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The Age Of Innocence (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – 19 Jan 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 109 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; New Ed edition (19 Jan. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844083500
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844083503
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.3 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,779,630 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

'One of the best novels of the twentieth century' New York Times Review of Books 'A rich and powerful description of a vanished world' Penelope Lively 'There is no woman in American literature as fascinating as the doomed Madame Olenska ... Traditiona

Book Description

The Age of Innocence' is widely considered to be Edith Wharton's finest novel. It is is also a major film directed by Martin Scorsese.

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Top Customer Reviews

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A nice book for those who enjoy Victorian literature. Gives a good insight into the attitudes of society in America at the time.
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I am afraid not my kind of book only finished it as it was my local book club choice.
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Beautifully written. I only read it because the characters in Simon Sebag Montefiore's novel "One Night in Winter" refer to it all the time. I'm so glad that I did. A true classic
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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.
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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.
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I was a bit disappointed with this novel, which is odd given that popular opinion has it that this might be the author's best work. I would beg to differ on that point. I have read a couple of Edith Wharton's other books and really enjoyed them but this one just did not seem to be in the same league. I did not much like the character of Newland Archer, who I found weak and shallow, and as he is the main character, that inevitably made it harder to enjoy the books a whole. For a while, I hoped he might run off with Countess Olenska, who is another character I found it difficult to sympathise with, despite Wharton's best efforts. This is a novel set among the 'society' set of late 19th century New York and the characters are all a bit snobbish and vacuous, which is to be expected, there would be no story if this were not the case. Yet, while that plot device works beautifully in Wharton's book 'House of Mirth' it seems a bit tired in this particular novel. I know that people's lives were more constrained in the past than they are now but that did not diminish my frustration with this book. For me, even the character of May, who manages to be both wholesome and scheming, could not save this from being a dull and disappointing read.
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