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MonkeyNotes Free Study Guide-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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The novel is divided into two books, made up of a total of thirty- four chapters. The overall arc of the story is an inward journey made by a man, Newland Archer, as he struggles with his place in the world. In terms of plot, Book I is divided from Book II by the marriage of Newland Archer to May Welland. Book I is made up of the period before his engagement in which he first struggles against his society. Book II is made up of his reconciliation with that society, a major rebellion against it, and a final surrender.

Since The Age of Innocence is a personal journey, the plot centers exclusively on Newland. Before his engagement is announced, Newland is one with the judgments and tastes of his social group. He recognizes the pettiness of it, but also enjoys its stability and predictability. After he is engaged, Newland begins to recognize the serious flaws in this social group. He does so because he watches as it judges Ellen Olenska and then forces her to live a constrained life all because her husband was a brute to her. As he starts to form his dissenting opinions, he also begins to form an attachment to Ellen. In her presence, he imagines a larger world. His journey is interrupted and slowed for a time by his marriage to May.

After marriage, Newland Archer must learn to accept his life with his wife and his inevitable separation from Ellen. At first he tries to imagine a way out, then he accepts his choice. In the end, Newland reaches contentment with his old New York society. He finds a way to reform it from within. He remains true to his wife and becomes a good citizen and a good father.


Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is written in retrospect. The reader will notice signs of this fact throughout the novel. Occasionally Wharton will point to the future and the changes to be expected, changes of which the characters have only an inkling. For instance, when Newland Archer goes to pick up Ellen Olenska at the train station in Jersey City, he thinks of the plans the city has of building a tunnel which will speed up the travel between Jersey City and New York City. He is glad it hasn't yet been built because he wants as long as possible with Ellen before they reach her grandmother's house. It is a symbolic thought in the context of the novel as a whole.

The novel's title also signals the fact that it is retrospective. The Age of Innocence implies a fall. The novel is a portrait of how people lived before innocence was lost-a time when innocence was important. It is not always celebrated. A few instances will demonstrate this point: Newland Archer thinks that young girls like May Welland are brought up to be artificially innocent, stripped of natural fears and insights. The Wellands keep all news of the deterioration of society away from Mr. Welland, who has decided to live his life as a semi-invalid. Women know men conduct extramarital affairs, but refuse to say the word "mistress." The good thing about the age of innocence, though, despite its obvious flaws, is its allegiance to duty, its insistence that the individual serve the group. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska learn this lesson in different and difficult ways, but they recognize the nobility of the idea that one person's happiness shouldn't be made out of other people's loss.

The crux of the novel is stated when Newland and Ellen realize they are in love. Newland is engaged to May Welland, Ellen's cousin. He has just recently convinced Ellen not to get a divorce from her husband. These logistical difficulties are not the real reason that the two don't rush off to Europe to live happily ever after. When Newland convinces Ellen that her liberty is less important than the happiness of her family, he changes her mind about more than just the divorce. He shows her that the momentary desires of the individual should not be put above the stability and security of the group. If Ellen divorces, her family will be disgraced. After all the kindness they have shown her, she owes them a debt of gratitude. Ellen has been living in a society where such considerations were not made when conducting one's private affairs. The pleasures of the individual and the moment reign.

Ellen realizes that she has returned to New York as a way to come home and be different. She has accepted the values of her new society and has sacrificed her freedom out of allegiance to them. When she falls in love with Newland, she cannot very well change her allegiance and suddenly decide to betray her cousin and her family in order to be happy with the man she loves. In this respect, Wharton celebrates the value of the old way of doing things through Ellen. Even Newland, when he is in his fifties, accepts that there is good in the old ways and that doing one's duty, no matter how dull it sometimes becomes, is an absolute value.

The novel is not as simple as a morality play demonstrating that the romance of youth should be sacrificed for the stability of the group and the security of one's pledge. The old ways are also often cruel ways, and Wharton shows this in order to complicate a story that might otherwise be simplified and minimized. In refusing to let Ellen divorce her husband, her family sets her up for a life of loneliness or a life spent in illicit affairs with men. When her husband sends out word that he wants her to return to him, the family pushes Ellen to return, no matter what they already know of his baseness, not to mention the difficulties Ellen overcame to escape him. They even cut her off financially as punishment for her disobedience. This cruelty is shown in several other and more minor instances in the novel. When Julius Beaufort's bank fails, his wife is expected to go into seclusion, to become a social nonentity after having been the premier social force of New York society. When she asks her cousin, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, to help her, she is sent away. People notice who visits her and are shocked that Ellen Olenska does so in her grandmother's carriage. Not only is the society cruel, it's also guilty of practicing the double standard. It's a scandal when Ellen Olenska goes to Mrs. Struthers' Sunday night social, but it is nothing that the Duke goes. It's beyond imagining that a woman would conduct a sexual affair, but everyone knows that Lawrence Lefferts conducts them as a sort of ongoing hobby. In uncovering these serious flaws in New York society, Edith Wharton escapes a nostalgic treatment. She also accomplishes this escape with her last chapter.

In the last chapter, Wharton describes the present time, after the fall from innocence, in a very positive treatment. Dallas Archer is its representative, an energetic young man, full of the vigor of enthusiasm in his profession, in love with and engaged to a woman who would have been completely ostracized in the old society. He is a dutiful and loving son who recognizes his parents' innocence and is gentle with it and respectful of it. Even Newland Archer has changed in the new world of the turn of the century. Instead of living the deadly monotonous existence he had envisioned for himself, he has broken the bonds of a conventional life of an aristocrat and became an active citizen, a caring father, and a loyal husband.

It's useful to look at this last chapter in light of the reigning theme of the novel. In the new society, does the individual take precedence? The answer is not simple. It is true that Dallas thinks nothing of marrying Fanny Beaufort even though her social connections are tarnished by the fact that her mother was her father's mistress before his wife died and they got married. But it is also true that Dallas is outwardly focused. He spends his enthusiasm on a career in architecture, building the city to make it a good place for people to use. In this sense, the orientation of the old society toward the public good is maintained, but broadened. It seems that Wharton has kept the best of the old society and jettisoned those parts of it that stultified the human spirit.

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