The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
(Bantam Classics, Mass Market Paperback, 9780553214505, 320pp.)
Publication Date: January 1996
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Edith Wharton’s masterpiece brings to life the grandeur and hypocrisy of a gilded age. Set among the very rich in 1870s New York, it tells the story of Newland Archer, a young lawyer engaged to marry virginal socialite May Welland, when he meets her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman unbound by convention and surrounded by scandal. As all three are drawn into a love triangle filled with sensuality, subtlety, and betrayal, Archer faces a harrowing choice between happiness and the social code that has ruled his life. The resulting tale of thwarted love is filled with irony and surprise, struggle and acceptance. Recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction ever awarded to a woman, this great novel paints a timeless portrait of “society” still unmatched in American literature—an arbitrary, capricious social elite that professes inviolable standards but readily abandons them for greed and desire.
The upper stratum of New York society into which Edith Wharton was born in 1862 provided her with an abundance of material as a novelist but did not encourage her growth as an artist. Educated by tutors and governesses, she was raised for only one career: marriage. But her marriage, in 1885, to Edward Wharton was an emotional disappointment, if not a disaster. She suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns in 1894. In spite of the strain of her marriage, or perhaps because of it, she began to write fiction and published her first story in 1889.
Her first published book was a guide to interior decorating, but this was followed by several novels and story collections. They were written while the Whartons lived in Newport and New York, traveled in Europe, and built their grand home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In Europe, she met Henry James, who became her good friend, traveling companion, and the sternest but most careful critic of her fiction. The House of Mirth (1905) was both a resounding critical success and a bestseller, as was Ethan Frome (1911). In 1913 the Whartons were divorced, and Edith took up permanent residence in France. Her subject, however, remained America, especially the moneyed New York of her youth. Her great satiric novel, The Custom of the Country was published in 1913 and The Age of Innocence won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
In her later years, she enjoyed the admiration of a new generation of writers, including Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all, she wrote some thirty books, including an autobiography. A Backwards Glance (1934). She died at her villa near Paris in 1937.
- Why does Archer neglect to tell Countess Olenska of his engagement to May Welland, despite the fact that May has instructed him to do so?
"Is it—in this world—vulgar to ask for more? To entreat a little wildness, a dark place or two in the soul?"—Katherine Mansfield
"There is no woman in American literature as fascinating as the doomed Madame Olenska. . . . Traditionally, Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature."—Gore Vidal
"Will writers ever recover that peculiar blend of security and alertness which characterizes Mrs. Wharton and her tradition?"—E. M. Forster