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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1

Set in Victorian-era New York, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, a young man who inwardly bristles at the respectability and duty that his social position demands. Newland is consumed by his unconsummated love affair with his wife's cousin, the scandalous "foreign" Countess Ellen Olenska.

The novel begins in the early 1870s, on the day of Newland Archer's engagement to May Welland, a beautiful and popular young woman of impeccable breeding and manners. May's cousin Ellen Olenska has just returned to New York from Europe, fleeing her marriage to a wealthy but abusive Polish count. Ellen Olenska is unaware of the immediate condemnation heaped upon her, the source of which is her alleged adultery with her husband's secretary. Having spent much of her life in Europe, Ellen is ignorant of New York's complex social and behavioral codes, as well as its complicated system of alliances. Her individuality is a continual affront to polite society, whose commitment to never speaking of "unpleasant" things keeps Ellen in the dark. Anticipating the social difficulties caused by Ellen's presence, Newland Archer decides to show his support for May's family by immediately announcing his engagement.

Ellen takes up residence among artists and intellectuals in an unfashionable part of town and begins socializing with individuals who aren't considered respectable, such as the banker and rogue Julius Beaufort. New York is further horrified by her intention to divorce her husband. Newland, who privately values artistic and intellectual pursuits but who outwardly conforms to society's narrow expectations, begins to defend Ellen's right to divorce. He finds Ellen's frankness, worldliness, and nonconformity compelling, if at times shocking.

Ellen Olenska—and her family—are snubbed when their invitations for a formal dinner, meant to introduce Ellen to society, are almost unanimously rejected. To remedy this slight to May's family, Newland petitions his distant relations, the van der Luydens, who occupy the highest tier of the social hierarchy, to show support for Ellen. Ellen is granted an invitation to dinner at their house, but she is unaware of the social cachet this implies and meets the occasion without the proper reverence. Ellen confesses to Newland she longs to erase her past by integrating into New York society, and he agrees to help her navigate the social dynamics of New York.

The contrast between Ellen and May, whose perfect respectability and carefully cultivated innocence means she lacks all signs of authenticity and depth, causes Newland to begin to question his desire to marry May. He responds by pressing May and her family to advance the wedding date.

Newland works at a law office, and Ellen's family charges him with giving Ellen a legal opinion against a divorce. Assuming her husband's allegations of adultery are true and viewing Ellen as a naïve victim of her own feminine weakness, Newland convinces her not to divorce because of the pain it would bring to her family, in the form of scandal and dishonor.

Later, Newland calls on Ellen, who has retreated to Skuytercliff, the van der Luydens' ancestral country estate. She is upset, having realized that others pity her and think her helpless. When Julius Beaufort interrupts them with his arrival, Newland becomes jealous that Beaufort is courting Ellen. The more Newland is consumed by thoughts of Ellen, the more he dreads marrying May. Instead of responding to Ellen's next summons, he goes to St. Augustine, Florida, where May is staying with her parents.

Newland's insistence on a quick wedding arouses May's suspicions. She encourages him to end the engagement if his impatience springs from troublesome feelings for another woman. Newland is relieved to realize May does not suspect Ellen of being the other woman. Newland assures May his impatience is a sign of his love. Back in New York, Newland asks May's socially powerful and relatively unconventional grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, to support advancing the marriage. The old woman teases him that Ellen would have been better suited for him as his wife.

Newland tells Ellen about his talk with May and says he would have married Ellen if it were possible. Ellen says he has made it impossible by convincing her not to divorce. He realizes she didn't actually have an affair when she reveals that, after talking to him, she realized the necessity of sacrificing her personal freedom for her family's honor. When he vows to end his engagement, Ellen says he must marry May. Just then a telegram arrives announcing his wedding is to be held in four weeks.

Book 2

Newland and May are married in a lavish traditional ceremony. Newland emptily performs the duties that custom requires, which he once found natural and necessary but now regards as irrelevant trifles; inwardly he is consumed with thoughts of Ellen. On their honeymoon in Europe, Newland finds May's innocence and ignorance grating. When she fails to understand how Newland could want to pursue a friendship with M. Rivière, an intellectual French tutor she regards as "common," Newland realizes the degree to which her dullness circumscribes his life.

Newland and May settle into a comfortable married life, and Newland forgets about Ellen Olenska, who has moved to Washington. While on summer holiday in Newport, Newland's obsession for Ellen is rekindled when he sees her standing on a pier looking out at the water. When she fails to turn to him, he walks away.

Newland sneaks away to the house where Ellen is staying and learns she has been called to Boston. He goes there the next day, where Ellen explains to him that she has just rejected proposals presented by her husband's emissary, designed to compel her to return to the marriage. When Newland says he married the wrong woman, Ellen reminds him he must always consider May's feelings, which they protect by putting aside their own desires. She says she won't return to Europe as long as their relationship is kept within the boundaries of propriety.

Back in New York, Newland encounters M. Rivière and learns he is Count Olenski's envoy. M. Rivière tells Newland the proposals he presented have convinced Ellen's family she must return to her husband. After speaking with Ellen, M. Rivière realizes how it would harm her to return to the marriage, and he begs Newland to impress this upon her family.

For the next four months, Newland sleepwalks through his life, consumed by his longing for Ellen. As soon as he realizes the family is planning, behind his back, to force Ellen's return, he lies to May that he has business in Washington, where Ellen lives. Although May doesn't say it, Newland realizes she is suspicious of his relationship with Ellen.

On the day Newland plans to go to Washington, New York is abuzz with the rumor that Julius Beaufort's investment bank is about to collapse because of his dishonest business practices. The night before, Mrs. Manson Mingott suffered a stroke, which she implies results from her shock that Julius's wife, Regina Beaufort, her grandniece, has had the nerve to request the family's social support throughout the impending scandal. She demands that Ellen, her favorite grandchild, be summoned. Newland volunteers to meet Ellen at the station, lying that his Washington business has been postponed. He knows May is aware of his lies, but as always, she pretends nothing is amiss.

Newland picks up Ellen in May's carriage. He tells her he is content to wait for the time when they can be together. Ellen tells him to face the reality that their only option is a clandestine affair. She tells him she knows he is not above sneaking around, but she is unwilling because of her firsthand knowledge of the pain these things cause. Hurt, Newland gets out of the carriage and walks away.

Newland becomes suspicious that no one mentions Ellen's name in his presence. Mrs. Manson Mingott tells him to convince the family that she needs Ellen to live with and care for her, but she asks him to keep this conversation private. Newland is elated, because he can now be near Ellen without having to take the drastic step of leaving May and moving far away, as he had planned.

Forced to meet at a museum because it is the only private place in New York, Ellen and Newland discuss the distastefulness of pursuing a clandestine affair. They decide Ellen will leave after they consummate their affair once, two days hence. Later that day, May tells Newland she's had a long talk with Ellen and regrets judging her unfairly.

The following evening, Newland decides to tell May the truth and ask for his freedom. May stops him at the mention of Ellen's name, announcing that Ellen earlier that day had decided to return to Europe to live independently of her husband. She credits Ellen's decision to their talk the previous day. Newland plans to follow Ellen to Europe.

Two weeks later, May gives a farewell dinner for Ellen. Everyone who previously snubbed and condemned Ellen attends. Their marked cordiality and warmth is a performance meant to erase all trace and memory of scandal. At dinner, Newland suddenly realizes that all of New York, including his wife, have long believed he and Ellen to be lovers and have conspired to force her removal.

That night, Newland tries to tell May the truth. He begins by saying he needs to travel. May tells him he can't, because she has just that morning learned she is pregnant. Newland realizes that May intended to cause Ellen's departure by lying to her, two weeks prior, that she was definitely pregnant.

Twenty-six years pass. The New York society of Newland's youth has passed away, May and Newland's three children are grown, and May has died. On a trip to Paris, Newland's eldest son announces they will visit Ellen Olenska. Newland realizes he and Ellen can now be close to each other, but he sends his son in alone and sits outside her house, imagining the scene inside. Realizing that to meet Ellen would intrude upon the perfection of his vision of her, he turns away and goes back to his hotel.

The Age of Innocence Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Ellen arrives in New York and is snubbed by society.

Rising Action

2 Newland convinces Ellen not to seek divorce.

3 Newland and Ellen confess their love.

4 Newland marries May. Ellen moves to Washington.

5 Mrs. Mingott has a stroke. Ellen moves back to New York.

6 Newland and Ellen plan to have sex.

7 May talks to Ellen.

8 Ellen suddenly decides to return to Europe.

9 Newland realizes everyone thinks he and Ellen are lovers.

10 Newland begins to confess the truth to May.


11 May reveals she lied about being pregnant to Ellen.

Falling Action

12 Newland and May have three children.

13 May dies. The old world has been swept away and rebuilt.

14 Newland learns May trusted him for sacrificing his desires.


15 Newland decides not to enter Ellen's Paris apartment.

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