The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, carefully illustrates the social stigmas prevalent in 1870s New York. I loved Wharton’s ability to draw me in to the internal battles the main characters faced, and I empathized with their desires to find belonging. While today’s social stigmas differ, the emotions remain the same.

In the beginning of the novel, Newland Archer ponders his upcoming engagement to May Welland, idealistic about his ability to influence her life and help her become a “free” woman, simply by being an engaging and caring husband.

Newland Archer’s idealistic world is shaken, however, first when May’s cousin and his old beau (Ellen Mingott Olenska) returns to New York, shamed and disgraced after leaving her cruel and abusive husband. Newland must reconsider his notions of women’s social position. When Madame Olenska begins to seek a divorce, the New York society is shocked. Such a situation would bring shame to all of Ellen’s family, including Newland’s wife-to-be. Newland must determine if his own exclamation “women should be free—as free as we are”(Vol. 1, Chap. 6) is realistic for “poor Ellen Olenska.”

In the process, Newland Archer realizes that he is not as free in his relationships as he had imagined. His developing relationship with Madame Olenska complicates the matter, and he realizes that his marriage will not be as he had envisioned.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. … There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…. (Vol. 2, Chap. 2)

Ultimately, The Age of Innocence is the story of a man coming to terms with the 1870s social constraints on the most intimate of relationships, love and marriage. Newland Archer finds that the social stigmas prevalent in society distance people: “There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart” (Vol. 2, Chap. 6). In the end, he must decide whether or not he will live within the socially unacceptable dreams he has or if he will look “not at visions, but at realities” (Volume 2, Chapter 11).

I highly recommend this novel.

In our day, women are essentially free to enter in to a relationship or to end a relationship. In The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer desired to help women choose their destinies, all the while being married to a woman who didn’t comprehend she could be anything other than a dutiful wife and mother. I choose to stay home with my son and fill that roll, but some women today feel trapped into such situations. How can we as a society help women recognize their own abilities to choose and accept the choices they have made?

Note: I read this book via, which emails you a part of your selected novel (in the public domain) every day. It worked well for me.

Reviewed on June 10, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • First off, what a cover for that book! Love it! I haven’t read this one but I’m a stay at home mom who realizes that my job is the most important one that I’ll ever have. I think that if we, as individuals, don’t dumb down our own jobs as mothers and instead stand proud, then we can help others realize that their roles are important as well.

  • @Natasha @ Maw Books:

    I love that cover! I didn’t read that version, but when I searched Amazon for a cover shot, I found it and had to use it: it’s a perfect illustration of The Age of Innocence. Thanks for your comments about mothers. I love my job!

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