The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Context


Edith Wharton's novel is a modernist work of literature that portrays New York's aristocratic society during the late Victorian era, with great nuance . During this time, New York's ancestral dynasties struggled to maintain their social hegemony, or dominance, in the face of sweeping social, demographic, and philosophic changes.

Because she herself was a product of this society, Wharton's depiction of New York in the 1870s is authentic and detailed, and it demonstrates her understanding of its strengths, flaws, and contradictions. Written after the horrors of World War I forever altered humanity's self-concept, Wharton's novel reveals how a society committed to tradition, stasis, and denial is inevitably undone by the powerful realities of change.


The Victorian era roughly coincides with the reign of Britain's Queen Victoria (1837–1901) and describes a distinct culture and set of values practiced in Britain and some parts of the United States, including the 1870s New York society Wharton depicts in The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer struggles but ultimately fails to liberate himself from this conservative worldview, despite his susceptibility to the influence of unconventional outsiders like Ellen Olenska and Ned Winsett.

For the Victorians, "culture" implied morality and was something a person either possessed or lacked, usually by virtue of birth. Those who were civilized and cultured were part of society, made its rules, and abided by them; those who lacked it were savages. Much of Victorian morality was concerned with maintaining this boundary between the civilized and the savage, although the definition of savage was changeable and could be applied to anything that did not fall within the strict limits of Victorian propriety.

Rarely could a person born without culture attain it, and never through actions so vulgar as acquiring land or money. However, the attributes of "culture" were occasionally conceded to those who did not meet its most exclusive criteria. In the novel, Mrs. Manson Mingott provides an example of how one could enter the realm of the "cultured" through an advantageous marriage.

Important to the Victorian worldview was the idea that the universe operated in an orderly fashion in accordance with understandable laws. This belief in law, order, and certainty found expression in Victorian ideas about people and society, forming the basis for Victorian standards of behavior. It is this insistence on habit, tradition, and conformity that inspires anguish in Newland Archer as he wrestles with his feelings for Ellen Olenska. She represents an opposing worldview with different assumptions and standards of behavior, one which Newland imagines to be less oppressive than his own, but one that must also, necessarily, be "savage" by the standards of his time.

In The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919–1945 (2014), Daniel Joseph Singal writes that the concept of "radical innocence" lies at the heart of Victorian thought and culture. The Victorians were not innocent, but they strove to be. The black-and-white dichotomies and complex behavioral codes of Victorian morality were meant to push people toward purity, considered to be the greatest of virtues. Because conflict and irrationality were considered impure, Victorians rejected these parts of the human experience.

The Victorian Conception of Womanhood

Victorian America took its cues from the culture in Victorian Britain. Queen Victoria, although the world's most powerful woman, was rabidly opposed to the idea of women's rights, calling it a "mad wicked folly." The Victorian ideal of womanhood has been retrospectively dubbed "the cult of true womanhood." Above all, "true womanhood" required sexual purity. Once a woman lost her sexual purity, she was discredited in the eyes of society, much like Ellen Olenska in the novel.

In addition to being sexually pure, a "true woman" was submissive and passive, and she recognized the need for the guidance and protection of men. The household was considered the proper domain of women, a fact emphasized by Wharton's careful descriptions of the elaborate and symbolic interior decorations of the homes. These were the means by which women communicated their domestic prowess as well as their commitment to domesticity. Motherhood was another crucial part of the Victorian feminine ideal, and the phrase "angel of the hearth" was used to describe the ideal wife and mother.


In The Age of Innocence, Wharton depicts the Victorian society of old New York as being extremely conscious and suspicious of the social and political changes happening around them, which they correctly regard as threats to their own existence. There were a number of developments during the latter part of the 19th century that helped put an end to American Victorianism, including the large numbers of European immigrants who moved to the United States in search of economic and social opportunity, as well as the rise of a class of self-made super-rich businessmen who were not part of the old aristocracy and did not adhere to its norms. Victorianism was gradually replaced by modernism.

Modernism reflects a new paradigm, not only in art and literature but also in science, politics, and ethics. Scholars generally consider the turn of the 20th century to be modernism's starting point. In The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919–1945, Daniel Joseph Singal writes that modernism represents a deliberate backlash against Victorian culture and its "unnatural repression of human vitality." Modernism is a literary movement that includes writers such as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce, as well as Edith Wharton. It tends to be fragmentary, unsatisfactory, and lacking unity in a deliberate attempt to refute the Victorian assertion that a mannered, orderly society was the pinnacle of human progress.

In the second half of the 19th century, the work of English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–82) presented an early challenge to the Victorian definition of man as a rational being fundamentally different from irrational animals. Darwin's theory of evolution held that living things change over time in response to their environment by a process known as natural selection, and it implied that the human species had animal ancestors. The development of technologies that allowed scientists to view the world on a microscopic level, as well as the groundbreaking theory of relativity, developed by German physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), that challenged the orderly, mechanical worldview of the previous few centuries, made clear there was much more to the world than met the Victorian eye.

Other challenges included the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), which examined the hidden, uncontrolled, and animalistic aspects of human nature, as well as the social theories of German economist Karl Marx (1818–83), which posited that the culture of the wealthy bourgeois class (i.e., the Victorians) was but a pretense covering its fundamental need to prey on the productive powers of the lower classes. Developments in the discipline of cultural anthropology, which began to embrace ideas of cultural pluralism and relativism, further discredited the Victorian belief in the correctness of its culture and morality.

In The Age of Innocence, Wharton links Newland Archer's rejection of Victorian culture and norms as unquestionable absolutes to his readings in cultural anthropology, which cause him to step back from his culture and observe it as an outsider might. Eventually Newland comes to think of his people as a "tribe" and conceptualizes the cultural practices he once took for granted as "rituals" and "taboos," fundamentally no different than those of the "primitives" or "savages" his culture persistently regards as "other."

However, modernism is not viewed, even by its practitioners, as a necessarily positive artistic or philosophic development. In her final chapter, Wharton has Newland Archer reflect on the good that has been lost with the passing away of the "age of innocence," suggesting that the intellectual and spiritual freedoms of modernism come at a psychological price. The rejection of convention and tradition, the promotion of the individual over the collective, the idea that morality is culture bound rather than universal, and the new scientific understanding of a complex and chaotic universe all have the potential to create feelings of instability, lost identity, anxiety, and despair. For all its limitations, the certainty inherent in the Victorian worldview brought with it a certain existential and psychological stability. It is the innocence of childhood, an innocence that humanity will likely never reclaim.

Aristocrats versus the New Rich in New York

New York was originally the Dutch colony of New Netherland, and New York City was once a Dutch settlement known as New Amsterdam. During the first part of the 17th century, the patroon system—which derives from the French patron—gave large tracts of land to Dutch settlers in an attempt to keep the English and the French out of Dutch trading territory. When the English took control of the colony in 1664 and changed the name of New Amsterdam to New York, these patroons were allowed to retain their lands and status. Therefore, the Dutch and English families who settled in New York in the 17th and 18th centuries were a landed aristocracy who made their fortunes in real estate and shipping, and their descendants constitute the high society of 1870s New York.

At the time, the aristocratic New Yorkers of Dutch and English descent were referred to as "Knickerbockers," a term derived from a character invented by American author Washington Irving (1783–1859). Knickerbocker men strived to fulfill the ideal of being "gentlemen," in the European sense. Like Newland Archer, they did not have proper jobs but belonged to clubs and took part in sporting events. It was common for them to have discreet extramarital affairs. Knickerbocker wives were busy with domestic and social obligations. Wives were expected to maintain a pretense of domestic happiness and harmony, although their husbands were often bored, disinterested, and occupying themselves elsewhere.

After the Civil War (1861–65), railroads and other developments in transport and technology led to an explosion in American industry. Suddenly vast wealth was being amassed by nonaristocrats. These "new rich" descended upon New York, which was becoming a national financial center, threatening the established hegemony of the relatively small group of Knickerbockers.

The Knickerbockers were coordinated by a Mrs. Caroline Astor, whose mansion on Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Empire State Building) had a ballroom that could hold 400. She created a list known as the "Four Hundred," clearly delineating the old-money families from the new rich. For these families, society was a means of keeping wealth and power concentrated among a few aristocratic families as well as a way of enforcing their rigid and unwritten code of conduct. Social events were opportunities to secure marriages between members of these ancestral clans, so the presence of the new rich at these gatherings threatened society itself.

The Mrs. Astor, as she preferred to be called, was confounded by the decades-younger Alva Vanderbilt, who spent her childhood in Alabama and Paris, moving to New York after the Civil War. In 1875 Alva married William Vanderbilt, a grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilts were a Dutch family with a multigenerational presence in New York, but their ancestor had been an indentured servant rather than a landed patroon, and they were a poor family until Cornelius made his fortune in the railroads. Mrs. Vanderbilt was thus exactly the kind of "new rich" Mrs. Caroline Astor was determined to exclude from society.

Eventually, Mrs. Vanderbilt's luxurious residence and popular appeal won over even Mrs. Astor's daughter, who begged to attend balls at the Vanderbilt estate. Mrs. Vanderbilt also successfully side-stepped old New York by helping to finance the construction of the opulent and enormous Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883 and soon forced the small, shabby Academy of Music out of the opera business. After the turn of the century, Alva Vanderbilt traded high society for activism. She became particularly involved in the movement for women's suffrage, establishing the Political Equality Association and providing financial support for the cause.

Thus, the Knickerbocker way of life, of idle gentlemen and domestic society women, gave way to a new culture of political and philanthropic involvement among the wealthy. This change is reflected in The Age of Innocence, when after his marriage Newland Archer holds public office and becomes a highly esteemed "good citizen" of New York.

The Panic of 1873

In The Age of Innocence, the investment bank run by Julius Beaufort collapses, bringing shame upon him and his wife and throwing New York into a tizzy. Beaufort's business failure is a fictionalized version of the Panic of 1873, industrial capitalism's first worldwide depression. Then, the United States backed its currency with both silver and gold, but when Germany and several other countries stopped using silver to back their currency, the price of silver fell precipitously, devaluing U.S. currency. The U.S. Treasury made matters worse by releasing large amounts of paper money into the economy. Speculators and bankers now had to immediately pay off their debts with gold.

In 1873 a prominent investment banker by the name of Jay Cooke went bankrupt, the effects rippled throughout the entire U.S. economy, and panic ensued. Trading was suspended for two weeks on the New York Stock Exchange as company after company failed, wages dropped precipitously, and unemployment spiked. The rise of the labor movement can be traced to the widespread unrest and economic instability set off by the panic. Additionally, the panic allowed a few of the wealthiest businessmen—such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Cyrus McCormick, who retained access to valuable capital—to vastly increase their wealth and snuff out competitors.

Technological Advancements

Characters in The Age of Innocence are aware their world is about to be forever changed by the culture of outsiders, brought to them in part by advancements in technology. Although inventions like the telephone were on the horizon, they seemed improbably fantastic to people living in the early 1870s world of telegrams and horse-drawn carriages. However, in the final chapter, Wharton depicts Newland Archer living in a world that has been significantly altered by these technologies, a mere quarter century later.

In 1876, for example, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) patented an early telephone and wowed audiences by demonstrating the world's first telephone call by placing a call from one telegraph station to another five miles away. The Western Union company refused to buy Grant's telephone patent, claiming his invention would amount to no more than a novelty. However, the first telephone line was built in 1877–78, and after that, telephone usage skyrocketed. At the start of the 1880s, there were almost 50,000 telephones in use, a number that swelled to over half a million by the turn of the century.

A similar large-scale change was the invention and development of electricity. Although the first electric light was developed in 1835, it was not until 1879 that American inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931) developed and patented a light bulb with a life span of 15 hours. Edison's work also focused on the problems of electrical generation and conductivity.

At the same time that communication was becoming easier and the day was lengthened artificially through electric lighting, the distance between continents was shortened by advances in turbine steam engines. In the 1860s, it took between eight and nine days to cross the Atlantic Ocean; by 1907, the Mauretania (the ship that Dallas and Newland Archer take to Europe in the last chapter) makes the voyage in half that time. This was a contributing factor to the great influx of European immigrants who arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Chapter 29 Newland contemplates the "brotherhood of visionaries," who predict a train tunnel under the Hudson River as well as "ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days ... and other Arabian Night marvels." In 1904 excavation for train tunnels under the Hudson began, directed by Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1910, New York's Penn Station opened and began receiving traffic from electric trains that traveled through the tunnels.

Critical Reception of The Age of Innocence

Wharton began writing The Age of Innocence in 1917 as a way of recalling and criticizing the world of her youth, which had not yet experienced the devastation of World War I (1914–18). Beginning in July 1920, the novel was published in serial form in New York's monthly Pictorial Review. The book met with emphatic critical acclaim and became a bestseller once it was issued in book form.

In 1921 Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize when The Age of Innocence was awarded the honor. The Pulitzer, established just four years earlier, was meant to recognize the novel that best encapsulated the feeling of American life and the "highest standard of American manners and manhood," according to Joseph Pulitzer's will. The jury favorite that year was Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, but the board vetoed this choice and the prize went to Wharton instead. Lewis and Wharton exchanged correspondence, with Wharton writing of her "despair" of "being rewarded ... for uplifting American morals" and her "disgust" at Sinclair Lewis's being denied the prize because his novel had offended "a number of prominent persons in the Middle West."

Despite the book's popularity with contemporary readers, some contemporary reviews were unfavorable. When the Guardian reviewed The Age of Innocence in December of 1920, its critic wrote, "Mrs. Wharton tries her best to make the story moving, but she is dealing with dead stuff and dead people." The critic claims the novel is "dull with detail which does not create illusion."

The Age of Innocence has been adapted numerous times to the stage and the screen. The 1993 Martin Scorsese film adaptation of the novel starred Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder.

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