Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is a part-nostalgic, part-satiric recreation of the surfaces of New York City. This teacher's literature guide includes information about author Edith Wharton and discussion questions.
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Updated: June 9, 2019
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Though The Age of Innocence is set, except for its denouement, in the 1870s, its mood reflects Edith Wharton's awareness of the tremendous changes about to alter forever the insular world of Old New York. Not only would the First World War change the whole consciousness and shape of the world, but other major changes would occur in the United States as well. As Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick point out in 1915: The Cultural Moment, between 1880 and 1920, half of the rural population, which in 1880 comprised fifty percent of the workforce, abandoned farming as a way of life. During the same period, the gross national product and the per capita income in the United States doubled, yet one third to one half of the population lived in poverty. Between 1890 and 1915, fifteen million new immigrants came to the country, arriving primarily from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, from which large numbers of Jews emigrated. Greeting the arrival of these immigrants were increasingly intense waves of racism and xenophobia.

For women, the situation at the turn of the century was mixed. Many women privileged by race or class, or by a combination of the two, found the three to four decades leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and their gaining the right to vote exciting, filled with new opportunities. A number of traditionally male occupations were for the first time opened to them. According to United States census figures, employment as a carpenter, stonecutter, mail carrier, teamster, detective, banker, or undertaker became possible for women in the early twentieth century; and women's representation in the professions - primarily the clergy, law, architecture, medicine, photography, teaching, nursing, dentistry, and journalism - rose from 6.4 percent in 1870 to 13.3 percent in 1920. New occupations or ones newly defined as suitable for women - such as stenographer, typist, trained nurse, department-store clerk - opened up. Women's enrollment in colleges and universities between 1900 and 1920 increased by 1,000 percent in public institutions and 482 percent in private ones. For native-born, middle-class white women, sexual mores began to change, with birth control emerging as a discussible issue in some circles and pleasure in sexual relations starting to be recognized as a female, not just a male, possibility. Hemlines were rising, corsets were being discarded, hair was being worn shorter. So widespread and sweeping were the changes that even by the early 1890s the term "New Woman" - evoking the image of a confident, self-reliant, young adult capable of playing a public as well as a private role in society - had become commonplace. Not everyone was pleased about the advent of the New Woman, and not all women had access to the ideal. Furthermore, the ideal itself often varied depending on race, class, ethnicity, religion, region, or politics. Despite such differences, however, economic, social, and political change was finally taking place for many women.


In The Age of Innocence, Wharton looks back with some nostalgia and a great sense of loss on the old ways and the world of her childhood. But it seems unlikely that she would ever have become the woman or the writer she did if those old ways hadn't begun to ebb in the sea of change then occurring in the world beyond Old New York.

1) Wharton's title The Age of Innocence was an allusion to a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicting a five-year-old girl. What light does this cast on Wharton's view of the world she was writing about? Do you think the title is ironic? Newland Archer seems to love May largely for her innocence, yet he "did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience." What kind of innocence, then, does he want?

2) What do you make of Newland Archer's assertion - and of his later regret for that assertion - that "women should be free - as free as we are"? Do you think Wharton, who believed in many of Old New York's values, among them the importance of family, might have agreed with him? Do you think any aspects of Old New York's double standard for men's and women's conduct still hold sway in today's society?

3) Wharton seems both to satirize and to respect the society she writes about in The Age of Innocence. Where do you think one ends and the other begins? What good was there in the "old ways" as Wharton illustrates them? What was not so good? What is good and bad in the "new ways"? How does the relationship between Newland and his son Dallas reflect on the evolution of Old New York?

4) "That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features." Is "knowing nothing and expecting everything" a fair characterization of May? If not, what does she know that Archer doesn't know she knows? And if she doesn't expect everything, what is she willing to forgo? In what ways is May different from what Newland thinks she is? How does Wharton reveal strengths and individuality in her that Newland doesn't perceive?

5) What does Newland's relationship with Ellen bring out in him that his relationship with May does not? What, beyond it being taboo, troubles him? Does he seem comfortable with her? More "himself"? In what ways is Newland's perception of Ellen Olenska as limited and/or inaccurate as his perception of May? What do his feelings for Ellen really "mean"?

6) In early outlines for The Age of Innocence, Wharton tried on the idea of having Newland break his engagement to May and marry Ellen; eventually the two separate and return to their own worlds. In the end, why do you think she didn't opt for this plot line? What, if she had, would have been different about the "message" of the book? What, if she had pursued this plot, would you ultimately have thought of Newland? Of Ellen?

7) What does Wharton reveal about Old New York and/or about Newland Archer through the characters of Cynthia Mingott, Ned Winsett, Julius Beaufort, Mr. Welland, and Janey?

8) In what ways has American society evolved, and in what ways does it still seem similar to the particular American social subset Wharton wrote about? In what arenas does a significant pressure to conform still exist? Do you think there are places today where Countess Olenska might receive the same sort of reception she received in Old New York? Do mainstream American values still differ from European ones when it comes to sex, divorce, and marital fidelity? Or as regards artists, Bohemians, and "people who write"?

9) Why do you think Newland doesn't, in the end, meet with Ellen after May's death? Does his decision strike you as "right"? Why does he send his son, Dallas?

10) Do you agree with Newland Archer that he missed "the flower of life"? What would this other life have been like, if he could have lived it without negative consequences to May or anyone else?

11) Though it was for the most part well received, at least one influential critic thought The Age of Innocence was irrelevant to the larger issues of its day. A recurring criticism of Wharton's work was that it was largely concerned with the trivial concerns of trivial people. Do you agree with these criticisms? If not, what gives Wharton's subject matter its larger significance? How do depictions of the love lives of the upper class illumine larger or more important issues about the world? What do these criticisms presuppose about what is important, or what constitutes a large issue?

Available from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics

The House of Mirth (1905)
With an Introduction and Notes by Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Wharton's second novel (after The Valley of Decision, published in 1902) was the novel that made her famous. A critically acclaimed, runaway bestseller in its own day, it remains a bitingly relevant, blackly comic satire of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of high society, and a deeply tragic vision of the spiritual consequences to women of a world that defines them chiefly as the ultimate commodity. The beautiful Lily Bart, age twenty-nine, seeks a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of wealth - while ignoring the one man who might be capable of actually making her happy. Her quest comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being the mistress of a wealthy man and exiled from the only world she knows how to navigate.

Ethan Frome (1911)
With an Introduction and Notes by Doris Grumbach

Wharton's best-known book is unique among her thirty-one novels, novellas, and collections of short stories both in substance and in style. Constructed as a story-within-a-story told by an unnamed narrator, and set in a bleak, frozen rural landscape, it is the tale of the struggling farmer Ethan Frome and his difficult, hypochondriacal wife Zeenie, whose marriage is threatened by the arrival in their household of Zeenie's vivacious cousin Matty. In her Introduction, Wharton claimed that the genesis of this austere, tragic book was her "uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little...resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it." Later, in her autobiography, she would call it the work she most enjoyed "making," and to which she "brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease."

The Reef (1912)
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner

Anna Leath, an American widow living in France, has renewed her relationship with her first love, the diplomat George Darrow. But on his way to her chateau, Givre, where he hopes to consolidate their marriage plans, Darrow encounters Sophy Viner, who is as vibrant and spontaneous as Anna is reserved and restrained. Months later, when Darrow finally makes his way to Givre, he learns that Anna's stepson, Owen, is engaged to the girl. And what to Darrow was a forgettable interlude becomes the reef on which the lives of four people are in danger of foundering. Acutely observed and rigorously crafted, distinguished by a compelling mood of fatality, The Reef met with negative reviews and poor sales upon its first publication. Wharton, discouraged, called it a "poor miserable lifeless lump." Henry James, however, thought it the finest thing she had yet written, a "passionately poignant" drama reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy.

The Custom of the Country (1913)
With an Introduction by Anita Brookner

Considered by many literary critics to be Wharton's best novel, The Custom of the Country is about, in the words of Anita Brookner, "the upwardly mobile and what eventually puts an end to their aspirations, about the unscrupulous and the entrenched, about nearly getting what one wants and being rendered powerless by the forces of society that lie in wait for those who overreach themselves." Mr. and Mrs. Spragg are hoping to forge an entree into society and arrange a suitably ambitious match for their only daughter. As Wharton unfolds the story of Undine Spragg - a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating - she provides a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior decor of upper-class America and its nouveau riche fringes. Her vision of social behavior is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted; her intricate and satisfying plot is supremely entertaining.

Summer (1917)
With an Introduction and Notes by Elizabeth Ammons

Written in six weeks while Wharton was on vacation from her home in Paris and her exhausting relief work on behalf of World War I refugees, Summer, revisits the rural Massachusetts Berkshire setting, the culturally impoverished and uneducated characters, and many of the themes of Ethan Frome. Wharton herself called the book her "hot Ethan." Summer is the story of Charity Royall, who lives unhappily with her hard-drinking adoptive father in the isolated village of North Dormer, until a visiting architect awakens her sexual passion and hope for escape. Inspired in part by Wharton's own secret affair with Morton Fullerton, in part by her own passionate view of American small-mindedness, this is a tale of forbidden desire and thwarted dreams.

The Buccaneers
Completed by Marion Mainwaring

Wharton's last, uncompleted novel, published posthumously in 1938, is a romantic tale about five wealthy American girls who set sail for London where they marry lords, earls, and dukes who find their beauty charming - and their wealth useful. Now completed by Marion Mainwaring, who took her cue from Wharton's own synopsis, The Buccaneers is "brave, lively, engaging...a fairy-tale novel, miraculously returned to life" (The New York Times Book Review).

Penguin Classics wishes to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

Shari Benstock, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.
Richard H. Lawson, Edith Wharton, New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
The Letters of Edith Wharton, R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, editors, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1988.
Margaret B. McDowell, Edith Wharton, Boston, Gwayne Publishers, G. K. Hall & Company, 1976.
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933, 1966.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.

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