Study Guide

The Age of Innocence

By Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence Introduction

In a nutshell, New York high society in the 1870s was in a nutshell. As in: claustrophobic. Insular. Sealed from the outside. Made prison life in Orange Is The New Black look seriously liberated.

Edith Wharton often describes the old New York of her childhood as "little." Little, you know, like the capacity of a nutshell or the feeling of being in a tight straightjacket. New York's littleness is the setting and the theme for The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, which won Wharton the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Why did this lady decide to write about the past? Wharton wanted to understand what happens if a whole society refuses to abandon its littleness and innocence and expose itself to the big, bad world out there. Hint: It's way worse than refusing to give up sleeping with your favorite teddy bear.

In The Age of Innocence we follow poor-little-rich-boy Newland Archer as he deviates from his life's plan (marry the perfect debutante, May Welland, be gentlemanly until he dies) by becoming seriously smitten by the semi-scandalous Countess Olenska, who has separated from her European hubby. Pretty classic storyline, right? Uptight suit meets kooky Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Hilarity ensues?

Maybe in the 21st century, but definitely not in the 1870s. Newland and Madame Olenska are passionately in love with each other, but they're up against the force of nature that is Little Old New York's innocence. Again, leave behind your idea of innocence as being personified by a little girl with bows in her hair, and imagine a little girl with bows in her hair wielding a bloody axe. Innocence is a whole hornets' nest of puritanical morals, rigid social distinctions, idealization of feminine chastity, rituals and traditions, and resistance to anything remotely different or modern or European.

If this still sounds dull to you, consider the fact that Martin Scorsese made a movie of The Age of Innocence in 1993. Yeah, that Martin Scorsese. The dude who loves making bloody mob movies (Goodfellas), bloody psychopath movies (Taxi Driver), and bloody gambling movies (Casino), also directed The Age of Innocence. Proof positive that there's more than enough manipulation, intrigue and ruined lives in The Age of Innocence to fascinate even Martin 'Ultraviolence' Scorsese. The evil in The Age of Innocence is just disguised by, well, innocence.

What is The Age of Innocence About and Why Should I Care?

Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, and everyone's favorite 90s nostalgia flick Clueless all thrive on a basic premise: throw an outsider into an exclusive and privileged world and the drama will begin.

This storyline has been around for-freaking-ever, but it's not easy to write. It takes an insider's know-how and an outsider's snark to pull this off. And who has more snark and know-how than Edith Wharton? She perfected the outsider-in-privilege-land storyline in The Age of Innocence. Gossip Girl evenacknowledges Wharton's influence with a wink-wink when the characters put on a performance of… The Age of Innocence. The episode itself is entitled The Age of Dissonance—go figure.

Why does this storyline have such enduring popularity? Well, on the surface level it portrays a privileged lifestyle: tons of money or tons of power or a super combo of the two. Hey, money and power are pretty attractive; we're not going to lie. Everything's so shiny.

It's also exciting to relate to the character of the outsider, who gets to experience all of the new pretty things and perks of social power for the first time. It's the American Dream all over again: making it big from nothing at all, getting in with the popular kids, winning the lottery.

But the thing about the American Dream is that, at least in the sarcasm-tastic world of literature, you always wake up. The The Age of Innocence is also (like Gossip Girl, like Mean Girls) a study in how the sparkly façade of the Inner Circle can let you down. Hard. Once you're inside that world of privilege or power or prestige, the walls start closing in. It's lonely at the top. It's precarious at the top. It's cutthroat at the top. There are more rules of conduct at the top than there are hors d'oeuvres at a black tie event.

The Age of Innocence describes these rules and regulations of conduct even while it describes the lavish spreads and the sumptuous clothing. It describes the coziness of having a (super-duper rich) place in society, even as it describes the claustrophobia that that society inspires. It makes being outside New York's social stratosphere seem cold and bleak, even as it makes being inside New York's social stratosphere seem cold and bleak.

You get the best (or worst?) of both worlds in The Age of Innocence. You get to ooh and aah over the fancy-pants-ness of High Society circa 1870s, and then you get to come away feeling super relieved than you don't have to exist in High Society circa 1870s. You get to enjoy the drama of Countess Olenska stepping into the world of the Archers, Mingotts and Wellands even as you breathe a sigh of relief that you will never have to.

The Age of Innocence Resources

Websites

Edith Wharton's Humble Home
A website maintained by the curators at the Mount, her home in Lenox, MA, which is now a museum.

The Age of Innocence
An e-text version of the novel.

Movie or TV Productions

The Age of Innocence (1993)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

Historical Documents

Wharton's Deadly Research
Now that you know how easily she disposes of her characters, why did she give the characters in The Age of Innocence such long lives?

Wharton's Countess Olenska
We can think of Edith Wharton as Newland Archer and Morton Fullerton as Countess Olenska after reading these passionate letters.

Video

The Age of Innocence (Trailer)
Trailer for Martin Scorcese's 1993 adaptation of the novel.

Behind the Scenes of The Age of Innocence, Part 1 of 3
Hear the stars of The Age of Innocence chat about their Wharton-errific experience.

Behind the Scenes of The Age of Innocence, Part 2 of 3
Hear the stars of The Age of Innocence chat about their Wharton-errific experience.

Behind the Scenes of The Age of Innocence, Part 3 of 3
Hear the stars of The Age of Innocence chat about their Wharton-errific experience.

Audio

Wharton Gossip
A NPR story that peers into the passionate love affair that derailed Edith Wharton's life, Newland Archer-style.

Images

The Death of Actaeon
A depiction of Actaeon's grisly death in punishment for seeing the Greek goddess Diana naked.

The Age of Innocence (1788)
Edith Wharton took her title from Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of his favorite niece.