The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, he describes social media as “the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” So the market said, here, perform everything all the time for no reason. “It’s prison,” he says. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the market is New York’s high society in the 1870s, and it’s fitting that the novel opens to a performance at an opera house because this is a story about people performing, and watching others perform, constantly.

The prison is society’s strict adherence to (arguably outdated) decorum: protocol, customs, etiquette, formalities, whatever you want to call them. This prison governs who people can marry, where and how they spend their time, what they wear, how they think, and whether or not their dreams are worth anything at all. These rules are strangling people, programming them, and as a result they live in a world where appearances are everything.

If they refuse to perform up to the claustrophobic norms of the day, they risk expulsion. No money from the patriarchy, no connections from the matriarchy, no respect whatsoever. Performance, then, becomes religion.

“Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

Every time I read a classic I inevitably ask myself the same question: “Has this book finished saying what it has to say?” If it’s become out of touch then it isn’t a classic, because classics endure; they reinvent themselves. We continue to find value in classics well past their point of origin.

The Age of Innocence is a nearly 100-year-old book about a society of fake, self-centred, and anxious people in 19th century New York and all I can think about after reading it is Facebook. If that’s not the definition of a classic in 2018 I don’t know what is.


As far as “prison” inmates go, Newland Archer is doing pretty well for himself. He’s a young man, the future centre of one of the most prominent families in New York. He is engaged to a beautiful young woman, May Welland, from an equally respected family. They love each other, at least as much as can be expected.

But Newland has a fatal flaw: he has a mind of his own. He is reflective and contemplative. He reads–novels, poetry, history–and appreciates art for its own sake, not because the opera is the ideal place for keeping up appearances. As a result, Newland is bored out of his mind when it comes to the prospect of spending the rest of his life with May, a sweet girl who, nevertheless, has all the vitality of a head of cabbage.

“As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.”

Enter May’s mysterious, free thinking, and alluring cousin, Ellen Olenska. Together with Newland, they are the only two people in The Age of Innocence who even approach the kind of romance they see on the opera’s stage. For everyone else, passion is the stuff of theatre; such love cannot exist in New York, not in 1870. Love is fantasy, it has no place in familial alliances. For most, “love” is simply a synonym for “marriage,” which might involve friendship, but never passion.

Ellen has returned to New York after divorcing her wealthy Polish husband. Her American family remains her sole asylum. If she wasn’t such a charmer she would be a social pariah. This is because divorce is sacrilege in the religion of performance. Yet Ellen refused to behave, play her role, smile, wave, and assure everyone around her that everything was alright when really she was miserable. At best, she is considered an eccentric, an other.

Newland, meanwhile, couldn’t care less. He loves her for these eccentricities, not in spite of them. He would happily drop everything he has–his position, his wealth, the respect of his family, his privileged future–to be with Ellen, regardless of consequences.

“Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern. But here he was pledged to defend, on the part of his betrothed’s cousin, conduct that, on his own wife’s part, would justify him in calling down on her all the thunders of Church and State.”

But the prison of decorum keeps them apart. No matter how deeply they care for each other, no matter how better they are than Newland and May, their lives dictate that they stay the course. It’s here we learn what Edith Wharton was railing against.

The cost of performance is loneliness.


Wharton, too, was a victim of performance. At 23 she was, essentially, May Welland: the daughter of an upstanding, respected father and the bride of Teddy Wharton, a gentleman from a well-established family in Boston who was 12 years older than her. They were married for 28 years.

What was, at first, a loveless marriage, became more of a patient/caretaker relationship. For nearly 15 years Teddy suffered from severe depression, an affliction that kept them mostly housebound. All this time she listened to the archaic rulebook of her forefathers and played the part she was supposed to play. She turned away suitors, and remained in their miserable marriage until 1908, when Teddy was institutionalized.

That same year, Wharton, at last, relented, assumed the role of headstrong Ellen, and began an affair with her Newland, so to speak: Morton Fullerton, a journalist with The Times. She had had it with performance; she decided to do what made her happy.

She paid the price for this constant facade, a loneliness that (outside of her literature) kept her from being her true self. It’s no wonder that two of her most famous pieces of writing, The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, lean heavily on the theme of infidelity and the moral consequences associated with it.

Personally, I feel a certain kinship with Wharton. Years ago, I fell in love with someone while I was in a nine-year relationship. I was literally shopping for a ring when the realization hit me. I had kept up appearances and denied my feelings for as long as I could, for fear of what our parents and friends would say (let alone my now-ex, whom I hurt most of all). I’m sure the confusion and frustration I felt pales in comparison to what Wharton must have dealt with, but my story isn’t much different than hers, or Newland’s for that matter, as far as middle-class 2011 analogs go.

Breaking up that relationship was the craziest, bravest, most exhilarating and horrifying thing I’ve ever experienced, and the backlash was absolute. I lost every one of our mutual friends, save one, but it was worth it because that woman I fell in love with is now my wife. It was real and I knew it from the start.

In Make Happy Bo Burnham goes on to say, “I know very little about anything. But what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” He’s not talking about affairs or nine-year relationships, specifically, obviously. But what he is talking about are the lies we all tell ourselves every day in order to maintain the performance, to keep up appearances, to market ourselves to the world as if everything is fine, all the time.

It’s when we brag on Facebook about how perfect our spouse is for the smallest, most effortless gesture, because the night before we cried at how much we used to love each other, and maybe if we post something nice on Instagram that might stop people from questioning whether we’re actually happy. It’s when we shove our moral compass in everyone’s faces so they’ll know that we’re not the least bit racist, or sexist, or elitist, or any other -ist you can think of. It’s when we brag about the salad we ate because deep down we think we’re fat. It’s when we pretend to like a band because it seems like everyone-fucking-else does and if we don’t then what does that say about us. It’s when we post photos of trips we’ve taken, the mountains we’ve climbed, and the handstands we’ve done with beach sunsets in the background because we don’t want anyone to know the awful truth: that deep down, we’re boring. It’s when we stay with someone we don’t love anymore because changing things would hurt people.

If Edith Wharton has taught me anything, it’s that, when we can, we should stop giving a shit about what other people think, in both big and small ways, if it means we suffer instead. Life is honestly too damn short. There’s a time and a place for performance, obviously, but we could all stand to be bit more true to ourselves.

Final Thoughts header

My Goodreads Rating: Four Stars

Favorite Quote: “She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.” At length, he said in a low voice: “She never asked me.”

Themes Explored: Duty. Family. Infidelity. Class.

Why I Read It: It’s on my Another 100 Books list, for one. It’s Edith Wharton, for another. Ethan Frome might be the most emotionally significant book I’ve ever read. She is probably my favorite “classic” author.

Where I Got It: I picked this up second hand (which I rarely do) at Edmonton’s best used books store, Alhambra Books. My copy will be 30 years old in 2018 and it smells exactly like you think it would. It’s fantastic, just like The Age of Innocence should smell.

Why You Should Read It: The tension. You kind of have to wade through the 19th century bullshit in certain parts, but the tension between Newland and Ellen is worth the price of admission alone. It did not at all follow the trajectory I was expecting, either, so it’s not remotely formulaic.

Does This Deserve “Classic” Status: 100%

Awards Won: The 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

TL;DR?: Martin Scorsese made a film adaptation in 1993, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Rider (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars).

11 thoughts on “The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

  1. I love Wharton as well, but strangely this book didn’t connect for me (and I really didn’t like Ethan Frome…) But she was such an adept critic, incredibly skilled at translating fleeting little micro moments that most authors would miss. I’m glad you had such a good experience with this one! Someday you’ll have to explain to me the appeal of Ethan Frome.


    1. Ethan Frome is just tragedy done right, in my opinion. So much of it is heartbreaking. The big thing for me, though, was how she articulates romantic tension. I’m not sure I’ve read better. Frome plays with moral ambiguity in a way that truly surprised me for a 100+ year old book. And it packs so much into, like, 125 pages.

      I’m curious: if you didn’t like Age of Innocence and From, but you love Wharton, which pieces of her writing have connected with you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The House of Mirth has a really special place in my heart, and I’m also a fan of her stories and short fiction. I can recognize that Age of Innocence is a great accomplishment, it just didn’t stick with me as much as Mirth.


  2. I really appreciate your backstory on Wharton and also connecting the themes of the novel to our modern social media habits. Great analysis! The only thing I would argue is that, sometimes, Wharton leads us to suspect Newland’s perspectives of the women in general. For example, there are two different times in the book where he literally forgets how her face looked when he sees her for the first time after a hiatus, yet he makes ironically melodramatic declarations about how no love in the world is like his with Ellen’s.


    1. Hmm, interesting point. At the time, I read those moments a bit differently. To me, him forgetting Ellen’s face was just emphasizing their time apart. He loves her, but can’t be with her, and their situation has separated them to the point where his memory of her face is fuzzy. Felt a bit sad, to me. However, I acknowledge that I read this story through my own lens. With Wharton I tend to read her stories filtered through my own very specific experience. Probably not the most objective way to read, but it’s a stronger story for me that way. Great point though!


    1. If you’re feeling inspired, then go for it, but I realize that for a book to really resonate you have to be in the mood for it, you know? So if you’re not feeling it, that’s okay. Maybe you’ll want to read it some other time. Regardless, I enjoyed it. But I definitely had to sink into it first. The 19th century-ness of it all can be a bit grating, but once you hit the mid-point it’s pretty gripping I think. (The end of Book 1 … whew!)


      1. Yes, absolutely, I agree about the mood thing. That explains why so many of my library issued books go back unread. Another time, perhaps. But good, I will keep that in mind and labour through book 1 when I finally do intend to read it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll be rereading this in 2018. As you know, I reread The House of Mirth recently, and it’s the same themes, played out in a slightly different way… but my reaction to it was so, so different than the first time I read it (which was only 5 years ago) and I expect that when I come back to it, in 5 or 10 or 20 years, I’ll have another reaction. I’ll see something else. That’s a great definition of a classic!


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