02 Oct 2009

Essays on The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, though written during the war era of the early 20th century, is set in the pre-industrial New York.  It is a tale about love and intrigue in New York’s, and indirectly Europe’s, social elite.  The story begins with the main character’s betrothal to a social debutante, but is quickly complicated by his discovery of attraction to a woman of the European nobility.  His loyalty to his newly claimed wife is tested, almost resulting in his unfaithfulness, but circumstances work in favor of his remaining loyal to his wife in an almost anti-climatic manner.

Though considered by many to be Edith Wharton’s war novel, The Age of Innocence contains no elements of war or the sufferings of war.  The novel instead portrays a time of relative peace and innocence where the thoughts of young men are not of guns or the battle field, but of an equally powerful force:  love.

The novel, written in post WWI Paris, could just as easily have been set in modern day.  Newland Archer, the novel’s protagonist, is in a way a victim of his own success.  As a successful lawyer, Newland struggles to fit into New York’s upper society, but longs for adventure.  His betrothed, May Welland, is the epitome of women in upper society of the 1870s (the era in which the novel is set).  His life is complicated when May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, complaining of a sour marriage.  Her flamboyant style entices Newland with an air of adventure.

The Age of Innocence is a novel about the choices we make in our relationships.  Newland’s position as a prestigious attorney placed him in a position where marriage to a member of New York’s upper crust was not only socially acceptable, it was almost a mandate.  But in the midst of this, he is presented with the possibility of making another choice, and is tempted by the adventurous, flamboyant Countess.  Even after his marriage to May, the temptation almost overwhelms him, but this is reconciled by the Countess’ loyalty to her cousin, whom she learns is pregnant.  The effects of these events lead the Countess to make her own choice, leading her to return to her husband.

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