What Do We Do with The Age of Innocence in 2020?

Sarah Blackwood on the Lasting Insights of Edith Wharton's Classic

On a fateful evening near the end of the novel, May Archer, née Welland, delivers a devastating piece of news to her husband, Newland. She then turns and walks out of his study, “her torn and muddy wedding‑dress dragging after her across the room.” They have just returned home from the opera, to which she had worn her “blue‑white satin and old lace,” in keeping with 1870s New York society custom that dictated women wear their bridal gowns out during the first few years after their wedding. Archer is struck with the contrast between this woman in the torn dress and the “young girl” she once was, whom he had blissfully anticipated marrying. How the pair have arrived at this moment, facing the “unbearable” truth of their marriage—that Newland Archer loves May’s exotic cousin Ellen Olenska—is the story of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

The torn wedding dress is the kind of precise material detail that Wharton excelled at, across a celebrated literary career that spanned more than forty years. A stand‑in for the impossible fantasy of the companionate marriage plot, the dress captures the vanity and oppressive conventions of her characters’ high society world and critiques the misogynistic fiction of womanly purity, even as it communicates the specific pain felt by two characters whose feelings of affection toward one another have become brittle and hard. The Age of Innocence is a brutal and elegiac novel with an ending that hurts, but pleasantly so, like a pressed bruise.

For all of its emotional heft, when it was first published The Age of Innocence was marketed as a nostalgic, escapist story. The novel went on to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a woman for fiction, in part for exhibiting, as per the award’s terms, “the wholesome atmosphere of American life.” Reviewing the novel in 1921, influential critic Vernon Parrington claimed that in it “there are no scenes, no vulgar jealousies or accusations, nothing to offend the finest sensibility.” Titling his column “Our Literary Aristocrat,” Parrington asserts that Wharton has a “grand manner,” a cool, aloof style and persona, which produces literature that “doesn’t make the slightest difference.” His comment neatly captures how The Age of Innocence, during its day, was trivialized by both its champions and its critics. Like wedding dresses themselves, the novel is easily misread as a costume drama.

In hindsight, the idea that The Age of Innocence offered a wholesome escape is almost incomprehensible. To the extent that the novel is still seen as superficial, some scholars have worked to establish its larger significance, particularly in its status as a “war novel” that drew deeply from the chasm of the First World War. Wharton began writing the novel almost immediately after the war’s end. She was living in Paris and had spent the war years in typically energetic, achievement‑oriented exertion, serving as the head of the American Hostels for Refugees, a large international organization that provided housing, food, and care of all kinds to those who arrived in Paris by the thousands during the war. In 1916 she received a noteworthy honor for her work when she was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. To be sure, The Age of Innocence bears many marks of the world out of which it was born. It is a melancholic survey of a battle‑scarred and lost way of life, a big novel in a longer (but waning) tradition that explored America’s relationship with Europe, posing that relationship as an important component in intellectual and aesthetic life.

Yet this historical foreground isn’t, in the end, all that necessary to establish the novel’s significance. Part of the genius of The Age of Innocence is how it insists that the story of a single, torn wedding dress is not qualitatively different from the story of a torn‑apart world, that novels of manners are as significant a contribution to human knowledge and feeling as are tales about combat. At the end of her life, Wharton saw which way her reputation was drifting, and was clear‑eyed about how her self‑described “grim subject matter” was being rewritten by modernist writers and critics as unchallenging, stiff, and old‑fashioned: “I was once called, you know, a ‘revolutionary writer.’ Critics then talked about my ‘audacious treatment of unpleasant themes,’” she noted.

The Age of Innocence has struggled to be seen in a clear light. Is it truly relevant, or is it merely a luxuriant and entertaining costume drama?

Unspoken in Wharton’s assessment is the role that gender played in shaping her reputation, both during her life and after. Wharton was openly hostile to her era’s vibrant feminist campaigns for suffrage, birth control, and female autonomy. Her personal distaste toward feminism notwithstanding, the story of how the revolutionary, audacious, and pitiless fiction that Wharton wrote for nearly half a century came to be regarded as quiescent and insubstantial is also the story of how women’s fiction, more generally, gets written out of the literary canon. From Little Women to Big Little Lies, from Their Eyes Were Watching God to the Neapolitan novels: these insightful tales of marriage, desire, and betrayal often struggle to be accorded the status they might otherwise achieve were they not so focused on romance and domestic life.

The Age of Innocence has not struggled with status, exactly—it has won awards, been adapted, assigned, and read consistently since its publication. Yet it has struggled to be seen in a clear light. Is it truly relevant, or is it merely a luxuriant and entertaining costume drama? Does it, as Parrington asserted, make no difference in the world? These were questions that Wharton herself was working through in the writing of the novel. She was fifty‑seven, divorced, and extremely wealthy; despite her wealth, she had had a horrible childhood and an even worse marriage. What had these intimate experiences produced in her, in the world? Did they matter? Did they make a difference? Did people see her clearly? Did she see others clearly? Or was everyone like the embittered older women characters in her late short story “Roman Fever” (1934) viewing one another, “each through the wrong end of her little telescope”? And what about Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland, three characters across which Wharton strews elements of herself? Why did they have such a hard time truly seeing one another?

Wharton’s writing from around the turn of the twentieth century draws its dramatic domestic conflicts from the oddness of this moment.

Wharton wrote about romance, marriage, and desire in almost all of her fiction. She did not write marriage plots (comedic stories that dramatize courtship rituals and obstacles on the way to the altar) but rather saw in marriage an intimate structure that crystallized the conflicts between self, custom, and society, which she often viewed with an ethnographic eye. The power generated by these conflicts would fuel her writing for almost a half century. The Age of Innocence stages marriage not as a happy ending, but rather as the start of a complicated set of life experiences. In this, the novel draws from Wharton’s own life story, in which her unhappy marriage to Edward “Teddy” Wharton took the form of a sort of grinding reality that accompanied her meteoric rise as a public literary figure. Wharton married Teddy in 1885, when she was twenty‑three and he thirty‑five. No courtship letters between Edith and Teddy survive, and their relationship remains somewhat illegible. Edith rarely wrote about Teddy until the years just prior to the dissolution of their marriage, years during which he embezzled trust money from her, had an affair, suffered and was treated for multiple nervous breakdowns. They finally divorced in 1913 after twenty‑eight years of marriage. Teddy was by all accounts a jocular, sporting, and not particularly intellectual man. They were a bad match.

Wharton, though challenged by her domestic situation, was not exactly diminished. During those nearly thirty years of marriage (and while often suffering from the sporadic ill health of many depressed turn‑of‑the‑century women), she established and maintained a literary career; became an expert in interior design, house building, and landscape design; cultivated a group of friends featuring artists, diplomats, and fellow writers; and had a passionate affair of her own with the small‑time writer Morton Fullerton, who, on his side, maintained dalliances with other women and men—including one with his cousin Katherine Fullerton, who was raised alongside him as his sister and to whom he was secretly engaged during the Wharton affair. Edith Wharton lived a lot of life.

This was perhaps not to be expected when she was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to high society parents George Frederic and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones (the common phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was likely coined with her father’s aunts in mind). The Joneses could trace their lineage back to before the Revolutionary War and lived in the rarefied, white aristocratic air of “Old New York,” with its oppressive social rituals and requirements: Newport in the summer, attendance at the opera in the winter, young women “coming out” into society, the New York Social Register’s “Four Hundred” (a directory of New York’s old‑money social elites masterminded by the supercilious Ward McAllister and first published in 1887). As anaerobic and unchanging as this atmosphere could seem, the truth is that McAllister’s “Four Hundred” was, in fact, a symptom of a changing world, an attempt to hold the line as much as to draw it. The metastatic economy of the Gilded Age would open up the closed circles of Old New York to parvenus and strivers, loosening the rules and destabilizing conventions.

Edith Jones’s life and literary ambitions were shaped by these upheavals. A bookish child, she understood herself as odd, framing her passion for what she called “making up”—inventing stories, first verbally, soon on paper—as “peculiar.” In A Backward Glance, the somewhat impersonal memoir she published in 1934 when she was seventy‑two, Wharton recounts her parents being “distressed by my solitude . . . always trying to establish relations for me with ‘nice’ children.” Wharton was the third child, with two much older brothers; she would humor her parents’ desire for her to play and socialize only insofar as it did not “intrude on my privacy.” There was no child, she notes that she “would not have renounced forever rather than have my ‘making up’ interfered with. What I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream.” As much of an oddball as she was, Wharton also deeply imbibed the conservative worldview of her moneyed upbringing, which would find unfortunate resonance across her fiction and personal correspondence in language and characterizations that could range from snobbish to anti‑Semitic.

In her autobiographical writings, Wharton’s father comes off as handsome and passive; someone who had artistic leanings, but who never took his chance on turning them into something real. Her mother, on the other hand, takes on a more monstrous cast. Disapproving, cold, and vain, Lucretia Jones comes to us as an emotionally punitive obstacle to Wharton’s art. In A Backward Glance, Wharton recalls “the sudden drop of my creative frenzy” in response to Lucretia’s “icy comment” on a story she wrote at age eleven. In “Life and I,” a more revealing autobiographical fragment that Wharton did not publish in her lifetime, she recalls asking her mother for advice and information about sex in advance of her wedding: “she brought out sharply: ‘for heaven’s sake don’t ask me any more silly questions. You can’t be as stupid as you pretend!’” From a distance and through her own hard‑won maturity, Wharton encapsulates the exchange with devastating insight: “The dreadful moment was over, and the only result was that I had been convicted of stupidity for not knowing what I had been expressly forbidden to ask about, or even to think of!”

Here, of course, is the predicament of marriage in the 1880s: a system of property exchange that was rapidly being mystified by the rise of companionate romance, but which still enforced an impossible vision of womanly sexual purity and innocence. The end of the 19th century was a particularly strange time to navigate marriage; as historian Stephanie Coontz notes, the era ushered in a “radical social experiment” that elevated the importance of love and sexual satisfaction inside marriage even as these “hopes for love and intimacy were continually frustrated by the rigidity of 19th‑century gender roles.” Much of Edith Wharton’s writing from around the turn of the twentieth century draws its dramatic domestic conflicts from the oddness of this moment, during which divorce was legal but still socially suspect, marriage’s power somehow both lessened and intensified, and women’s sexual innocence still a hinge factor in intimate relations.

In stories such as “Souls Belated” (1899) and “The Reckoning” (1902), and her bestselling 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Wharton explored with wry precision the double binds that women were finding themselves trapped in as the century turned: both “Souls Belated” and “The Reckoning” feature independent women who leave their husbands, only to find themselves feeling stuck again in their subsequent relationships. The “new morality” of free(er) love, Wharton suggests, does little to assuage the damage women accrue in their intimacies with men. And in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s resistance to the marriage market is depicted as a tragically feminine form of hubris, for which she pays dearly. Wharton’s fiction about marital discontent in the 1890s and early 1900s is ruthless. Even she seemed to recognize its tone, writing to her editor Edward Burlingame that much of this material was “written ‘at the top of my voice.’” In this same letter, Wharton describes her story “The Fullness of Life” (1893), in which a woman encounters the fact of her disappointing marriage after her own death, as “one long shriek.” Edith Wharton, it is clear, did not wait until 1920 to write about combat.

Wharton’s many stories about marriage, betrayal, desire, and loneliness drew from her own life experience. Yet it would be reductive to think of her meticulous prose and craftswomanship as transparent windows into her personal life. Ironically, one of the best documents we have that dramatizes these tensile truths is a diary that she kept during her affair with Morton Fullerton in 1907 and 1908. Wharton titled it “The Life Apart (L’ame close)”; scholars commonly refer to it as the Love Diary. In it, Wharton records important events and exchanges during the affair, but also, more importantly, uses it to narrate herself into the role of a sexually passionate, vulnerable heroine. The diary is a lovely document: soft, open, and pained. It is clear from the letters that survive from Wharton to Fullerton that he was not a worthy or dependable partner for her; he was inconsistent, manipulative, and yet somehow still needy, given to soliciting attentive, intellectual petting from the clearly superior Wharton. The diary gave Wharton the opportunity to tell a story about her own life, and she rought a novelist’s skill to it (for example, threading throughout it the symbolic image of witch hazel, a soothing yet astringent, pliant, and mystical plant that Fullerton had snipped a sprig of and sent to Wharton early in their affair).

In the diary, Wharton cast herself as a character; in her fiction, her characters often contain elements of herself. There was something about the craft of writing that appealed to her desire to feel both at home with and estranged from herself. A suggestive moment in her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), cowritten with frenemy, architect, and interior designer Ogden Codman Jr., speaks to Wharton’s lifelong interest in how structures and craft can shape emotional life: “It should be borne in mind of entrances in general that, while the main purpose of a door is to admit, its secondary purpose is to exclude.”

Wharton was expert in using boundaries to both admit and exclude. She, like the unnamed woman in “The Fullness of Life,” stayed in a sexless and unfulfilling marriage out of a strong and complicated mix of propriety, respect for social form, and also, seemingly, a deep conviction that marriage and romantic entanglement were not the central or most interesting aspects of her life. As her deep passion for architecture, interior design, and gardening attests, Wharton was a builder: she liked to create new things, new ideas, new forms. Over decades of careful cultivation, the famously prickly Wharton gathered around herself a devoted group of friends, some of them gay, or otherwise “bachelor,” men—Henry James, Walter Berry, Bernard Berenson, Howard Sturgis—as well as a variety of lifelong women friends—Sally Norton, Daisy Chanler, her sister‑in‑law (whom her brother had divorced) Minnie Jones, and her niece, influential landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. Friendship was a way of life for Wharton, a way to admit a select few into her inner sanctum. During the very moment that marriage was being socially reconceived of as the pinnacle of domestic and self‑fulfillment, Wharton built homes of a different sort. The letters between her and her friends are in high key: sniping and gossipy, full of inside jokes, blunt expressions of sorrow and discouragement, and flashes of joy.

The pleasure she took in her friendships, however, did not exactly make up for the pain of closing the door on her marriage. The click of that lock recalled the long years she had spent trying to manage an unmanageable situation; she mourned time’s passing and worried about the scandal that might attach itself to her name. On one hand, Wharton’s devotion to social form and distaste for scandal was personally conservative, self‑harming, uselessly rigid. But on the other, it shows how frankly she understood not only the world in its truest forms (fallen, gossipy, harsh) but also how profound the relationship is between an individual and her social world. Wharton did not try to convince herself that her divorce didn’t hurt or matter, even when its results were undeniably salutary. Much of the sharpness of these insights found expression in her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), which she composed during the final stages of her marriage and was serialized the same year of her divorce. Custom is a merciless story about unhappy marriage and divorce, told through the figure of the beautiful, social‑climbing, and empty‑souled Undine Spragg, who is never satisfied in her quest to “get what she wanted.” Though many have read it as a critique of modernizing ideas and looser social restrictions on divorce, to my mind The Custom of the Country is less about the immorality of divorce than it is a skewering of increasingly romanticized ideas about marriage.

By 1919, then, when she began to compose The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton had spilled hundreds of thousands of often‑bestselling words on the subjects of marriage, love, and betrayal. She had lived the dramas (and realities) of high society marriage and divorce, given herself over to a passionate affair, emphatically thrown herself into war work, and explored the feelings of national exile that had been with her since childhood. The Age of Innocence is a culminating work of art in some ways, tying together these themes and experiences. Less recognized, however, is how experimental and challenging the novel is. Its retrospective setting often causes readers to misread the novel as old‑fashioned. But The Age of Innocence has a lot more in common with the era’s robustly demanding works of modernist fiction than is commonly acknowledged. It is less a sentimental return to a lost world than it is an exploration of new ideas about individual freedom, romantic intimacy, and social life.

Much of the experiment of The Age of Innocence stems from how it manages point of view. Told in close third person, the novel filters most of its action and psychological insight through its main male character, Newland Archer. Wharton’s decision to center Newland has wide‑ranging effects. The critique of New York high society—its fundamentally parochial, restrictive, and unimaginative nature—comes through more strongly when a young man is caught in its vise grip. Young women, centuries of narrative have taught us, are corseted, restrained, and subjected by gendered ideology. But in The Age of Innocence we see how young men, too, are hurt by these unspoken social rules about sex, gender, and propriety.

These unspoken rules are enforced in the novel by the adult men and women who have different but overlapping motivations and strategies. For example, Archer’s mother, Adeline Archer (a character in part based on Lucretia Jones), adheres to rules out of fear and ignorance. When she becomes worried that the scandal of Ellen Olenska will taint her son’s prospective marriage to May Welland, she works her back channels, appealing to the stratospherically aristocratic van der Luydens, who rule New York society through a retiring and glacial manner. Adeline is a minor and quibbling sort of person, but Wharton applies just the thinnest layer of empathy atop the critique: Adeline is scared for her son. The high society men, Wharton reveals, rule through surveillance. They palaver and slobber over the beautiful Ellen; in fact, their judgmental talk about her is clearly staged by Wharton as evidence of their voyeuristic and opportunistic attraction to her. The men most committed to conserving the social order through sexual and marital discipline—Lawrence Lefferts, Sillerton Jackson, Henry van der Luyden—are hypocrites and fakes.

It might have been enough for Wharton to place the center of her novel here, in the figure of the callow Newland Archer, a sensitive young man caught inside this dispiriting world, who wants something more from life. But the experiment of The Age of Innocence goes much deeper than this, because Newland Archer is highly—and I mean highly—ironized. Many critics remark on his arrogance at the start of the novel; he gazes upon his lovely fiancée May Welland, seated in a box across from him at the opera, and muses how he “did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the ‘younger set.’” The parenthetical captures his occluding self‑regard. But the truth about Newland Archer is that he never, really, grows away from that self‑centeredness. He never learns to see either May or Ellen clearly; from start to finish, he uses both of them as mirrors. Wharton nestles hints about May’s intelligence and perceptiveness throughout the story. The sliver of light between Archer’s perspective and the narrator’s illuminates much in the novel; at the end, when May and Newland try to face one another honestly, he seems to finally comprehend his wife, “her blue eyes wet with victory.” But a sensitive reader, who has remained attentive to how the novel signals Archer’s willful obtuseness about his wife, has cause to pause here. How much did May know, how did it make her feel, and is “victory” the most apt name for what has just happened here?

And what about Ellen Olenska, one of the best women characters in all of American literature? What do we get to know about her through the savvy split of perspective in the novel? Much of what the novel wants to say about Ellen Olenska, it says through texture and color: the dark blue velvet of the dress she wears when we first meet her, the high‑necked fur robe she wears in front of the fire at her “funny house” on a bohemian block, the yellow roses and azaleas “banked” behind her. It’s hard not to fall in love with her. And fall in love Archer does; she symbolizes to him a form of artistic freedom outside the reaches of society, even as he continually ascribes to her various forms of sexual impropriety that make him think poorly of her (suspecting her relations with both her husband’s secretary and with the nouveau‑riche Julius Beaufort). Archer thinks of himself as an artistic person who sees and appreciates Ellen Olenska’s sophisticated aesthetic taste. He is, however, mistaken about himself. During a particularly suggestive moment in Chapter 22, Newland has sneaked away from May and his in‑laws to go in search of Ellen while vacationing in Newport. He comes upon a frilly, pink parasol resting outside the house he thinks she is in and brings it, sentimentally, to his lips. But, of course, the parasol is not Ellen’s—how could it be? Ellen Olenska would never carry a frilly, pink parasol. That Newland Archer doesn’t recognize this, three‑quarters of the way through their intense romance, is an important signal that Wharton does not want readers to disregard.

One surprising effect of the novel’s focalization through Newland Archer is that May and Ellen remain protected from psychological penetration. We don’t know exactly what they think and feel, and not because they are flat or superficial female characters. In keeping us in Archer’s perspective, Wharton allows us to experience the limited and impoverished viewpoint of a selfish young man, even as we are drawn to him and his desires, even as we relate to how deeply and ineffectually he wants. Wharton seems to have deeply dwelled on Newland Archer and his fate; in the Edith Wharton archives of the Beinecke Library at Yale University, researchers can find two alternative plots for The Age of Innocence. In the first, Archer calls off his engagement and runs away to Florida with Ellen Olenska, only for both of them to realize they have nothing in common. In the other, May calls off the engagement, Archer and Ellen get married and honeymoon with abandon, only to return to New York City and realize they bore and irritate one another. They separate, and Ellen returns to Europe. In these drafts, Wharton struggled to see Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska living a full and resonant life together.

The Age of Innocence feels, today, prescient in how it asks us to draw from the dramas of intimacy the power to imagine more profligately.

What can we make of this? I don’t think that these examples prove or disprove Newland and Ellen’s love for each other. Rather, they throw into relief how innovative the novel’s famous ending is. By one metric, the fully realized novel is a tragic story of two people trying to surmount the obstacles to their love. But in another—and here I am going to diverge, perhaps perversely, from almost any reading of the novel I’ve ever encountered—the published novel does have a happy ending. The Age of Innocence is one of the only stories Wharton ever wrote where everyone does, indeed, “get what [they] want.” May gets to achieve the sentimental, sacrificial maternal and wifely status she desired. Newland gets to feel like an outsider while remaining an insider; he experiences no shortage of people to enlighten across the years. And Ellen? Well, Ellen gets to live a life that evades even our own prying eyes. She probably never once carries a pink parasol. None of this is to say that it isn’t tragic when the social world each of these characters revolts against emulsifies them back into their bland solution. But it is to say that the clearest sign we readers have of our protagonist’s growth at the end of the novel is that he finally— finally!—understands what his most important social, individual, and emotional roles should be.

The Age of Innocence has, a bit surprisingly, gained in freshness and insight in the 21st century. Certainly it seems the Gilded Age is back, subjecting a diverse society to the nightmarish dramas and conventions of the one percent. How the social mores of the rich shape the lives and values of everyone else has arguably been the topic of American popular and political culture throughout the 2000s and 2010s. And Wharton’s ability to demonstrate the mercilessness with which individualized otherness is socially reproached and censured in the United States remains incomparable.

But, more optimistically, The Age of Innocence feels, today, prescient in how it asks us to draw from the dramas of intimacy the power to imagine more profligately. May Welland, the novel gently reminds us, may be more than just a stock bridezilla. Newland Archer, it now seems clearer, is one in a long line of Men Who Explain Things to Us. And perhaps most provokingly, the famous, tear‑jerking ending of The Age of Innocence feels newly open. Through tears, we can now celebrate Ellen Olenska’s life in full, as something that extends beyond the question of whether she might pair‑bond with a flawed man trying to achieve his own freedom through her. The novel’s meaningful elasticity is thanks to a writer who was exacting, meticulous, and perceptive, in her life and in her art, fascinated by the alchemical interplay of social structure and individual freedom.

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the age of innocence

From The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Sarah Blackwood.

Sarah Blackwood
Sarah Blackwood
Sarah Blackwood is associate professor of English at Pace University and author of The Portrait's Subject: Inventing Inner Life in the Nineteenth-Century United States (University of North Carolina Press). She wrote the introduction to The Age of Innocence, published by Penguin Classics.





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