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“The Age of Innocence”

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Pages
Jan 1st, 2022

by Edith Wharton


“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend.”

I somehow managed to make it through a graduate degree in English without ever having been assigned Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a fictional story of New York City’s elite class during the Gilded Age. I delayed too long, or just long enough, as a period piece feels most appropriate when the world gets heavy. Wharton’s whimsical portrayal of the efforts of those at the top of the social hierarchy to retain their status, along with the language of the time period, and the oddly formal nature of human interaction cement the novel as a literary relic of a much different America. 

Newland Archer’s engagement to the seemingly naive and adoringly beautiful May Welland is the backdrop for Wharton’s subtle critique of social standards in the 1870s. When May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska arrives in town under the veil of scandal, May’s family calls on Newland to secure her social and financial future in the wake of her soon-to-be-announced divorce, an unfathomable decision for a woman of her background and standing. Countess Olenska’s vivacious personality and daring refusal to conform to societal norms intrigues Newland who can’t help comparing the talk of the town to his future bride. As a product of the social class he now questions, Newland must decide if the predetermined future society demands is even worth it. 

Wharton explores themes of social class, wealth, and gender politics. Though told from Newland’s perspective, the dynamic female characters are the catalysts for Newland’s emotional evolution. May Welland’s strength is in her innocence, her willingness to play a role in society deemed most appropriate. Ellen Olenska’s strength is in her defiance of those social norms, her willingness to reject social conventions and expectations for personal freedom. Wharton highlights the far-too-often forced binary placed upon women of that era, while men were free to seek self-expression at any cost. The book is also about love, how life makes what should be simple more complicated. Newland once exclaims in exasperation, “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It’s beyond human endurance – that’s all.” 

Wharton’s use of language, character development, and an impending ending that keeps pages turning is a stunning achievement. No wonder people still read Wharton inside and outside of academic spaces. The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman in history to receive the honor. Director Martin Scorsese adapted the 1993 film production starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. 

“Do you know – I hardly remembered you. Each time you happen to me all over again.”