The Age of Innocence
(1920) is a novel by Edith Wharton
, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize
. The story is set in upper class New York City
in the 1870s.
In 1920, The Age of Innocence was published twice; first in four parts, July – October, in the Pictorial Review magazine, and then by D. Appleton and Company as a book in New York and in London.
The Age of Innocence
centers on one society couple's impending marriage and the introduction of a scandalous woman whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and mores of turn of the century New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for the earlier, more brutal and critical, "The House of Mirth
". Not to be overlooked is the author's attention to detailing the charms and customs of this caste. The novel is lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the nineteenth-century East Coast American upper class lived and this combined with the social tragedy earned Wharton a Pulitzer - the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was fifty-eight years-old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I
. The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations.
Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's best families, is happily anticipating a highly-desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet, he soon finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic, beautiful thirty-year-old cousin, who had been living in Europe. Ellen has returned to her New York family after scandalously separating herself (per rumour) from a bad marriage to a Polish Count. At first, Ellen's arrival, and its potential taint to his bride's family, disturbs him, yet he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen who flouts New York Society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about the prospect of marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York Society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.
Ellen's decision to divorce Count Olenski is a social crisis for Ellen's New York family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace; divorce is unacceptable, living apart is. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from divorcing the Count. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her; afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date; May refuses.
Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified of their love's aggrieving May. She agrees to remain in America, separated, but undivorced, yet only if they do not sexually consummate their love; Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry; he tries forgetting Ellen, but fails. His society marriage is loveless, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington, D.C., and has remained distant, he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while he and May are in Newport, Rhode Island. Newland discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen's return to him, and that she has refused, despite her family's pushing her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe; frustrated by her independence, the family cut off her money, as the Count had already done.
Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen, obsessed with how to finally possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he attempts to have her agree to be his mistress. Then, Ellen is recalled to New York City to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance.
Back in New York, and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However, Newland then discovers that Ellen has suddenly decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, when May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night, after the party, Newland resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to tell of her pregnancy, and that Ellen was told of it a few days before; Newland grasps Ellen's reason for a European return. Hopelessly trapped, Newland surrenders his love, Ellen, for the sake of his children, and remains in loveless marriage to May; he does not follow Ellen.
Twenty-five years later, after May's death, Newland and his son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit and meet Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of again seeing Ellen. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland, still reeling emotionally, sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching her apartment's balcony. Newland considers going up, but decides that his dream and memory of Ellen are more real than anything else in his life has been; he walks back to his hotel without meeting her.
Characters in The Age of Innocence
- Newland Archer: The story's protagonist is a young, popular, successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in an elegant New York City house. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper class New York City society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. At story's start, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the husband-teacher and she the wife-student. His life changes when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Through his relationship with her — first friendship, then love — he begins questioning the values on which he was raised. He sees the sexual inequality of New York society and the shallowness of its customs, and struggles to balance social commitment to May with love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgemental web of New York society. Throughout the story's progress, he transgresses the boundaries of acceptable behavior for love of Ellen: first following her to Skuytercliff, then to Boston, and finally willing to follow her to Europe. In the end, though, Newland Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories.
- Mrs. Manson Mingott: The fat, feisty matriarch of the powerful Mingott family, and grandmother to Ellen and May. She controls her family: at Newland's request, she has May and Mrs. Welland agree to an earlier wedding date; she controls the money — withholding Ellen's living allowance (when the family is angry with Ellen), and having niece Regina Beaufort ask for money when in financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society, at times pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior; receiving guests in her house's ground floor, though society associates that practice with prostitutes. Her welcoming Ellen is viewed skeptically, and she insists the rest of the family support Ellen.
- Mrs. Welland: May's mother, has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's dullness, lack of imagination, and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are consequence of her influence. Mrs. Welland is the driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed earlier to Newland's request for an earlier wedding date. After few years of marriage, Newland Archer perceives in his mother-in-law what May will become — stolid, unimaginative, and dull.
- May Welland: Newland Archer's fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother, she follows and obeys all of society's customs, perfectly. Mostly, she is the shallow, uninterested and uninteresting young woman that New York society requires. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Newland a rare glimpse of the maturity and compassion he had previously ignored. She offers him release from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently ended a love affair. When he assures May of his loving only her, May appears to trust him, at least at first. Yet after marriage, she suspects Newland is Ellen's lover. Nonetheless, May pretends happiness before society, maintaining the illusion that she and he have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness activates her manipulative nature, and Newland does not see it until too late. To drive Ellen away from him, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy before she is certain of it. Yet, there still is compassion in May, even in their loveless marriage's long years after Ellen's leaving. After May's death, Newland Archer learns she had always known of his continued love for Ellen; as May lay dying, she told their son Dallas that the children could always trust their father Newland, because he surrendered the thing most meaningful to him out of loyalty to their marriage.
- Ellen Olenska: She is May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a Countess by marrying Polish Count Olenski, a European nobleman who never appears in the story. When the story begins, Ellen has fled her unhappy marriage, lived in Venice with her husband's secretary, and has returned to her family in New York City, in America. She is a free spirit who helps Newland Archer see beyond narrow New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal; offering the servant her own cape before sending her out on an errand. She attends parties with disreputable people such as Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Newland, the fiancé of her cousin May to visit her. Ellen suffers as much as Newland from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in emotional limbo so long as they can love each other at a distance. Ellen's love for Newland drives her important decisions: dropping divorce from Count Olenski, remaining in America, and offering Newland choice of sexual consummation only once, and then disappearing from his life. Her conscience and responsibility to family complicate her love for Newland. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to leave America, refusing Newland's attempt to follow her to Europe, and so allow cousin May to start her family with her husband Newland.
- New York City Society: Composed of powerful, wealthy families. These people follow and impose a strict, rigid code of social custom and behavior, and judge as unacceptable and disposable the people who do not follow their rules. Ellen has difficulty adapting to the behavior that such a society thinks appropriate for a woman separated from her husband. New York society's judgement is clear; almost everyone refuses to attend the dinner party honoring Ellen's return.
- Christine Nilsson: A famous singer who performs in an opera on the night of Archer and May's engagement. She sings in the same opera two years later.
- Mrs. Lovell Mingott: May and Ellen's aunt, and the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Manson Mingott.
- Lawrence Lefferts: A wealthy young man and a member of Archer's social circle. He is considered the expert on manners. Archer believes that Lefferts is behind New York society's rude refusal to attend the welcome dinner for Ellen. According to Archer, Lefferts makes a big show of his morality every time that his wife, Mrs. Lefferts, suspects that he is having an affair.
- Sillerton Jackson: The expert on the families that make up New York society. He knows who is related to whom, and the history of every important family. Mrs. Archer and Janey invite him over for dinner when they want to catch up on gossip.
- Julius Beaufort: An arrogant banker who tries to have an affair with Ellen. He even follows her to Skuytercliff during the weekend that Archer goes to visit Ellen. His banking business eventually fails, and he leaves New York society in disgrace.
- Regina Beaufort: Julius Beaufort's wife and Mrs. Manson Mingott's niece. She comes to Mrs. Mingott when her husband's bank fails to ask for a loan. Her visit causes Mrs. Mingott to have a stroke.
- Janey Archer: Archer's dowdy, unmarried sister who never goes out and relies on Archer. She and her mother invite guests to dinner so they can gossip about New York society. Janey disapproves of Ellen, because she's unconventional and independent, and doesn't simply tolerate her husband's abuse.
- Mrs. Archer: Archer's widowed mother. She doesn't get out to events often, but loves to hear about society. She and Janey strongly believe in the values of New York society. Like Janey, she views Ellen with suspicion.
- Mrs. Lemuel Struthers: A woman on the fringes of New York society. She is treated with mistrust and scorn until Ellen befriends her. She eventually becomes popular; at the end of the novel, May thinks it appropriate to go to her parties.
- Count Olenski: Ellen's husband, a dissolute aristocrat who drove Ellen away with neglect and misery. At first, Count Olenski is content to let Ellen go. Later, though, he sends his secretary to America to ask Ellen to return, with the stipulation that she only appear as his hostess occasionally. He never appears in the story, but is described as half paralyzed and very pale, with thick feminine eyelashes. He constantly cheats on Ellen, and a veiled remark of Jackson's implies that he copulates with men, too. What other abuses and infidelities he commits are unknown, but seems quite malicious.
- Sophy Jackson: Sillerton Jackson's unmarried sister. She is a friend of Janey and Mrs. Archer.
- Louisa and Henry van der Luyden: Cousins of the Archers, and the most powerful people in New York society. They only mingle with people when they are trying to save society. Mrs. Archer goes to the van der Luydens after New York society snubs Ellen. They invite her to a very exclusive party in honor of the Duke of St Austrey to show society that they support her.
- Duke of St Austrey: A European Duke. He is the guest of honor at a dinner party thrown by the van der Luydens. Both Ellen and Archer find him dull.
- Nastasia: Ellen's Italian maid. She invites Archer and the other guests to wait in Ellen's sitting room.
- Mr. Letterblair: The senior partner of Archer's law firm. He gives Archer the responsibility of talking Ellen out of her plans to divorce the Count.
- Mrs. Rushworth: The vain, foolish married woman with whom Archer had an affair before his engagement to May.
- Ned Winsett: A journalist. He and Archer are friends, despite their different social circles. He is one of the few people with whom Archer feels that he can have a meaningful conversation. Ned Winsett challenges Archer to think of things outside of society.
- Reggie Chivers: An important member of society. Archer spends a weekend at their country home on the Hudson River.
- Marchioness Medora Manson: The aunt who took Ellen to Europe as a child. She now lives in Washington, where Ellen goes to take care of her. During a visit to New York, she tries to persuade Archer to convince Ellen that she should return to the Count. Beaufort's bank failure eventually ruins Mrs. Manson's fortune, and she moves back to Europe with Ellen.
- Dr Agathon Carver: A friend (and possible love interest) of the Marchioness Manson. Archer meets him at Ellen's house.
- Du Lac aunts: Archer's elderly aunts. They offer their country home to May and Archer for their honeymoon.
- Mrs. Carfry: An English acquaintance of Janey and Mrs. Archer. She invites Archer and May to a dinner party while they are on their European wedding tour.
- M. Rivière: The French tutor of Mrs. Carfry's nephew. He fascinates Archer with his life story and intellect. Later, Archer learns that he was Count Olenski's secretary and the man who helped Ellen escape her marriage. The count sends him to Boston to try to convince Ellen to return to Europe.
- Emerson Sillerton: An unpopular, eccentric professor who spends his summers in Newport with the rest of society. He throws a party for the Blenker family that no one wants to attend.
- Blenker family: The unpopular, socially inferior family with whom the Marchioness and Ellen stay while in Newport. They are the guests of honor at Emerson Sillerton's party, and seems to be a clever, kind bunch.
- Miss Blenker: The youngest daughter of the Blenker family. When Archer visits her empty family's house on the day of Sillerton's party, she is there. Archer briefly confuses her with Ellen, and she flirts with him. Through Miss Blenker, Archer learns that Ellen has gone to Boston.
- Dallas Archer: May and Archer's eldest child. He takes his father on a trip to Europe. Through Dallas, Archer learns that May felt sorry for his empty heart after Ellen left.
- Fanny Beaufort: Dallas Archer's fiancée and the daughter of Julius Beaufort and his second wife. She asks Dallas to visit Ellen while he and Archer are in Paris.
Adaptations in other media
, a silent film
version was released by Warner Brothers
, directed by Wesley Ruggles
, and starring Beverly Bayne
and Elliott Dexter
Margaret Ayer Barnes adapted the novel into a play, first produced on Broadway in 1928. The novel and play were the basis for the RKO film The Age of Innocence (1934) that starred Irene Dunne and John Boles.
In 1993, a motion-picture adaptation was directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Richard E. Grant, and Miriam Margolyes. Ryder won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of May Welland Archer, and the film won an Oscar for costume design.