The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton
Published 1920

This book counts towards Back-to-the-Classics (Place) because I was born and raised in New York City, the setting of The Age of Innocence. 

When I first read The Age of Innocencein 2014, Wharton's writing style captured all of my focus. The language is still magnificent, but this time my reading experience was much deeper and broader. I truly am excited to review this book.


On the surface, the plot involves a simple love story triangle set in the Golden Age of Old New York. Newland Archer is torn between conventionally marrying his beautiful, traditional fiancée, May Welland, and pursuing an emotional relationship with May's enigmatic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who just arrived from Europe after fleeing her abusive husband. Inside the plot are the social taboos one must avoid, or face rejection by society.

Of the characters, Newland Archer is a popular young lawyer. He is well rounded in theater, art, literature, and politics and more so because he personally appreciates them rather than enduring them just for the sake of society. 

His fiancée, May, is not as knowledgeable of the arts and politics, but she is sweet and virtuous and safely follows traditions, for the good of society; however, she is also described as Diana-like, which will come in handy later in her marriage. 

Meanwhile, the elusive Countess Olenska is completely opposite May because she breaks with tradition and does not follow the rules of high society, at least in Old New York. This is very attractive to Newland and captures his attention.

via Amazon.com


The title has become a curiosity of mine because it is not very obvious to me what or who it refers, and I started to wonder. Innocence could represent many ideas: one may be guiltless, righteous, pure, or naive. In a way, each character demonstrated a form of innocence.

Countess Olenska was not innocent by Old New York's standards. She was confidently aware of her decisions and performed them deliberately. She was not ignorant. She even proved New York society to be recessive and outdated.  But other than desiring to divorce her unjust husband, she was definitely guiltless of any horrible wrongdoing.  

Upon my original reading, I believed that May was the symbol of innocence because of her pure and simple impression; but this time I am almost certain that May was not that innocent. I found her to be more cunning, clever, and quicker than Newland. Wharton built up the character of May, subtly and stealthily, often in the terms of Greek mythology.
If May had spoken out her grievances (he suspected her of many) he might have laughed them away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds under a Spartan smile.
Though she was not exactly blind and unaware, May was innocent because she represented purity and discretion.

Newland, being a romantic, was blinded by his emotions, causing him to follow his heart, which led him to think foolishly. At the start, he was wrapped up in the ways of society, following protocol religiously; that is, until Countess Olenska captured his attention. Then he became enlightened and lost all common sense. At one point, he contemplated telling his dear wife about his private adulterous desires, in hopes that she would let him go to pursue his own happiness. He became agitated when May paid attention to his business details and called him on it. He was also ignorant of the Countess and confidently predicted she would have to accept him if he followed her. Yes, Newland may have been innocent, in the sense that he was naive

Thankfully, Wharton described Newland as a dilettante, one who enjoys "thinking over pleasures" rather than actually making them happen. In part, this may have saved his marriage.  Newland was content to fantasize about what could be with the Countess; but he never jeopardized his marriage to that extent or caused shame to the family name or the Countess. 

Newland and May, film version, 1983

My favorite part is May: everything she did was subtle, as she played Newland's game and won the victory in the end. Everyone knew about Newland's desire to pursue the Countess, and he was perfectly oblivious of society's hand in causing the Countess to return to Europe, saving May's marriage. In addition, May was also instrumental is easing the Countess' decision to obey society's desire to quietly disappear when May predicted without much confidence (to the Countess) that Newland was going to be a father. When she became more certain, May had this exchange with her husband, and Wharton made clear who the naive one truly was:
[Newland] looked up at her with a sick stare, and she sank down, all dew and roses, and hid her face against his knee.
"Oh, my dear," he said, holding her to him while his cold hand stroked her hair.  
There was a long pause, which the inner devils filled with strident laughter; then May freed herself from his arms and stood up. 
"You didn't guess --?"
"Yes -- I; no. That is, of course I hoped --"
"Have you told anyone else?"
"Only Mamma and your mother. That is -- and Ellen."
"Ah --" said Archer, his heart stopping.
He felt that his wife was watching him intently. "Did you mind my telling her first, Newland?"
"Mind? Why should I?" He made a last effort to collect himself. "But that was a fortnight ago, wasn't it? I thought you said you weren't sure till today?"
Her color burned deeper, but she held his gaze. "No; I wasn't sure then -- but I told her I was. And you see I was right!" she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with VICTORY. 
That was my favorite because Newland was turning into a spoiled brat, demanding to have his selfish way. In the first reading, I was made to feel sorry for him because he and everyone were burdened by the restrictions set by society, feeding discontentedness. Even Newland had high esteem for marriage - that is until he desired something else; then suddenly marriage was subjective. He was ready to give up his marriage.  I did not like his attitude, and I am glad he was burned by May. Wharton prepares you ever so slowly for that final "victory." I just love it!

Edith Wharton, 1881


This is a slower-paced, theme-packed novel about society and the undue burdens man places on himself in order to belong and feel important. The love triangle is interesting and complex. The language is exquisite and full of clues about personalities and human nature. When you read this book, read it slowly, drink it in, every word. Then watch the 1983 film version, and be happy you don't live like these people.


  1. This is why I love reading books with others ...... because we often have different perspectives. Something I don't even think of, someone else does and the idea can enlighten me and help me to think of a certain situation or theme from a different point of view.

    So conversely, I took the word innocence and applied it to the era. To me, Wharton seemed to be examining the societal behaviour and then showed how certain ideas, views, behaviours, etc. were changing (or being eroded, depending on how you wanted to look at it) it into something different. That old age would be seen as more innocent in many ways and I think Wharton was very perceptive in seeing both the benefits and the detriments of it. Each of the characters had his or her role in mirroring that change ...... Newland was firmly entrenched in the old ways until he meets Ellen and then he reaches for something different and new. Ellen exemplifies new ideas and behaviour. And May is firmly entrenched in the old but to me, showed the benefit of it .... perhaps the innocence. And at the end of the book their children definitely were showing different ideas and behaviours. So to me, innocence wasn't a person, it was the era. But again, Wharton's writing is so multi-layered and multi-faceted, she perhaps wanted us to think of both.

    Thanks so much for reading with me, Ruth! It's reminded me of why I really love reading along with a buddy ..... or a large number of them .... :-)

    1. That's a perfect explanation, and I like it. It works perfectly. I figured the word referred to the Age but I couldn't define it; instead I tried to apply it to the characters. So if I ever read TAofI again some day, I'll remember your clarification.

      There are so many references to the old and new, now that I think of it; but I couldn't understand how the old society was good for anyone, given how restrictive and phony everyone behaved. But when you think of May, she was safe and protective in the "old" way, whereas Ellen was seen as "risky." As you said, Wharton's novel is so complex, one could dissect it numerous ways.

      Makes me want to read the House of Mirth again. But this year I'm going to try Ethan Frome

    2. I ADORE THE HOUSE OF MIRTH! I have A Custome of the COuntry on my TBR as well, because apparently the heroine of that one reminds some people of Scarlett.

    3. I do know what you mean about the restrictiveness of the old society but I start from the premise that nothing is perfect so we're always having to judge what's best. Did the people in the society seem happy? To me, they did. Were they in stable homes and relationships? To me, they seemed to be. I think both Newland's and Ellen's views and actions threatened that happiness and stability and it doesn't surprise me that the people/society were eager to protect it.

      Here's what I wrote while I was reading (probably some of this is in my review):

      "And what is Wharton trying to say about this Gilded Age of society? At first she seems to condemn it. It's rigid and uncompromising and at times unmerciful. It doesn't allow Newland what he wants (poor Newland). BUT ..... the way Wharton portrays Newland perhaps gives a hazy clue. Newland's character is highly flawed, his actions are not honourable, nor does the relationship he wants seem destined for success. So does that strict moral/societal code not only protect the society but the individual as well? The very title The Age of Innocence indicates positive feelings towards the society. The old society, in spite of its flaws, was actually more innocent than the new."

      So is risking happiness, stability, comfort, etc. worth it for passion, "love", a perceived enlightenment, an un-tested possible happiness, self-indulgence, etc.?????

      When change occurs there always seems to be a trade-off. We gain and we lose. People seemed focused on how much they have to gain, but are often blind as to what they will lose.

      I absolutely ADORE The House of Mirth too!!! Wharton's crafting of Lily Bart is extraordinary and almost beyond description! I have Custom of the Country on my TBR as well. Perhaps I could do a The House of Mirth read-along next year as I'm dying to read it again. Wharton's novels always produce excellent discussion! :-)

    4. Cleo, you could say that about all societies and cultures. There is the desire to protect and defend the old, as the new change seems a threat. Absolutely! You describe it very well, and the more we discuss it, the more I see how clever Wharton was when she visited her old New York society, shallow as they appeared. I wonder how much has really changed (especially in higher circles) -- such as how men and women are treated in relationships. But that's another topic for another day.

      I think it is true, when we look into our past, as Wharton did, we have fond memories of what was good and right, as well as what was deficient, and we long for some of those ideals. I believe Wharton did experience that, even though she was glad to escape it. Something happens as we grow older and wiser...we have new eyes to appreciate what we saw disappear.

      Well, if you do a House of Mirth read-along, I shall be interested in joining you.

    5. Jillian, I remember saying that the House of Mirth was even better than Age of Innocence, so we shall see when I finally reread. I've not heard of this other title, but I will definitely take a look. Thanks!

    6. * I absolutely ADORE The House of Mirth too!!! Wharton's crafting of Lily Bart is extraordinary and almost beyond description! I have Custom of the Country on my TBR as well. Perhaps I could do a The House of Mirth read-along next year as I'm dying to read it again. Wharton's novels always produce excellent discussion! :-) *

      Hi Cleo! :) I know! LILY BART. The "crafting." That's exactly it. I feel that Wharton's control in The House of Mirth is PERFECTION. She's so slow, meticulous, and purposeful as she unfolds Lily's story. I need a reread!!

    7. Cleo and Jillian, have either of you read that Age of Innocence is a response to House of Mirth? So that Newland is the male version of Lily? What do you think?

    8. "when we look into our past, as Wharton did, we have fond memories of what was good and right, as well as what was deficient, and we long for some of those ideals"

      Yes, I agree. And Wharton had the benefit of having enough distance from the past to allow her to view it objectively and with her usual penetrating astuteness. The characters in the book, because they are living in it, act almost on instinct. Distance allows one to see the bigger picture in context, to make more keen observations and draw more informative conclusions.

      As for Newland being the male version of Lily? Heavens, I can't see that at all! Lily was (warning: this might be a little bit of a spoiler for those who haven't read THoM) portrayed as almost saintly at the end of the book. Newland, however, while perhaps very human, is extremely flawed: he'd had "flings" before his marriage, he fell in "love" with another woman yet still decided to go through with his marriage, even though Wharton mentions a few times that he forgets what Ellen looks like when he hasn't seen her for awhile and that they don't know each other very well. He sat around pining for what he couldn't have and never lived the life that was given him, in fact, the life he chose. Honestly I didn't think much of him.

      What do you think about that claim?

    9. It was a discussion I listened to between these Penguin Books reviewers, and one of them commented toward the end of the talk that Wharton wrote the one as a rebuttal to the other. But I forget the details and I haven't gone back to search for the audio/video. It was on Youtube. Anyway, I thought it was interesting, and as it has been a looooong time since I read House of Mirth, I cannot tell. So...I forget Lily. I just remember her feeling very feeble to me. I could be wrong about that, too. So we'll see.

  2. I JUST picked this up at the thrift store cause I remembered you liked it... now after reading your and Cleo's new reviews, it's getting higher up the TBR list. :) Books with a bit of ambiguity are really appealing.

    1. Yay! And if you haven't read House of Mirth by Wharton, you may want to keep an eye out for that, too. : )

  3. This book has been on my TBR pile for quite a few years. I'm in the middle of going through all my post WWI fiction, so it will have to wait a little longer, but I appreciate your insight, especially about the young girl who marries the man. She seems innocent, but underneath it all, maybe she is manipulative. I need to bump the book up. I am going to make an effort to read it this year.

    P.S. I like the photos of Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis.

    1. Sharon, she comes across as totally innocent, but, yes, a little manipulative (for a good cause). If you read the book, you may like to see the film.

    2. It's interesting because the society itself is somewhat manipulative. But for a good cause. :-)

      However, I wonder if it is manipulation. The society's personal feelings and emotions were not often shown on the outside but they bubbled in the inside. Because they didn't display them or voice them, there had to be a quiet manoeuvring to get what they wanted. We would see it as manipulation, but I wonder if they would .....

  4. I've never read any Edith Wharton, because she has such a reputation for tragedy, but based on this review, The Age of Innocence sounds intriguing and not so bad. If I was to read Wharton, I'd probably start with this one. She sounds like an amazing author.

    1. Paula, I think you'll appreciate both this and House of Mirth, even though these two tend to be sad or disappointing endings.