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The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton
1920


refered to by:
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen


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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. (from: www.penguinputnam.com)

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BOOKS BY EDITH WHARTON:

The House of Mirth
1905
Lily Bart moves in the new-moneyed class of New York society. As part of it she sees herself as a beautiful object to be admired and cherished by a husband. When she is accused of adultery, her world falls apart.
READ ON...

Middlemarch
George Eliot, 1871-1872

The Age of Innocence
1920

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