"The Age of Innocence" By Edith Wharton

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
An encompassing book review of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence".

Submitted: November 09, 2009

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Submitted: November 09, 2009

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Edith Wharton's “The Age of Innocence” Book review.

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite female authors that has always proposed rather different ideas regarding women in her books. When reading this review do keep in mind the era she wrote in is drastically different than ours. Wharton uses dramatic irony, employs humor and illustrates profound empathy towards the class structures in the fictional world she created. In Wharton's novels women characters are often deeply developed and have complicated personalities. Add a dash of radical behavior of the time, the end results speak for themselves.

“The Age of Innocence” setting takes place in 1870's New York City and its elite high society. The story centers around three main characters in a love triable. Eventually as the plot unravels many background characters are introduced linked to the story, enhancing and creating a web of entanglement.

Our main male character Newland Archer, a handsome and an elite lawyer who believes in class statuses, rules, traditions but intellectually curious, well read and possess a passion for traveling. He is at a cross roads between his independence and accepting social obligations. At the beginning of the book he is awaiting for the announcement of his engagement to May Welland. Here, we meet our first main female character who is described at the first glance as elegant, poised and beauty personified, and Archer finds himself extremely proud of May. But as time passes he is unable to relate and grow emotionally intimate with her due the influence of traditions and family has on May. She is well bred, wealthy, from the right family, innocent, moral, the typical wife material according to the eighteen hundreds. May is also somewhat of an airhead, who is unable to think for herself, and possesses lower level of intelligence. Archer's fiancée to be is described to be the epitome of bride to be by Archer's mother, sister and most of the upper class scene in New York City of the 1870s.

With the introduction of a charismatic, foreign, unorthodox and unconventional woman, May's cousin; Madame Olenska the story gets hectic, emotional and starts to pick up its pace. Her arrival makes many uncomfortable, especially Archer who is forced to prematurely announce his engagement to May; much to his dismay. Archer initially has a very negative view and feelings towards May's foreign cousin. He avoids contact with her when possible. Madame Olenska isn't pretty, or beautiful, or even considered cute, but she possess a charm, an allure and experience, possesses high level of intelligence, equipped with finer taste in life, and disregards social customs, traditions, norms, which line most of the bachelors at her door. She is the easiest character to misunderstand. As you can imagine this causes a great uproar in their social class. Also she is apathetic to the way others think about her, which creates many obstacles for her. As the story progresses we learn and understand her much better as she is developed in the second half of the book. With the limited background information on her which can be used to further patronize May (or upper class women) also justifying Olenska's personality and actions.

As the engagement proceeds Archer is unable to connect with May and begins treating May as a child rather than his fiancée. His old thoughts returns and he grows impatient, restless. He ceases to get surprised of May's uninterested reactions and frustrated with May for not wanting to be emancipated. Later, he begins questioning his own intentions regarding his life, marriage, and everything about May. He predicts that May will end up just like her mother, trying to control every part of his life and she would never step outside of the boundary of being a woman predetermined for her, by her class and traditions. Through May, we are introduced to how the society thinks, behaves and how their worlds are built around custom and scandal preemptive life styles. Sometimes we are made to empathize with the high end of social class and sometimes we ridicule them through May's actions and words. May also stands as a symbol of how women are ought to be, how they should be raised, and the picture perfect of women in the late eighteen hundreds. In mean while, Countess Olenska is everything that the men avoids in marriage in that day and age, but hopelessly falls in-love with. By this contrast Wharton polarizes the situations and questions women's position in society.

As the plot proceeds we find out about Olenska's past-- she had been orphaned at a young age, raised by her aunt in unconventional ways, married to a count in France and ever since then has been living there. Wharton doesn't clearly explain what Madame Olenska's husband was like, what he actually did that made Countess Olenska escape from him at all costs, leaving him behind, his money and the comfortable, stimulated life she had grown accustomed to. My belief is that it was intentional on Wharton's part so her book would not be refuted by male writers. Olenska is set on getting a divorce, not caring about losing her allowance from her husband and her family. The Wellands and the Mingotts fearing more scandals centering around her, uses Archer to pursue Olenska to stop this action at once. This is when they really start to grow fond of each other. Their love beings unexpectedly and there is no one event that the reader can argue that is when they actually fell inlove. Rather it was a gradual step, much like real life, coming to realization much after our heart has created a bond our minds cannot sever.

Through their interactions Archer and Olenska grow attached and drawn to one another. Archer admires Olenska's decisiveness, independence, honesty, and the untraditional life she leads. Archer becomes intoxicated by her life experiences, her readings, knowledge about painting and sparkling conversations, her sorrow, the hardship she has been through because of her husband and her ability to endure pain. He remarks that she pulsates life, unlike his dull fiancée, May. Olenska comes to symbolize life itself for Archer. These realizations diminish the space between the two in mean while this causes Archer to further drift away from May. Both Olenska and Archer fall in-love with one another. Olenska diverts all attention Archer gives her on May's well being and never comes out with her true feelings, always maintaining her distance. We see that Olenska may or may not have feelings however is reluctant to further pursue anything on the account of hurting May, or inflicting pain on the people she loves and adores. This is when the reader sees Olenska as someone who compromises, sacrifices for the sake of what she believes in. She isn't the seductive mistress from Europe that these New York wealthy families fear her to be.

The wedding date moves further up due to Archer's relentlessly hopes to get married early and possibly forget the Countess, albeit half unconsciously. The second reason is that he grows irritated by the limitations of his engaged status, restricted by conventions, norms and traditions. Further more, May's lack of efforts to grow closer or marry sooner. Through the Countess, this unconventional and unorthodox woman swarming with scandal, Archer begins to really think about the social elites way of doing things, their customs, traditions and norms and he comes to resent most women. He portrays women like May, and his own mother, the gate keepers of tradition who raises their kids in accordance with custom and everything required of their social class. She abhors that May never comes to want to be liberated by her position as woman, restrained by social taboos, unlike Madame Olenska, who drastically differs from her own cousin. May grows suspicious that Archer may have someone else in his heart and here we find out about his affair with a married women some time ago. Archer makes May believe him that he just really wants to get married to her. When she finally agrees, he feels frustrated and is unsure of his reasoning.

Through all of this Countess Olenska and Archer emotionally become intimate, Archer decides he will have to end everything with May. Despite his efforts, the wedding approaches and Olenska removes herself from the picture so her cousin May can have a happy life and marriage. Olenska in order to remove herself from the picture efficiently and guarantee May's happiness moves to Washington, stays away from her circle of friends and family and stays to herself in her home in Washington. The wedding takes place and soon after Archer puts Olenska away in a back drawer in his mind. He forgets all that happened and finds it unreasonable to go after Olenska while May walks down the aisle in her beautiful wedding gown. May dazzling as she is, Archer gets used to her completely and treats her much like a child in his own way. His life becomes monotone and he is unhappy with himself, though he isn't sure why.

The book continues two years after May and Archer's wedding. May is dazzling everyone and winning at archery in a summer house party, while Archer pulls to himself and observes everyone. Then, just then he remembers Olenska and thinks about her, and wonders if she would be around. Then he sees Olenska's aunt and begins to continually think about Olenska.

Through fate, they meet unexpectedly and Archer begins to think and live through Countess Olenska through his dreams and secluded thoughts, which becomes reality for him, and the reality becoming surreal, mere thoughts. Then by chance of fate, Olenska and Archer happen to find each other at an event and Archer could no longer abstain from being away from Madame Olenska. The countess is reserved and unsure, not wanting to betray or cause pain for May. She is unsure where their relationship will end too. But after much of Archers pleas she agrees to grace him with her presence. As long as he thought, she gracefully basked him with her presence all else could wait. He simply wanted to breath in the same air as her, and be enlightened by her conversations. She agrees to be his mistress without consummating their relationship, and not seeing each other often. However their tie is strong and desires run high. Olenska does not want to betray the trust given to them by their close relatives.

May senses and understands the well hidden relationship between her husband and her cousin Olenska and is determined to send her away. After a long time, Archer and Olenska consummate their relationship onceand only once, much to Olenska's dismay. Soon after their unification, May prematurely tells her cousin that she is pregnant. Archer unaware of the manipulativeness of May, only hears of Countess Olenska's abrupt decision to go back to France and get a divorce from her abusive husband. Archer is truly shattered. Unable to see or talk to her, Archer nearly drives himself mad. However, he has faith in Olenska and feels that their relationship is not near its end and somehow finds comfort in that thought. He doesn't seek to talk with Olenska until the time is right. He patiently waits. May decides to throw a farewell dinner party in her house with Archer in honor of her cousin. That is the last time Archer and Countess Olenska see each other. Archer at the end of the evening determined to follow after Countess Olenska regardless of the cost. He tells May that he needs time and that he is thinking of traveling to India or Japan. May counters this by saying “you cant go anywhere without me, and I may not be able to travel due to the fact that we are expecting our first child.”

After hearing those words, Archer is unable to go and continues to live his life through his thoughts of Countess Olenska. He constantly dreams of her, thinks of her, and his true life becomes in his thoughts and dreams, while reality becomes surreal as it has been before.

Some thirty odd years later, we find out that May and Archer has kids named Dallas, Mary and Billy which May has died through his nursing some time ago. Dallas their first born, an architect and through him the narrator describes the changes since his time, in his beloved son's which is certainly his favorite. Dallas is the source of Archer's pride has to go France for a project. While there, Dallas illuminated by his mother's last moments that Archer had long loved someone else but that Dallas and his siblings would be in safe hands since Archer had given up the most cherished desire for his family. Dallas determined to unite these lovers, arranges a meeting with Countess Olenska to see his mother's cousin.


Archer and Dallas arrive in front of Countess Olenska's apartment but Archer is unable to go in and actually see Countess Olenska. He is overwhelmed by the missing thirty years and afraid she had long forgotten him, or of other loves that might have entered her life. He decides to keep the memory of her from thirty years ago for the remainder of his life.

Wharton, while using these three main characters, their family and several people from their social class develops the positives and negatives of the elites of New York at late 19th century. Archer becomes conflicted as his interactions with Olenska grows and his mind becoming stimulated. While at first adamant about traditions and customs he comes to resent them when it limits and hinders with his relationship with Countess Olenska. Olenska, the black sheep of the society, the radical woman of her time, symbolizes true independence and the difficulties women had to bear during those times. Regardless of how cruel and abusive a husband might be, saving face and continuing marriage even far away was more important than getting a divorce. Divorce was a taboo. Personal happiness had to be sacrificed for the social good. This theme is thoroughly developed in this book, concluding that individual happiness was more important than upholding social customs by Olenska's actions of actual divorce. However, Archer sacrifices his own personal feelings for his family, which is elevated to a pedestal at the end of this novel by Wharton. Wharton through the triangle of May, Archer and Olenska introduces the idea of love and marriage and the difference between them. Love becomes a risk, a passion, a reason to lose logic, while marriage a duty, an obligation, a way to ensure well bred children to continue to keep social norms and traditions. The idea of love and marriage cohesively coexisting is ruled out in this novel without ever discussing the two, however it is successfully done through allusions, metaphors, symbols and some reading in between the lines.



© Copyright 2020 NazireC. All rights reserved.

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