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Book Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

One-line summary: Gossip Girl: 1870.

The Age of Innocence

Published in 1920. Approximately 102,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's most famous novel, is a love story, written immediately after the end of the First World War. Its brilliant anatomization of the snobbery and hypocrisy of the wealthy elite of New York society in the 1870s made it an instant classic, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Newland Archer, Wharton's protagonist, is charming, tactful, enlightened - a thorough product of this society. He accepts its standards and abides by its rules, but he also recognizes its limitations. His engagement to the impeccable May Welland assures him of a safe and conventional future, until the arrival of May's cousin Ellen Olenska.

Independent, free-thinking, and scandalously separated from her husband, Ellen forces Archer to question the values and assumptions of his narrow world. As their love for each other grows, Archer has to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies.



I always feel a little smug when I successfully spot the literary influences someone else is ripping off. I've never read the Gossip Girl books, but I've seen a few episodes of the TV show -- which I found mostly tedious and stupid, because who cares about the paper-thin inner-lives of the fabulously wealthy and pathologically entitled?

The Age of Innocence

Which was exactly what I was thinking after the first few chapters of The Age of Innocence. So while I was thinking up what my oh-so-clever one-line summary would be for my review, Gossip Girl immediately came to mind. Imagine my non-surprise when I learned at its Wikipedia page that Gossip Girl was in fact inspired by Edith Wharton's novel of 19th century New York.

I must confess, this book bored the hell out of me. It's not that it's not well-written. It was witty, even humorous at times, and Wharton beautifully captures the essence of her characters, the fine details of the setting, and everything she wants to say about the mores of the era in beautifully-constructed paragraphs:

She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.


And it's not just a comedy of manners. In fact, it's not a comedy at all, more of a tragicomedy. Wharton does not always dwell on the superficiality and the ornate trappings of New York's upper crust. Her characters are, in their way, perfectly-sketched creatures with behavior and motives as nuanced as their manners. The problem is, they're all pretty dull and not terribly deep. Newland Archer, for example, the protagonist of the novel, is a decent enough fellow who marries the perfect society bride and then finds her to be as shallow and dull as she is sweet and devoted. He is captivated instead by her cousin, Ellen Olenska, who went abroad, married a Polish Count, and separated from him to return to America. Reportedly fleeing a very bad marriage, she receives polite smiles to her face and genteel but vicious cuts behind her back. When she actually seeks a divorce, Newland comes this close to peeling away the layers of his own hypocrisy while he's observing that of his society:

The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up old settled convictions and set them drifting dangerously through his mind. His own exclamation: "Women should be free—as free as we are," struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. "Nice" women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.


He falls for the Countess Olenska because of her unconventionality, and eventually is forced to choose between her and his wife, the old "The wishes of my heart against the wishes of society" conflict. Except Wharton moves everyone through these pantomimes of introspection and decision-making where the outcome is already predetermined. They all move in the "hieroglyphic world" of New York society, which decorates itself in fancy gowns and opera cloaks and surrounds itself with balls and art galleries, but is as efficiently and brutally hierarchical as a henhouse.

It could have been interesting, in the manner of better authors like Dickens or Austen, who told interesting stories while also serving up satire and social critique, but it wasn't. Ultimately it's about a really rich dude moping because his really rich wife isn't as intellectually stimulating as he'd like, so he dithers over whether he should leave her and take up with another really rich mistress. Meanwhile, lots of other really rich people communicate and interact in the elaborately-described rituals of their tribe. So first of all, if you've got a fascination for the self-indulgent petty trials of the idle rich (like, you enjoy Gossip Girl) then you may enjoy this novel, but if I'm going to read about rich people I'd like to see them experiencing some conflict more meaningful than "Should I leave my wife or not?" There isn't a villain or even a proper antagonist in The Age of Innocence, and there's literally no crisis or drama beyond whether or not Archer, his wife, and the Countess Olenska will find happiness.

The reason Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for this novel is probably her immaculate descriptions and her depiction of New York society; if you want a guide to that narrow period of time and place, she furnishes enough details to draw mansion floor plans and prepare a banquet menu, as well as decode the signals of her class. If I were a time traveler sent back in time on a mission requiring me to fit into New York high society from 1870 to around World War I, Edith Wharton novels would probably be my first source of information.

But a big dinner, with a hired chef and two borrowed footmen, with Roman punch, roses from Henderson's, and menus on gilt-edged cards, was a different affair, and not to be lightly undertaken. As Mrs. Archer remarked, the Roman punch made all the difference; not in itself but by its manifold implications—since it signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, a hot and a cold sweet, full decolletage with short sleeves, and guests of a proportionate importance.


But I'd take Charles Dickens or Jane Austen with me so I'd have something interesting to read while I'm there.

Like the book, the movie is pretty and dull





With an all-star cast directed by Martin Scorsese, 1993's The Age of Innocence was a critical success and a box-office failure. People are willing to watch pretty period dramas, even if there isn't any nudity, but they want to see some action, even of the emotional sort, and since there isn't any in the book and the film is a very faithful reproduction of the novel, the closest thing we have to tension is long, meaningful glances exchanged between Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. As Newland Archer's son says to him in the final chapter, which amounts to an epilogue:

"No. I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! Well, I back your generation for knowing more about each other's private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own."


Wharton communicates all these private thoughts elegantly and exquisitely in her writing, but they aren't exactly riveting on-screen.


Verdict: Finely and elegantly written, reading the The Age of Innocence is like browsing a private art gallery full of paintings that you can appreciate are beautiful but none of which interest you. Wharton's hints of humor and satire are neither sharp nor funny enough to suit my tastes, but I am sure people who like this sort of book will... well, like it. So my generally negative review is very much a YMMV opinion.

The Age of Innocence is one of the books on the list of 1001 books you must read before you die, so now I have, though I did not read it for the books1001 challenge. However, we have lots of other books waiting to be read, so please come sign up and add your own review!
Tags: books, books1001, reviews
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