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The Age of Innocence Setting

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Edith Wharton's popular novel portrays a gripping tale of star-crossed lovers fighting against the social constraints of the 19th century. This lesson looks at the role of setting in the story.

The Age of Innocence

Think of our modern society. Now, imagine how it would be in the aftereffects of an agonizing war, economic recession, and national disputes about immigration. You might be thinking, isn't that reality? The war in Afghanistan, the Great Recession, and the continual dispute about immigration into first-world countries all seem to prove that imaginary world is our actual reality.

That may be, but this description also applies to the setting for Edith Wharton's insightful novel The Age of Innocence. Published in 1920, Wharton set her novel 50 years earlier, in the post-Civil-War era of the 1870s. Published just a few short years after WWI, she drew upon her personal experiences in Paris during the Great War.

This lesson focuses on how the components of the story's setting play a role in the plot.

Setting

When discussing literature, the term setting refers to the time, place and social situation of the story. The time refers to the year, month, day, or season, while place refers to the physical location. The third factor of the setting, the social situation, refers to any significant events occurring in society throughout the story.

Time and place are fairly easy to identify, but social situation is often ignored or overlooked. However, it often plays a significant role. Let's look at an example. Imagine you are reading a novel that is set in New Orleans at the end of August 2005. These facts cover the time and place, but they fall short of giving the full background. In this case, the social situation is the Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city. That is the importance of social situation.

Now that you understand the components of setting, let's take a closer look at each one in regards to this novel.

Time

The time is simply the 1870s. Knowing the year is great, but it is important to understand how very different this century is from how we live today. There are no telephones, movies, television, or computers, not even cars. A story like this features horse and buggy travel and a-fireplace-in-every-room heating system. Money was kept in family tribes, carefully controlled by appropriate marital matches.

Understanding how people lived in this era of time is imperative to reading any novel set in this century. Wharton aims to show a sort of study on human behavior during those volatile years immediately after the American Civil War.

Place

The place is also fairly simple: New York City. However, the circumstances of society living in the city at this time are very important to the plot of the novel.

New York in 1873
New York in 1873

In Manhattan at this time, the social elite ran the city. There were strict rules on social interactions and unbreakable obligations. One of those obligations is an advantageous marriage. Marrying for love was an unlikely option for those born into high society. Social class, money and status were deemed more important.

These circumstances have important effects, especially on the main character, Newland Archer. He is engaged to a woman from a family of high social status, but falls in love with an individualistic countess who has left her husband. To choose a partner for love would be unthinkable for people in high-society New York City, thus Newland's love is doomed from the start.

Social Situation

The social situation for The Age of Innocence encompasses several key factors. First is the aftermath of the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861-1865 and ravaged the country.

Our story is taking place just a few short years after the end of this bloody war. Northern states profited off of wartime production, taking advantage of the factories and supply lines not available in the South. Families like Newland Archer's most definitely made monetary gains, which likely continued after the end of the war. Money breeds money, and there was no shortage of that in Archer's world.

The second factor in the social situation is the Panic of 1873, which was a financial crisis marked by the failure of major banks and a temporary closure of the New York Stock Exchange. Men were laid off, unemployment rates skyrocketed, real estate values dropped ... the whole world was affected. Sound familiar?

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