The Age of Innocence: Summary, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:03 The Age of Innocence
  • 0:40 Three's Really a Crowd
  • 2:47 Not Just a Love Triangle
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ''The Age of Innocence.'' It also examines the novel's key characters and major themes.

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence captures a moment in time, New York in the 1870s, a period frequently referred to as the Gilded Age. Nevertheless, the novel examines questions that are timeless: Do I give up my own hopes and desires for the good of my family and reputation? How much of my life do I owe to those I love? Can love really conquer all, and is it worth fighting for at the expense of losing one's livelihood and one's family? Wharton's ability to examine such questions earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. She was the first woman to be awarded this honor.

Three's Really a Crowd

At its heart, The Age of Innocence is the story of a troubled marriage. The (un)happy groom is Newland Archer, initially blissfully engaged to wed May Welland, pampered daughter of one of New York's most prestigious families. Newland and May enjoy a brief period of premarital joy, their union celebrated by the crème-de-la-crème of New York, who see in the marriage the perpetuation of the storied lives of the elite.

And then, Newland meets May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, on the run from an unhappy marriage. Newland falls in love for the first time in his life and the first (and perhaps only) crisis in Newland and May's coddled lives begins.

In a society where appearance is everything, divorce is most definitely off the table. Ellen can live apart from her husband for the remainder of her life, if she wishes, but she cannot make the failure of her marriage legal or official - and she can't publicly pursue her feelings for another man.

So Newland proceeds with his marriage to May, but his attraction to Ellen grows. Finally, Newland decides to defy social convention and run off with Ellen, even if it means ruining his career and being disowned by his family. He braces himself for the destruction of his reputation, for the scandal that will devastate him socially and financially.

But May is sharper than she appears. She is aware of her husband's feelings and understands when the relationship turns sexual between Newland and Ellen, though her deeply engrained sense of decorum and breeding would never permit her to acknowledge it. On the night Newland plans to leave his wife, May announces her pregnancy.

May and Newland's children cement the relationship between their parents, and the couple spends the rest of their lives together, unhappily married and yet to the outside world the portrait of idyllic upper-class domesticity. The novel ends with Newland, a recent widower, on a trip to France with his son. Unbeknownst to Newland, his son has made arrangements to meet his long-lost aunt, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has lived in Paris since just before the young man's birth. In the final scene, we see Newland staring up at the balcony of Ellen's apartment before ultimately turning and walking away.

Not Just a Love Triangle

The Public vs. The Private Self

Wharton's novel shows that even the most private of matters, who and how we love, are shaped by the world around us. Society is a force to be reckoned with because it determines who we are, what we do, and how we see ourselves. May is the ultimate social creature, the paragon of all that an upper-class woman in 1870s upper-class New York should be. If she has to be ruthless, if she has to manipulate and deceive in order to fulfill that perfect image, so be it.

Family Loyalty vs. Individual Desire

May is not the only creature of her class. Ellen's destiny is also determined by her social status. Her family uses money as a weapon to enforce its wishes upon her, including cutting off her access to the family fortune when her actions threaten to tarnish the family reputation.

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