The Age of Innocence: Book One

The Age of Innocence Read-along is hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm. Today we are posting our thoughts on Book One.

The Age of Innocence earned Edith Wharton the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Set in "Old New York," we meet Newland Archer, who represents the ultimate figure in New York society. He is recently engaged to May Welland, a marriage that will unite two of New York's oldest families. Enter Countess Ellen Olenska, May's unconventional cousin who has just returned from Europe after a failed marriage.

From the beginning of the novel Wharton evokes the feeling of high-society New York through imagery and language. The opening scene takes us to an opera, an event attended by good society; a place where one can be seen in high fashion, displaying astute manners - while also keeping a close eye on their company, keeping up with the latest social news and gossiping about others when prompted. The opera has the benefit of being "small and inconvenient," thus keeping out the "new people whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to".

Countess Olenska is one of these characters who is dreaded. She and her cousin May could not be more different. While May is eager to please with her understanding of New York society and it's social expectations, Countess Olenska is more vivacious, understanding New York to be a place where one is taken on vacation "when one has been a good little girl and done all one's lessons". Of course the passionate and unusual (if not sometimes offensive) qualities of Olenska begin to enamor Archer, intriguing him more so than his traditional and meek fiance. Soon he beings to question his engagement.
He saw his marriage becoming what most other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
The idea of freedom from society is a prevalent theme in book one. Early on, when defending the Countess, Archer states, "Woman ought to be free - as free as [men] are". He then goes on to feel increasingly oppressed - oppressed by societal expectations and its ridged, unimaginative mores.
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 isn't until Archer is able to free himself from the city and it's social constrains that he allows himself to fully admit his feeling toward Olenska. It's not suprising that Olenska mimics these this feeling of constraint and yearning toward freedom. After returning to New York her Grandmother wanted Olenska to live with her, to which Olenska explains she had to live on her own - she "had to be free".


So far I am really enjoying this novel - more so than I thought I would. It's almost a work of observational anthropology, critiquing our inherent societal values and rejection of the unusual. It's like society itself is a main character, because it's that prevalent throughout book one. It has a constant weight and pull on each character and their actions.

Of course I am hoping Archer ends of up the Countess in the end, but he's dug himself into somewhat of a hole. After he convinces the Countess not to divorce and sue her husband (a case in which he would have headed), he realizes he is in love with her, but isn't able to marry her as long as she listens to his advice and doesn't divorce.

Also, I like the bits that describe Archer as an avid reader - getting excited about a new box of books and preferring the "prospect of a quite Sunday at home with his spoils". Later, when he can't get his mind of the Countess after his return from Highbank, he tries to read and while he "turned the pages with the sensuous joy of a book-lover, he did not know what he was reading". I think this is a feeling that all readers can relate, and I enjoy these "bookish" descriptions Wharton includes.

I've also got to say that of May and the Countess - I really relate to the Countess. I'm quite outgoing - sometimes, but rarely, to the point of obnoxious - but have never regretted this quality of mine. I think it's better to be oneself than try to squeeze into a mold that doesn't quite fit. Some of my all-time favorite literary characters have been carefree women who forge their own path regardless of what people think and Countess Olenska is certainly one of these characters. I don't think that she doesn't recognize her "misbehavior" in the sense that it goes against scoietal norms - I think it's that she doesn't care. She would rather stay true to herself and seek freedom from these constrains.

I'm really looking forward to book two. I'm hoping Archer can man-up!


  1. This is an excellent discussion of the work. All of the quotations you included above were in my list of the most important statements of the book thus far. I had a hard time really working out the family trees because there were so many names I felt it muddled in points. The statement you made about the city actually being a character itself is something I didn't even consider, and it's very true. I am especially enamored by your reference to this work being a bit of anthropological observation, as I'm realizing the many facets of society in the United States that I was completely unaware of. I feel through Classic literature, I'm much more aware of how circles moved in other parts of the world. Overall, I'm really happy to be hosting the read-along. Wharton's work is really amazing.

  2. Beth, I also had a difficult time with the amount of characters introduced. Then I got to thinking maybe this is on of Wharton's devices - a way to communicate to the reader just how difficult it is to keep up with Old New York society. Especially in the beginning it seems she introduces characters that have yet to make a reappearance.

  3. The many characters introduced in the beginning - and some going by more than one name - really threw me off. As I'm sure it would someone new to New York Society (like Ellen - She's not exactly new, but she had been away for a while). It's like being dragged to a party where you only know the person you showed up with. They have their quirks and inside jokes, they have crazy nicknames for each other and you just try to keep up. Archer's world does seem like one big NYC party, except this time I could cheat by going to Wikipedia and SparkNotes instead of standing around awkwardly after calling Victoria by her nickname that only one person calls her.


  4. Your comment about society being a main character in the novel is spot on. It's the one character that everyone knows is there, but doesn't want to acknowledge.

  5. I agree that Olenska DOES know that she's going against society and doesn't care. But she's hiding behind the assumption that she's clueless, and that allows her to get away with behaviors that other people (May for instance) never could.