The Age of Innocence was Edith Wharton's 12th novel and is located in familiar Wharton territory. The genteel snobbery of the upper classes with its underlying cruelty and heartless judgments passed on those who cross the line is wonderfully depicted in The Age of Innocence. The story opens at a glittering music concert, featuring the wonderful opera singer Christine Nilsson singing Faust at the Music Academy in New York. In the high-society club boxes, the leading lights of New York society train their opera glasses on the crowd, occasionally throwing a sniping remark or two. Newland Archer, a young, handsome, wealthy lawyer whose privileged background is matched only by that of his new fiancée, May Welland. As the self satisfied and complacent Archer surveys the crowd in the opera theater, he overhears two men gossiping about a lady who has just entered a nearby opera box. She is Ellen Olenska, the recent widow of a Polish count, who had shocked society a few years earlier by first marrying a complete outsider and then running away from him to live alone in various cities across Europe. For Archer, the issue is complicated by the fact that Ellen is his beloved May's first cousin. What follows has a devastating impact on the lives of everyone who is connected with the cousins. The story traces the roots of social prejudices and is an absolutely frank and fearless look at the hypocrisy, double standards and betrayals that people indulge in, in the name of “good form.” The Age of Innocence is filled with memorable characters like the elderly gossip Sillerton Jackson, who is not just considered to be an authority on “families” but also possesses an indelible memory about every single scandal and mystery that has occurred in the claustrophobic Manhattan society of the day. The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and takes its title from a famous eighteenth century English painting by Joshua Reynolds. It was initially serialized in 1920 in the Pictorial Review magazine, but later compiled into a book and published in the following year. As a ruthless and bitter commentary on the social mores of the day, The Age of Innocence is certainly an insightful book to enjoy.
Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir of one of New York City's most illustrious families, happily anticipates his highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic and beautiful 30-year-old cousin. Olenska strikes Archer as the opposite of the innocent and ignorant May Welland. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a disastrous marriage to a Polish count. At first, Ellen's arrival and its potential taint on the reputation of his bride-to-be's family disturbs Newland, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen, who brazenly flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so do his doubts about 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 causes a social crisis for the other members of her family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated, but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from going through with the divorce. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her. Afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to elope and accelerate their wedding date, but she refuses.
Some weeks later, Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified that their love will hurt May, so does not want him to leave May for her. Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry. He tries unsuccessfully to forget Ellen. His society marriage is mediocre, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington 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 to return to him, but she has refused, although her family wants her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe. Frustrated by her independence, the family has 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 be with her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he urges her to run away with him, but she refuses. 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 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 him that she learned that morning that she is pregnant; she reveals that she had told Ellen of her pregnancy two weeks earlier, despite not being sure of it at the time. The implication is that May did so because she suspected the affair and that this is Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland decides to remain with May and not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his child.
Twenty-six years later, after May's death, Newland and his eldest son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching the balcony of her apartment. Newland considers going up, but in the end decides not to; he walks back to his hotel without seeing her. Newland's final words about the love affair are "It's more real to me here than if I went up."
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