The Age of Innocence is a novel set primarily in New York’s elite classes in the 1870s. Newland Archer, favored son of "Old" New York, is on the brink of announcing his engagement to lovely May Welland, favored daughter of a family much like his own, when the Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns unexpectedly to New York. Archer initially sees Ellen and her personal and social problems primarily as an annoyance. Following the announcement of his engagement to May, however, he is reintroduced to the set customs and deeply conventional thinking of his own and May’s social set. He gradually begins to see the cosmopolitan and unconventional Ellen as a tempting alternative to May and what she represents. The complications arising from this situation (which I won’t reveal, so as not to deprive first readers of the interest of the plot) comprise the rest of the novel.

As this summary suggests, Wharton’s plot for this novel is not particularly original. What is original and what makes this novel decidedly worth reading (surely it is one of her two or three best works) is her handling of her material. Newland Archer, the central character, is utterly believable in both his strengths and his weaknesses. May and Ellen, the other central characters, are vivid; Wharton suggests a great deal about them, even while adhering to Newland’s point of view. Age is also a fascinating historical novel, one that depicts both the surface of its world–clothing, books, paintings, manners–and its deeply held beliefs. Written after World War I, it describes the social world of Wharton’s youth in terms that are both nostalgic and critical.

Discussion Questions:

1. The novel is told primarily from Newland Archer’s point of view. What kind of person is he? What are his strengths? His weaknesses? How does he change over the course of the novel? How might the same story be related from Ellen’s or May’s point of view? How does each central character see the others?

2. What is the role of social convention in the novel? Why has this society tacitly agreed to avoid all discussion of things that are "unpleasant"? (What are the advantages and disadvantages of avoiding "unpleasant" topics?) What role do rumor and innuendo play in this society? Explain the narrator’s remark that "They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but was only represented by a set of arbitrary signs" (Ch. VI).

3. How would members of Newland and May’s set describe the role of women? of men? (See especially Ch. VI.) What do they find vexing about Ellen Olenska’s behavior?

4. Once you have read the entire novel, consider the following. In The Writing of Fiction, Wharton acknowledges that "the first page of a novel ought to contain the germ [seed, essence] of the whole" (39). In what ways do Age’s first two chapters contain the "germ of the whole" novel? Be sure to look not only at the opening scene but also at statements by individual characters (e.g. May’s question in Ch. II, "Why should we change what is already settled?").

5. What role do minor characters–for instance Julius Beaufort, Mrs. Manson Mingott, the Van der Luydens, Newland’s mother and sister Janey, and others–play in this novel?

6. How do you interpret Newland’s decision not to visit Ellen Olenska in the final chapter of the novel?

7. Watch the film based on this novel made by Martin Scorsese. Generally Scorsese stays very close to the novel, but the film is nevertheless (as it must be) an interpretation of the novel. How does he see–and present–the central characters? What is his final "take" on Newland Archer and his life decisions? (Note that in the film, Scorsese has reversed the appearance of "Ellen" and "May." That is, in the novel May is tall and blond; Ellen is smaller and dark-haired. What, if anything, do you make of this reversal?)

8. If you have read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, how would you compare this novel? Both are novels about marriage; both feature an "Archer" (James’s main character is Isabel Archer). In what ways is Wharton revising or re-imagining James’s central theme?

A note on texts:

For those interested in some critical readings, Carole Singley has edited a critical edition of this novel with Riverside. The Norton Critical Edition, ed. Candace Waid, is also available.  Both are excellent sources of additional commentary and readings.

--Contributed by Julie Olin-Ammentorp, LeMoyne College