The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

In the first chapter of The Age of Innocence, Wharton runs a master class on exposition. She opens the novel at the old Academy of Music in New York, where the Fifth Avenue social elite has gathered to attend an operatic performance of Faust. With impeccable timing, the curtain goes up just as our protagonist, Newland Archer, enters the music house. So who is the stage performer: is it Christine Nilsson, the opera singer, or Newland Archer, a highly imaginative yet conventional man? Judging by the “emerald green cloth” that festoons the music hall, and judging, too, by the winking opera glasses and roaming gazes, the real drama is unfolding in the box seats and balcony. Here the players perform for, observe, and judge each other on a much larger and unforgiving stage. Over yonder is Mrs. Manson Mingott, the great matriarch (representing the power of family); and Lawrence Lefferts, the high priest of form (the power of fashion); and Sillerton Jackson, a naturally gifted insight genealogist (the power of knowing a family’s secret pain); and May Welland, Newland’s recent betrothed (the power of simplicity and convention); and Ellen Olenska, sitting beside May, a radiant, complicated woman with a checkered past (the power of passion and freedom). And then there’s Newland Archer, a deeply confused man, torn between duty and romantic love. Although he hasn’t an inkling of the conflict he will endure for many years, the reader, because of Wharton’s finely wrought exposition, is ready to find out.

8 Responses to The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

  1. Kerry says:

    Almost everything Wharton does is a “master class”, isn’t it? She is just so very good. I like how you point out that the opera is mere backdrop to the true theater of the evening. I assume you share several posts with your thoughts on the book, so I salivate.

  2. Hi Kerry, your salivation is my command. I’m kicking around ideas for two posts. The first one is neither here nor there; the second one will make what I hope is an original observation. I’m so hopeful in fact that I absolutely refuse to dig about the secondary literature to see if someone else has already spotted the sail at sea. If so, damn him or her. Here’s a clue: Sigmund Wharton! Cheers, Kevin de Silentio

  3. Fiona Bell says:

    Hi Kevin, I read this book several times, many years ago, but I was struck always by the way that even though it was set in brown stone New York and times sure have changed since that Old New York Wharton portrays, the human emotions are so timeless. Not just the grander themes of love and duty etc etc., but the intimate moments when something as brief as a feather from a hat accidentally touching someone becomes an exquisite moment of pleasure. A moment of connection. That love occurs without a word being said about it, it is a silent and secret truth known to the couple only. I just remember loving how that was portrayed, how Wharton unveils their love and of course I would love to talk about the ending, but won’t at this time.

  4. “…just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.” As for it being a silent and a secret truth, I don’t quite agree. Everyone in their circle, including Newland’s wife, as he later learns from his son, now a grown man, knew about his love for Ellen. I think the ending fantastic. Perfect. Exactly as it should be. I’ll touch on it soon and will be curious to learn if you think otherwise. Many cheers, Kevin

  5. Fiona Bell says:

    True. I was thinking early on that it was a shared secret, but of course you are right, even if Archer didn’t know other knew, they did know. But I remember (maybe I am confused about this, it has been a while since I read it), a period where it is just between the two of them. Looking forward to the rest of your posts, your bringing back memories of reading it from a wonderful time in my life. I love how books can be touch stones for previous incarnations of our lives.

  6. Love your intro to this book … and look forward to your next post/s. Some years after I read this one, I read Madame de Treymes and it felt reminiscent of The age of innocence, but I’m darned if I can remember now what it was. I must read it again. It’s little enough to sneak in between bigger reads!

  7. Tony says:

    Just acquired a Kindle, so I will be reading more of Ms. Wharton’s work soon – one advantage of the electronic age is free classics 🙂

    • It is … except I ended up buying (oh, I think it cost me 89cents) Sense and sensibility because the free one was broken. Just suddenly went to a blank page and after thinking I’d done something and trying all sorts of options, it clicked that it wasn’t moi!

      Also, some of the free ones come with poor metadata, eg no author, so when you list them by author they list at the beginning. You need then to use some intermediate software, like Calibre, to fix up the metadata. What’s that adage? You get what you pay for? Still, I do like my Kindle and look forward to hearing what you think.

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