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on 19 March 2007
The Age of Innocence is a work of beautifully subtle observation and delicacy, but though Edith Wharton paints with pastels, she delivers a vividly moving and meaningful fable on the damage society can inflict on the individual spirit.

What is fascinating about the novel, for me, is how nothing portrayed is at all as it seems, and yet there are never any glaring or obvious revelations or realisations - Wharton creates an environment in which everything is so delicately balanced that the tiniest ripple can assume seismic proportions. Newland Archer, a slave to respectability, and yet a closet dreamer, sees the beauty of the society he lives in, and its hypocrisy, but he never fully appreciates the strength of its ties and strictures until he finds himself drawn to the lovely Ellen Olenska, who symbolises, for him, a freedom and daring that he has never known. His affianced bride, May Welland, pales in comparison - to him she is merely an obedient ornament, a 'curtain dropped before an emptiness,' but he never realises the strength that lies underneath her apparent frailty. It is the steel in May Welland's character that is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel; Ellen Olenska outwardly appears to be a strong, free spirit, who shuns convention, but she is buffeted and bruised by the society that the delicate May Welland represents. May sees far more than Newland ever credits her for, and it seems that his journey through the novel is chiefly about the gradual realisation of all that he has missed. Newland is perhaps the only true innocent in the world he inhabits.

The novel is intensely bittersweet, and there are no clear heroes or villains, only individual strengths and weaknesses operating in an environment where society itself is the deity that controls all. There is real beauty in Wharton's finely drawn characterisation and her descriptions of a grand and intricately lovely setting, but what she truly portrays through the beauty is the bleak emptiness of a world where souls are sacrificed in order to maintain the sham of society's smooth and polished surface.
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It was a glittering, sumptuous time when hypocrisy was expected, discreet infidelity tolerated, and unconventionality ostracized.

That is the Gilded Age, and nobody knew its hypocrises better than Edith Wharton.... and nobody portrayed them as well. "The Age of Innocence" is a trip back in time to the stuffy upper crust of "old New York," taking us through one respectable man's hopeless love affair with a beautiful woman -- and the life he isn't brave enough to have.

Newland Archer, of a wealthy old New York family, has become engaged to pretty, naive May Welland. But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned home after dumping her cheating husband. At first, the two are just friends, but Newland becomes more and more entranced by the Countess' easy, free-spirited European charm.

After Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger. He starts to rebel in little ways, but he's still mired in a 100% conventional marriage, job and life. Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and the safe, dull life that he has condemned in others?

There's nothing too scandalous about "Age of Innocence" in a time when starlets acquire and discard boyfriends and husbands like old pantyhose -- it probably wasn't in the 1920s when it was first published. But then, this isn't a book about sexiness and steam -- it's part bittersweet romance, part social satire, and a look at what happens when human beings lose all spontaneity and passion.

Part of this is due to Wharton's portrayal of New York in the 1870s -- opulent, cultured, pleasant, yet so tied up in tradition that few people in it are able to really open up and live. It's a haze of ballrooms, gardens, engagements, and careful social rituals that absolutely MUST be followed, even if they have no meaning. It's a place "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought."

And Wharton writes distant, slightly mocking prose that outlines this sheltered little society. Her writing opens as slowly and beautifully as a rosebud, letting subtle subplots, poetic prose and powerful, hidden emotions drive the story. So don't be discouraged by the endless conversations about flowers, ballrooms, gloves and old family scandals that don't really matter anymore -- they are trappings to the story, and convey the stuffy life that Newland is struggling to escape.

In the middle of all this, Newland is a rather dull, intelligent young man who thinks he's unconventional. But he becomes more interesting as he struggles between his conscience and his longing for the Countess. And as "Age of Innocence" winds on, you gradually see that he doesn't truly love the Countess, but what she represents -- freedom from society and convention.

The other two angles of this love triangle are May and Ellen. May is (suitably) pallid and rather dull, though she shows some different sides in the last few chapters. And Ellen is a magnificent character -- alluring, mysterious, but also bewildered by New York's hostility to her ways. And she's even more interesting when you realize that she isn't trying to rebel, but simply being herself.

"Age of Innocence" is a subtle look at life in Gilded Age New York, telling the story of a man desperately in love with a way of life he hasn't got the courage to pursue. Exquisite in its details, painful in its beauty.
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on 8 July 2012
I came to Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" via a reading of another novel, of her's, namely Ethan Frome. Ethan Frome enticed me to read other novels by Wharton because in about 120 pages the novella threw up some interesting and pertinent themes such as the human being's capacity to revolt against the strictures of their social mores whilst at the same time being able to accept the limits to which they can stretch that revolt and come to some form of compromise that allows them to maintain some degree of individuality without overly upsetting the norms of their social milieu. On a much broader and more in-depth scale, The Age of innocence explores such themes.

The novel is broadly set in New York at about the end of the First World War. Wharton's characters are wealthy, upper middle class and striving to maintain the social mores that define their social milieu. Her characters organise exclusive social gatherings, attend the opera and gossip about the behaviour and fortune of each other. The two protagonists that potentially disrupt and shake up the attitude and behaviour of this group are Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Ellen, a member of the Welland family, has lived in Europe in an unhappy marriage to one count Olenska. She returns to New York apparently to escape the count's depravity and ultimately obtain a divorce. Ellen represents the outsider who perhaps unwittingly disrupts the cosy social life of her family and their friends. Newland Archer, a young lawyer engaged to May Welland, a cousin of Ellen Olenska, is given the task of persuading Ellen not to seek a divorce from her husband. A divorce would undermine the family's standing in their social context. Newland and Ellen basically fall in love leaving Newland torn between abandoning his engagement to May with all the consequences that would follow and eloping with Ellen. He stands by May and marries her. It is the subsequent tension between sticking to social norms or disrupting them and thereby engendering a new way of behaviour and doing things that Wharton brilliantly explores.

If one were to place Wharton's novel into a genre, if only to grasps her approach and what she does, then it could be argued that it has its roots in nineteenth century psychological realism. The novel is a fine example of that approach. As I read it, I was reminded of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Wharton's long sentences with their sub-clauses reveal nuances in her character's thoughts which in turn present us with fully rounded characters. Her tone is sardonic and to some extent cynical of the social world into which she takes the reader.

Having said the above in praise of the novel, I must admit that I had two major gripes with it. The first is that I had no sympathy for Wharton's well-to-do characters. And secondly the social world into which Wharton takes the reader is anathema to me. These are two very subjective criticisms that say a lot about my position and values rather than any necessary inherent fault with the novel. Nonetheless, I simply found this world of snobbery and opera attendance, not for any appreciation of the opera but simply as a result of one's social position, dull and a little tedious to read about.

The novels of Edith Wharton are a fairly new discovery for me. I like the themes she explores and her characters are well drawn. Pushing a hundred years since Wharton wrote, the two novels I have read are still relevant today and worth reading.
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Newland Archer, the protagonist of this ironically entitled novel set in the late nineteenth century, is a proper New York gentleman, and part of a society which adheres to strict social codes, subordinating all aspects of life to doing what is expected, which is synonymous with doing what it right. As the author remarks early in the novel, "Few things were more awful than an offense against Taste." Newland meets and marries May Welland, an unimaginative, shallow young woman whose upbringing has made her the perfect, inoffensive wife, one who knows how to behave and how to adhere to the "rules" of the society in which they live.
When Newland is reintroduced to May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her husband in Europe and now wants a divorce, he finds himself utterly captivated by her freedom and her willingness to risk all, socially, by flouting convention. Both Ellen and Newland, however, are products of their upbringing and their culture, however, and they resist their feelings because of their separate social obligations. Various meetings between them suggest that their feelings are far stronger than what is obvious on the surface, and the question of whether either of them will finally state the obvious remains unanswered.
Wharton creates an exceptionally realistic picture of New York in the post-Civil War era, a time in which aristocrats of inherited wealth found themselves competing socially with parvenus. Her ability to show the conflict between a person's desire for freedom and his/her need for social acceptance is striking. As the various characters make their peace with their decisions--either to conform to or to challenge social dictates--the novel achieves an unusual dramatic tension, subtle because of its lack of direct confrontation and powerful in its effects on individual destinies. This is, in fact, less an "age of innocence" than it is an age of social manipulation.
Wharton herself manipulates the reader--her best dialogues are those in which the characters never actually participate--conversations that they keep to themselves, confrontations which they never allow themselves to have, and resolutions which happen through inaction rather than through decision-making. Filled with acute social observations, the novel shows individuals convincing themselves that obeying social dictates is the right thing to do. Though the novel sometimes seems to smother the reader with its limitations on action, Age of Innocence brilliantly captures the age and attitudes of the era. Mary Whipple
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Newland Archer, the protagonist of this ironically entitled novel set in the late nineteenth century, is a proper New York gentleman, and part of a society which adheres to strict social codes, subordinating all aspects of life to doing what is expected, which is synonymous with doing what it right. As the author remarks early in the novel, "Few things were more awful than an offense against Taste." Newland meets and marries May Welland, an unimaginative, shallow young woman whose upbringing has made her the perfect, inoffensive wife, one who knows how to behave and how to adhere to the "rules" of the society in which they live.
When Newland is reintroduced to May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her husband in Europe and now wants a divorce, he finds himself utterly captivated by her independence and her willingness to risk all, socially, by flouting convention. Both Ellen and Newland are products of their upbringing and their culture, however, and they resist their feelings because of their separate social obligations. Various meetings between them suggest that their feelings are far stronger than what is obvious on the surface, and the question of whether they will finally state the obvious or act on their feelings constitutes the plot.
Wharton creates an exceptionally realistic picture of New York in the post-Civil War era, a time in which aristocrats of inherited wealth found themselves competing socially with parvenus. Her ability to show the conflict between a person's need for social acceptance and the desire for personal freedom is striking. As the various characters make their peace with their decisions--either to challenge or yield to social dictates--the novel achieves an unusual dramatic tension, subtle because of its lack of direct confrontation and powerful in its effects on individual destinies. This is, in fact, less an "age of innocence" than it is an age of social manipulation.
Wharton herself manipulates the reader--some of her best dialogues and scenes are those the characters never actually have--conversations that they imagine, confrontations which they never allow themselves to have, and resolutions which happen through inaction rather than through decision-making. Filled with acute social observations, the novel shows individuals convincing themselves that obeying social dictates is the right thing to do. Though the novel sometimes seems claustrophobic due to its limitations on action, Age of Innocence brilliantly captures the age and attitudes of the era. Mary Whipple
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on 20 January 2004
Like her elder contemporary Henry James, Edith Wharton deals with the blood battles of gilded age aristocracy. American and British readers will find much common ground in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Here are the transatlantics who gave us the Astors and Winston Churchill and, indeed, Henry James and Edith Wharton.
Reading THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is a bit like reading a fashion magazine edited by a tragic genius. The descriptions of clothing, food and architecture are as dazzling as can be, but the agony of the main characters is just slightly veiled.
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 and the reason is clear. This novel is an indictment of a society which values surface to the point of suffocation.
H. L. Mencken, of all people, failed to notice Wharton's almost subversive theme. He thought she was a portrait painter, and an increasingly sentimental one at that.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is not a pretty picture. It's a perfect picture, but pretty it isn't.
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on 15 April 2014
I've had this book for years but finally got around to reading it, spurred on by the sense that I haven't read enough American classics. I'm awarding 'The Age of Innocence' 4.5 stars and rounding to 4 for practical purposes, although, I must say, I think the ending of the novel is worthy of 5 stars.

Why not 5 stars overall? I only award 5 stars to books that I really think will stay with me for life; things I'll want to keep coming back to to read again. 'The Age of Innocence' is such a very good, well-written novel, that the only reason I think it falls short of being in the 5 star category for me is maybe that the extent to which it is an incisive social observation of privileged society in latter-Nineteenth century New York compromises the extent to which it charts a very private and personal -and so timeless- love affair. However, the whole point of the book is an examination of how these private and public spheres of life interconnect (and, indeed, conflict), so I realise that my complaint is somewhat paradoxical!

But I did think 'The Age of Innocence' was a great novel and I was struck by the frank modernity of Wharton's writing - perhaps due to the fact that this nineteenth century novel was published in the twentieth century.

Towards the end of the book I became preoccupied with how the story would end. In conclusion, I found it ended in the only way it could, given what had gone before. And I thought it a truly five-star ending. I would recommend 'The Age of Innocence' to anyone who enjoys reading novels - it's a great novel.
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on 29 November 2011
Archer Newland has a happy life. He is a member of New York's most prominent society and is newly engaged to May, a women who on the surface is everything he wants in a wife, beautiful, pure, innocent, and sweet. This is all upset when his fiancés cousin Ellen shows up fleeing her abusive husband.

Newland is drawn to Ellen because she is from Europe (gasp) and as you know, in Europe they do things differently and are therefore exciting. OK so he isn't drawn to her just because she has come over from Europe, but the fact that Europeans do things differently is mentioned about ten times in the novel. While Ellen desires to divorce her husband, her family try to convince her otherwise which exposes Newland to the Hypocrisies and inequities of the society he belongs to.

One of the strengths of this novel is the great detail given of the customs that the characters society demands. I personally found these endless details quite tedious after a while but they did help to establish a claustrophobic atmosphere and created a sense of place very well. As a reader I was surprised the characters have any time to breathe within all their constrictions. The treatment of Ellen by her own family while started promising soon became apparent that they did not care about Ellen as a person and were quite happy to see Ellen either cut off completely or to see her return to an unhappy marriage. I enjoyed that it all became a little sinister (in a subtle way) towards the end and I thought the way the family banded together very clever.

The Age of Innocence is worth a read and is a fine novel but parts of it were dull.
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on 14 October 2010
By the time I had finished the first page of this book I was wondering to myself why on earth Ifd never read any Edith Wharton before, and my incredulity only increased the more I read. Everything about this book was fantastic: the story, the characters, the wit, the writing. I donft usually get quite this effusive about books, but it was love at first sight for me, and I think that The Age of Innocence may be my favourite book so far this year.

The tone of Whartonfs writing reminded me a lot of Jane Austen, although the style is very different; it has the same mix of humour and wry wit accompanying social commentary which somehow manages to be both affectionate and biting. Through this delightful narrative style she reveals the old New York of the 1870s in all its artificial, innocent, cruel glory, a beautiful, fragile world which is rigidly structured. Whartonfs writing makes that world seem real and immediate. The opening chapter in particular is full of asides in brackets explaining everything from what one should wear to which parts of the opera it is acceptable to talk through which feel as though the author is talking behind her hand to you and have the effect of plunging the reader right into the world of New York society.

Ellen is a worthy catalyst for the novel. Unlike Archer, Edith Wharton never shows a scene from her perspective and so she remains mysterious and intriguing. Whereas the author often relates what Archer says immediately followed by what he wishes he could say, the reader is given no such insight into Ellenfs thoughts and her mind remains closed. Consequently, I was just as captivated by her as Archer is. Archer and Ellen have the sort of relationship that I wanted Anna and Vronsky to have in Anna Karenina. Both relationships are forbidden and yet inevitable, but while Anna and Vronsky are selfish and jealous, Ellen and Archer are dignified, loyal, noble and all the more romantic for it. Wharton creates lingering, heart-wrenching romance out of a few conversations and a mere three kisses and the reader cannot help but experience every nuance of it. Their relationship is one of the most believable and engaging that Ifve encountered in classic literature, from its initial stages of friendship right through to the end. I thought that the conclusion of their affair was poignant and perfect and, just like everything else about this book, I loved it.
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on 5 November 2009
Newland Archer is an exasperating protagonist. He is discontented with his lot in life and thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I have a feeling if he did jump the fence, the bare patches would have made themselves plain and he still would not have found 'happiness' as he defines it. He is a man who allows himself to be guided by 'conventions' but I do not see him exercising any morals. Wharton tells the story mostly from his point of view. You see the inside of his head but you only see the outside of everyone else. Wharton's skill is shown in her ability to allow the reader a sense of what the other characters are thinking without telling explicitly.

On the surface, May Welland seems simple and shallow and Countess Olenska mysterious with deep feelings. I find the two women to actually be quite similar in that they were guided in their behavior by how their actions would affect others who cared for them.

Hypocrisy abounds in the tale: Beaufort is 'bad' because of his numerous affairs and Newland wishes to keep the Countess from his clutches. Newland himself dallied with a married woman before May Welland and he wanted to run off with Olenska and abandon his wife. I see it as one of those things where if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound.

The subject matter of the novel was not a happy one for me but I did enjoy the novel because of the author's ability to set the scene with the same skill and attention to detail of a set designer of a major film production.

The Collector's library edition's small size and beautiful looks just seemed to go with the feel of the story.

I actually may read this one again.
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