The Age of Innocence The 1785 painting by Joshua Reynolds believed to have been the inspiration for the title of Wharton's novel
The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton's 12th novel, initially serialized in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine in 1920, and later released by D. Appleton and Company as a book in New York and in London. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making it the first novel written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and thus Wharton the first woman to win the prize. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s.
The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple's impending marriage, and the introduction of a woman plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier novel, The House of Mirth, which was more brutal and critical.
The novel is noted for Wharton's attention to detail regarding the way of life of the upper caste. The novel is lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize—the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she had lived in that world and had seen it change dramatically by the end of World War I.
The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society when compared to its inward machinations. It is believed to have been drawn from the popular 1785 painting A Little Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds that later became known as The Age of Innocence and which was widely reproduced as the commercial face of childhood in the later half of the eighteenth century.
Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's best families, is happily anticipating a 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 thirty-year-old cousin. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a bad 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 him, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen, who flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt 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 divorcing the count. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her; afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date, but she refuses.
Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified that their love will aggrieve May. She agrees to remain in America, separated but still married to Count Olenski, only if they do not sexually consummate their love. Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry. He tries unsuccessfully to forget Ellen. His society marriage is loveless, 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, despite her family pushing 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 possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he attempts to have her agree to be his mistress. 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 she did so because she suspected the affair. Newland guesses that this is Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland decides not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his children, remaining in a loveless marriage to May.
Twenty-six years later, after May's death, Newland and his 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 Archer: The story's protagonist is a young, popular, successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in an elegant New York City house. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper-class New York City society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. At the story's start, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the husband-teacher and she the wife-student. His life changes when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Through his relationship with her—first friendship, then love—he begins questioning the values on which he was raised. He sees the sexual inequality of New York society and the shallowness of its customs, and struggles to balance social commitment to May with love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgmental web of New York society. Throughout the story's progress, he transgresses the boundaries of acceptable behavior for love of Ellen: first following her to Skuytercliff, then Boston, and finally deciding to follow her to Europe (though he later changes his mind). In the end, though, Newland Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories.
Mrs. Manson Mingott: The matriarch of the powerful Mingott family, and grandmother to Ellen and May. She was born Catherine Spicer, to an inconsequential family. Widowed at 28, she has ensured her family's social position through her own shrewdness and force of character. She controls her family: at Newland's request, she has May and Mrs. Welland agree to an earlier wedding date. She controls the money — withholding Ellen's living allowance (when the family is angry with Ellen), and having niece Regina Beaufort ask for money when in financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society, at times pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior; receiving guests in her house's ground floor, though society associates that practice with women of questionable morals. Her welcoming Ellen is viewed skeptically, and she insists the rest of the family support Ellen.
Mrs. Augusta Welland: May's mother, who has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's dullness, lack of imagination, and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are a consequence of this influence. She has effectively trained her husband, the weak-willed Mr. Welland, to conform to her desires and wishes. Mrs. Welland is the driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed sooner to Newland's request for an earlier wedding date. After a few years of marriage, Newland Archer perceives in his mother-in-law what May will become — stolid, unimaginative, and dull.
May Welland: Newland Archer's fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother, she follows and perfectly obeys all of society's customs. Mostly, she is the shallow, uninterested and uninteresting young woman that New York society requires. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Newland a rare glimpse of the maturity and compassion he had previously ignored. She offers to release him from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently ended a love affair. When he assures May that he loves only her, May appears to trust him, at least at first. Yet after their marriage, she suspects that Newland is Ellen's lover. Nonetheless, May pretends to be happy before society, maintaining the illusion that she and he have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness activates her manipulative nature, and Newland does not see it until too late. To drive Ellen away from him, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy before she is certain of it. Yet there still is compassion in May, even in their loveless marriage's long years after Ellen's leaving. After May's death, Newland Archer learns she had always known of his continued love for Ellen; as May lay dying, she told their son Dallas that the children could always trust their father Newland, because he surrendered the thing most meaningful to him out of loyalty to their marriage.
Ellen Olenska: She is May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a countess by marrying Polish Count Olenski, a European nobleman. Her husband was allegedly cruel and abusive, stole Ellen's fortune and had affairs with other women and possibly even with men. When the story begins, Ellen has fled her unhappy marriage, lived in Venice with her husband's secretary, and has returned to her family in New York City, America. She is a free spirit who helps Newland Archer see beyond narrow New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal; offering the servant her own cape before sending her out on an errand. She attends parties with disreputable people such as Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Newland, the fiancé of her cousin May, to visit her. Ellen suffers as much as Newland from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in emotional limbo so long as they can love each other at a distance. Ellen's love for Newland drives her important decisions: dropping divorce from Count Olenski, remaining in America, and offering Newland choice of sexual consummation only once, and then disappearing from his life. Her conscience and responsibility to family complicate her love for Newland. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to leave America, refusing Newland's attempt to follow her to Europe, and so allow cousin May to start her family with her husband Newland.
Christine Nilsson: A famous singer who performs in an opera on the night of Archer and May's engagement. She sings in the same opera two years later.
Mrs. Lovell Mingott: May and Ellen's aunt, and the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Manson Mingott.
Lawrence Lefferts: A wealthy young man and a member of Archer's social circle. He is considered the expert on manners. Archer believes that Lefferts is behind New York society's rude refusal to attend the welcome dinner for Ellen. According to Archer, Lefferts makes a big show of his morality every time that his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Lefferts, suspects that he is having an affair.
Sillerton Jackson: The expert on the families that make up New York society. He knows who is related to whom, and the history of every important family. Mrs. Archer and Janey invite him over for dinner when they want to catch up on gossip.
Julius Beaufort: An arrogant banker who tries to have an affair with Ellen. He even follows her to Skuytercliff during the weekend that Archer goes to visit Ellen. His banking business eventually fails, and he leaves New York society in disgrace.
Regina Beaufort: Julius Beaufort's wife and Mrs. Manson Mingott's niece. She comes to Mrs. Mingott to ask for a loan when her husband's bank fails. Her visit causes Mrs. Mingott to have a stroke.
Janey Archer: Archer's dowdy, unmarried sister who never goes out and relies on Archer. She and her mother invite guests to dinner so they can gossip about New York society. Janey disapproves of Ellen, because she is unconventional and independent, and does not simply tolerate her husband's abuse.
Mrs. Adeline Archer: Archer's widowed mother. She does not get out to events often, but loves to hear about society. She and Janey strongly believe in the values of New York society. Like Janey, she views Ellen with suspicion. Henry van der Luyden is her cousin.
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers: A woman on the fringes of New York society. She is treated with mistrust and scorn until Ellen befriends her. She eventually becomes popular; at the end of the novel, May thinks it appropriate to go to her parties.
Count Olenski: Ellen's husband, a dissolute aristocrat who drove Ellen away with neglect and misery. At first, Count Olenski is content to let Ellen go. Later, though, he sends his secretary to America to ask Ellen to return, with the stipulation that she only appear as his hostess occasionally. He never appears in the story, but is described as half paralyzed and very pale, with thick feminine eyelashes. He constantly cheats on Ellen, and a veiled remark of Lefferts' implies that he copulates with men, too. What other abuses and infidelities he commits are unknown, but he seems quite malicious.
Sophy Jackson: Sillerton Jackson's unmarried sister. She is a friend of Janey and Mrs. Archer.
Louisa and Henry van der Luyden: Cousins of the Archers, and the most powerful people in New York society. They only mingle with people when they are trying to save society. Mrs. Archer goes to the Van der Luydens after New York society snubs Ellen. They invite her to a very exclusive party in honor of the Duke of St. Austrey to show society that they support her.
Duke of St Austrey: An English Duke. A cousin of the Van der Luydens, he is the guest of honor at a dinner party thrown by them. Both Ellen and Archer find him dull.
Nastasia: Ellen's Italian maid. She invites Archer and the other guests to wait in Ellen's sitting room.
Mr. Letterblair: The senior partner of Archer's law firm. He gives Archer the responsibility of talking Ellen out of her plans to divorce the Count.
Mrs. Rushworth: The vain, foolish married woman with whom Archer had an affair before his engagement to May.
Ned Winsett: A journalist. He and Archer are friends, despite their different social circles. He is one of the few people with whom Archer feels that he can have a meaningful conversation. Ned Winsett challenges Archer to think of things outside society.
Reggie Chivers: An important member of society. Archer spends a weekend at their country home on the Hudson River.
Marchioness Medora Manson: The aunt who took Ellen to Europe as a child. She now lives in Washington, where Ellen goes to take care of her. During a visit to New York, she tries to persuade Archer to convince Ellen that she should return to the Count. Beaufort's bank failure eventually ruins Mrs. Manson's fortune, and she moves back to Europe with Ellen.
Dr. Agathon Carver: A friend (and possible love interest) of the Marchioness Manson. Archer meets him at Ellen's house.
Du Lac aunts: Archer's elderly aunts. They offer their country home to May and Archer for their honeymoon.
Mrs. Carfry: An English acquaintance of Janey and Mrs. Archer. She invites Archer and May to a dinner party while they are on their European wedding tour.
M. Rivière: The French tutor of Mrs. Carfry's nephew. He fascinates Archer with his life story and intellect. Later, Archer learns that he was Count Olenski's secretary and the man who helped Ellen escape her marriage. The count sends him to Boston to try to convince Ellen to return to Europe.
Emerson Sillerton: An unfashionable, eccentric professor who spends his summers in Newport with the rest of society. His wife throws a party for the Blenker family that no one wants to attend.
Blenker family: The unfashionable, socially inferior family with whom the Marchioness and Ellen stay while in Newport. They are the guests of honor at Mrs Emerson Sillerton's party, and seem to be a clever, kind bunch.
Miss Blenker: The youngest daughter of the Blenker family. When Archer visits her empty family's house on the day of Mrs Sillerton's party, she is there. Archer briefly confuses her with Ellen, and she flirts with him. Through Miss Blenker, Archer learns that Ellen has gone to Boston.
Dallas Archer: May and Archer's eldest child. He takes his father on a trip to Europe. Through Dallas, Archer learns that May felt sorry for his empty heart after Ellen left.
Fanny Beaufort: Dallas Archer's fiancée and the daughter of Julius Beaufort and his second wife. She asks Dallas to visit Ellen while he and Archer are in Paris.