The Age of Innocence: Book 1

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Age of Innocence Read-along is hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm.

Edith Wharton's 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel is set in New York among the social elite. Newland Archer is a young man who becomes fortuitously engaged to the most beautiful, desirable girl in their circle, May Welland, after a short-lived and scandalous dalliance with a married woman. The only blight on his good fortune is the arrival of May's cousin, the Countess Olenska, a woman who has left her abusive husband and a trail of scandalous rumors behind her as she seeks for peace and acceptance among her relatives in New York. Her potential to cast a negative light on Newland's future family leads him to try and protect her, and as he spends time with her, he develops an interest in her.

I love The House of Mirth, so I had high expectations for this one. So far, they have been met, if not exceeded. Wharton's wry evaluations of society are marked and apt. The characters perform an elegant dance of propriety and small deceptions in order to keep appearances - "the persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies." Newland himself is described as "at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him subtler satisfaction than its realisation." He loves the idea of participating in culture more than he loves culture for its own sake (although he is described as an avid book lover, which I appreciated). Society is his air and he doesn't know how to exist without it.

Ellen Olenska challenges this society. While she wants to be accepted by it, she doesn't follow its conventions. She lives in a shabby house in a bohemian part of town. She wears clothes that are beautiful but out of fashion, and arranges flowers in a way that is considered charming, but quite odd. (I don't think I would ever think to analyze someone's methods of floral arrangements, but I guess Society considers any aberration from Fashion to be worth taking note). Newland is shocked but allured by her. Even as he tells himself he is so grateful for May's poise and apparent perfection, he starts wondering how much of May is her own self and how much is of May is a product of their society. Does her perfection mean that she is nothing but a reflection of her upbringing? He starts to doubt the relationship. This is a long excerpt, but I absolutely love it so I'm going to include the whole thing:
What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends' marriages - the supposedly happy ones - and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
Cold feet, anyone? But really - he suddenly has this moment of realizing that he can't have both his dreams of an intelligent, passionate companion and his dreams of remaining neatly in his societal niche. This is problem enough with just the cold feet, but throw in a still-married countess with a scandal staining her past who just so happens to allure him completely. As he mourns to himself the lack of innocence of the Countess, he can't help thinking, "he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!"

So Newland is stuck in his own self-made dilemma. Marry the girl who is everything he thought he ever wanted, who will be his perfect match in society, but who is maybe not equipped to really live, or run away with the tainted woman that awakens passion and kinship in his heart? I'm excited to find what happens next. I will say that this story has moved a little slower for me than I expected, but it was that way with The House of Mirth as well, slowly gaining momentum and emotion until it was unbearably tragic and beautiful. Part 2 will be posted on March 2!


  1. Lovely write up! I'm participating in the read-along as well and everything you wrote is spot on. I'm really hoping Archer will get it together and end up with Olenska, but I've got a sneaky feeling that Wharton has something else in store for us.

  2. Wharton is wonderful and you are totally getting it! How nice for both of you.

  3. This is a great post! Sorry to be so delayed- yesterday turned out to be a real nightmare and I didn't get to check it. I love how all the participants have picked out most of the same quotations to emphasize their argument/point-of-view! We're all on the same page. I agree that I found the work to be a little slow at first, but once I stopped before Book Two, I found I almost couldn't let myself step away! Interested to see what's next. Thanks for participating and so glad you're enjoying it! This has been so much fun. :)

  4. @Brenna - Thank you! I am hoping the same thing, but The House of Mirth was so sad and I'm worrying it's going to play out here as well. :(

    @J.G. - Yes, she and I are getting along quite well. Haha. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Beth - Thanks for hosting such a great read-along. It's been fun to read everyone's insights so far! I haven't had time to read this for a couple of days but I am planning on getting into it again tomorrow and then I don't think I'll be putting the book down til it's over. I want it to end happily SO much!

  5. You are absolutely right that it is a "dance of propriety and small deceptions in order to keep appearances." Thank you for your indepth post. It was very thought provoking.

  6. Beachreader - Thanks for reading!


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