Law School Archives
READ // The Age of Innocence
Annette Clark, Seattle University
The Age of InnocenceBy Edith WhartonNew York : Aegypan Press, c2006PS3545.H16A73 2006
From Professor Annette Clark:
As is apparent from the irony-laden title, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is a searing critique of New York society in the 1870s. As is always true of her books, it provides a remarkable entrée into the interior of people’s lives and their relationships, and an exposition on the influence that society has on those lives and relationships. The first time I read The Age of Innocence, I conceptualized it as primarily a feminist critique. Edith Wharton shines a light on the remarkably constrained lives that women such as May Welland were permitted to lead, and the high penalties exacted when someone such as Ellen Olenska, who had been effectively banished by her peers, tried to reenter society. The second time I read it, I saw the narrative as a cautionary tale on the importance of making choices that are consistent with one’s values and beliefs; choices that will lead to a life that is genuine and authentic and that has integrity. Because of the leavening from my own experiences, the third time that I read The Age of Innocence, I felt a great deal more compassion for the protagonist Newland Archer, who at the end of the book looks back on his life with a mixture of regret and even bemusement. I’m no longer certain that Edith Wharton intended us to conclude that Newland and Ellen Olenska would have been happy had he but cast off the dictates of society and ‘come to her.’ Perhaps I’ve learned that life isn’t about making that one choice that will inexorably lead to personal fulfillment, but rather that it is a series of choices and compromises, each of which comes with its own set of joys and pain, and that the best that we can do is keep tacking toward a good life and a life of good. I have no doubt that were I to read The Age of Innocence again, I would discover new insights amidst the pages. That is, after all, the hallmark of great literature.
From the Publisher:"On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.” With this line, Edith Wharton begins her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel where the lives of Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen Olenska intersect testing the power of social convention to control human emotion. Edith Wharton illustrates that sacrificing happiness to protect others is not an act of charity or goodness but an act of foolishness for what one loses through sacrifices cannot be regained. With the many ironic situations of uncertainty and captivating passion, The Age of Innocence powerfully portrays “a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending civilization.”
About the Author:Edith Wharton was born on January 24, 1862. In addition to The Age of Innocence and other novels such as the ever popular Ethan Frome (1911), she also created collections of short stories, poems, articles, translations, and reviews. Wharton wrote her best when she was portraying the manners of New England America at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Heavily influenced by her friend Henry James, she depicted the contradictions of upper-class society.
In August 1937, Wharton suffered a stroke and died in France. She is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles.
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