but then, we also must consider, as Ellen points out, “Does anything happen in Heaven?” This 1870s society was so shallow, artificial, and hypocritical that any minute change, like declining an invitation to dinner, was considered a huge scandal. Wharton fully knew that nothing of real substance happens, and points this out via satire and an almost anthropological objectivity.

    I also disagree that the last chapter was too rushed. I believe it was just meant to illustrate the huge amounts of change that had occurred in that time period, and Wharton’s acknowledgement of change, and that activities that were considered ritual and sacred at one point in time might easily be antique and pointless with the passing of time. It is also used to demonstrate the extreme irony present at every point in the novel (I mean, come on, it doesn’t get much better than Fanny Beaufort marrying Dallas Archer when compared to the comment made by Lefferts just pages earlier!)

    I am also not sure I agree with your assessments of the main characters. Yes, May represents how that artificial innocence can become so ingrained and instinctive in society, but we also see a strong sense of clarity and manipulativeness when it comes to her own sense of self-preservation, like when she announces her pregnancy to Ellen two weeks before she knew in order to drive Ellen away. And I’m not entirely sure Archer wants to change. Yes, he would like to think himself a superior revolutionary, but he’s really to cowardly and indecisive to do anything. And I find Ellen to be one of the most sadly innocent and naive characters in the novel. WHile she has lived a more independent life, and acknowledges her scandals more than New York does with theirs, her desperate hope for a moral life and independence and her lack of knowledge about New York soceity illustrates how naive she is compared to even May.

    I am content with the ending, but not for the reasons you are. I believe Wharton wanted us to feel frustrated and incomplete, to further drive home Archer’s inability to act and actively search for his own happiness. That feeling of frustration, and the complexities and ironies that possess this novel, make me feel that it seethes of “intense drama and raw passion”

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