The Age of Innocence: Book Two

The Age of Innocence read-along is hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm. Today we are posting our thoughts on Book Two and the entire novel overall. You can read my thoughts on Book One here.

Oh Edith Wharton - she is truly fantastic. Prior to The Age of Innocence, I had only read Ethan Frome, which I liked very much. Wharton has now established herself to be a master in relating a tortured love story. But it really is much more than that. I think one of the things that makes The Age of Innocence so powerful is Wharton's ability to impose the character's emotions onto the reader. Book One concluded with the announcement that Archer's wedding had been pushed forward. We still weren't sure what would happen with Ellen and I wondered whether or not Archer would go through with the wedding. Book Two opens on Archer's wedding day. Wharton throws her readers into the event - highlighting the haste and slight confusion Archer himself undergoes. Wharton also does this to the reader in the end when we jump forward many years to learn about May's death, the birth of Archer's children and his son's engagement to Fanny Beaufort. There is a disconnection between Archer's life as we left it and the one that we now learn about.
Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy - busy with reforms and "movements," with fads and fetishes and frivolities - to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody's past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?
In my post on Book One I mentioned that this book is almost a work of observational anthropology, critiquing our inherent societal values and rejection of the unusual. These ideas are true throughout Book Two as well. Wharton further examines Old New York society in Book two by considering its gender relations. In Book One we are lead to believe May falls short of average intelligence, but in Book Two we see her "blue eyes wet with victory" when Archer knows he must stay with her and let Ellen go. I think Wharton is highlighting the underrated astuteness of the girl who plays dumb, and the true potential they hold to get exactly what they want. Wharton also touches on the double standards of an affair and then examines them backward, insisting that a woman is prone to changing her mind and acting impetuously, and it's the man who should be at fault for adulterous actions. I found Wharton's examination of gender relations in Book Two both interesting and witty.

When reading books I am usually hesitant to believe two characters in a novel are truly in love. The author really has to show me this emotion and make it unique - in The Age of Innocence, I never doubted Archer's love for Ellen. Wharton really pulled at my heart strings when Archer picks up Ellen at the train station and states,
Do you know - I hardly remembered you?
Hardly remembered me?
I mean: how shall I explain? I - it's always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.
Now, a discussion of the ending (spoiler alert). I think Wharton really does this entire novel justice when Archer walks away from Ellen without even saying hello years later. I don't think this novel was ever just a love story, which is what it would have been had Archer and Ellen ended up together. I think this is a story about a life of regret. I think this is a novel that articulates the importance of timing in life and the mutability of of our everyday world. It's about doing what's best for those you care about and stifling selfish motivations. It highlights the repercussions of the choices we make and the inability to go back and do things differently. I think it's about understanding societal constraints and despite a yearning for something more, facing the inability to break free of those constraints. All in all, the ending as it was made me think about the book as a whole more than I would have had Ellen and Archer lived happily ever after. Well played, Edith Wharton. Well played.

The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Publisher: Macmillan, 1920


  1. I found parts of it quite boring (shoot me) but I really liked how May acted towards the end with her pregnancy. I mean I ddn't like May but her actions and how the whole family grouped together I thought was very clever. I did hate May for it but then I thought well what else could she do really?

  2. Jessica, There were definitely a fewslow moving scenes, I won't shoot you ;) I've got to agree with you on May, she really turned out to be a lot smarter than she acted, which I found very interesting. She sure did get what she wanted in the end.

  3. I'm with you, Wharton made the right choice in her ending... if Newland had even gone to speak to Ellen - even if it didn't develop into a romance - it would have changed so much of what was good about this book. It's kind of heartbreaking to see how lightly Newland & May's children are able to view his old affair with Ellen, which in their world isn't the world-ending sort of thing it would have been in Newland & Ellen & May's society. God, I only read this book about six months ago but your review makes me want to read it all over again... I'm on "House of Mirth" now, which is just as amazing as "Innocence."

    -- ellen

  4. I agree, after initial disappointment, that Archer's refusal was completely necessary. Like you, it wasn't some typical love story of a novel, it was so much deeper. Wharton, obviously being much more familiar with this lifestyle, brilliantly projects this very restrictive society that successfully negates any sort of free will from their members. The language creates an overwhelming, stifling atmosphere, created to force the reader to understand Archer's perspective truthfully. I felt the end signified Archer's defeat. He had sworn his duty to May by remaining with her, and even after death, maintained his role as a respectful gentleman. Oh, but I would have loved to see just a small reunion. No future, just a glance! What's slightly sickening is the way in which members of society (like May) knowingly remain in loveless relationships; although, Archer never expresses that he doesn't care for May at all. Her victory, her name and so forth are much more important. The novel for all of his intense detailed debate lacked emotion on the whole. Again, another clever aspect of Wharton's work. The atmosphere in which these characters reside leaves little room for any sort of feeling whatsoever. I'm glad we chose this novel, as well. I'm finding The House of Mirth supremely appealing right now! Thanks!

  5. Ellen, I'm glad you're with me! Not many people like the ending of this book, which I can understand as a lot is left "unfinished". But it is just so fitting. Good to hear The House of Mirth is just as great!

  6. Beth, Your comment is spot on. The think the end does signify Archer's defeat on many levels. And the dejected tone really does mirror the lack of emotion throughout "Old New York".

  7. Terrific review, Brenna. I completely agree that this story is so much more than a love story, but I don't think it's about doing what's best for those you care about and stifling selfish motives. May played the best hand. Newland was ready to walk out the door if it wasn't for the baby. He would have been thought a cad for leaving May, but to have left her while she was pregnant would have been unforgiveable during that time period in high society.
    I also loved the ending of the book. It made Newland seem stronger to me than I had felt previously.
    I can't wait to read The House of Mirth. WHen should we do that read-a-long? hehehe

  8. That line: so much better than "you had me at hello."

  9. Beachreader, I agree May played the best hand, but if the only reason Archer stayed with her was because of the baby, don't you agree that he did what's best for May and the baby? Stifling his selfish motives? Baby or not wouldn't it have been unforgivable for him to leave her for another woman? I'd like to know what you think... you may be onto something :) Also, we should put together a Hour of Mirth read-along! I'd be in for sure!

    Sara, I KNOW!

  10. Hi,

    I found your blog while wandering around the internet.

    I wanted to comment on your great review. This book is one of my favorites. I know that many people don't care for Wharton, but what strikes me in her books is that she was well ahead of her time in them. She was definitely a controversial writer for her time period and did it well.

    Great review!