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The Age of Innocence | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence | Quotes


The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 2

After Ellen Olenska's appearance causes a stir at the opera, May Welland and Newland Archer communicate their thoughts silently, merely by exchanging eye contact. This wordless communication is the norm among members of New York's high society, as it allows them to maintain a facade of pleasantness and normalcy.


At a stroke she had pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He laughed, and sacrificed them.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 9

Newland Archer tries to impress upon Ellen Olenska the social significance of the van der Luydens' having invited her to dinner, because Ellen's casual treatment of the occasion signified her dangerous unawareness of New York's social hierarchy. Unimpressed, Ellen suggests the van der Luydens' power derives merely from their solitary habits rather than from any sort of ancestral authority. Her comment causes Newland Archer to realize the artifice and silliness of New York's social rules.


Does no one want to know the truth here ... ? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!

Ellen Olenska, Book 1, Chapter 9

Ellen Olenska expresses her despair at her family's unwillingness to acknowledge the pain she carries from being married to a man who treated her cruelly. They are willing to help her as long as she doesn't speak of anything "unpleasant." This frank expression of vulnerability conveys her trust in Newland Archer.


You've got no center, no competition, no audience. You're like the pictures on the walls of a deserted house: 'The Portrait of a Gentleman.'

Ned Winsett, Book 1, Chapter 14

Speaking to Newland Archer, Ned Winsett, who is not part of the "world of fashion," points out its irrelevance to the wider world. High society is out of touch with reality, and it is on the verge of extinction because of its insularity and its obsession with form and propriety at the expense of substance and vitality.


The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future.

Narrator, Book 1, Chapter 15

Newland Archer's emotionally vivid meeting with Ellen Olenska at Skuytercliff makes his normal life feel suffocating by comparison. In his normal life, everything is scripted and there is no room for spontaneity or surprise. He once prided himself on his success in embodying societal norms. Now, thanks to Ellen's presence, he has had the experience of stepping outside his usual manner of being, but feels dread knowing the future awaiting him, once he is married to May, will contain none of this vividness.


You mustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices—one has one's feelings and ideas.

May Welland, Book 1, Chapter 16

Before their wedding, May Welland surprises Newland Archer with what he regards as unusual perceptiveness on her part by intuiting he has feelings for someone else. But when May is incorrect about the object of his affections, Newland's habitual belief that May is so innocent as to be blind is reinforced. Here, May frankly tells Newland Archer not to underestimate her capacities, but he continues to imagine May as an empty container, lacking cleverness, discernment, and an inner life. May's statement here foreshadows her clever and subtle victory toward the end of the novel, when she successfully and quietly manipulates Ellen Olenska into leaving and Newland Archer into staying.


I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. I can't love you unless I give you up.

Ellen Olenska, Book 1, Chapter 18

After Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer express their love for each other, Newland says he'll break off his engagement with May Welland. Ellen says it is too late. She decided not to divorce her husband because of Newland's insistence that a divorce would hurt the family. Ellen once considered her freedom all-important, but Newland's counsel has convinced her of the nobility of sacrificing her desire for personal freedom to protect her family. Despite her feelings for Newland, Ellen is unwilling to reverse her moral position to be with him.


Suddenly the same black abyss yawned before him and he felt himself sinking into it, deeper and deeper, while his voice rambled on smoothly and cheerfully.

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 19

Newland Archer spends his wedding in a dissociative state, almost completely oblivious to the ceremony happening around him. His feeling of unreality is sharpened by the mere appearance of Ellen Olenska's aunt at the ceremony. He is marrying one woman when he loves another. In their first moment together as newlyweds, Newland is overtaken by a sense of despair at his situation, but he hides this from May Welland and pretends nothing is wrong.


You see, Monsieur, it's worth everything, isn't it, to keep one's intellectual liberty, not to enslave one's powers of appreciation, one's critical independence?

M. Rivière, Book 2, Chapter 20

M. Rivière explains to Newland Archer why he chose to be poor rather than continue in his career as a journalist. Although M. Rivière is "common" and a failure by the standards of Newland's world, Newland admires and envies M. Rivière for his commitment to making authentic choices and not betraying his own conscience. M. Rivière takes it for granted that intellectual liberty and critical independence are unquestionable values. However, the people in Newland's circle condemn these qualities.


It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.

Ellen Olenska, Book 2, Chapter 24

During their meeting in Boston, Ellen Olenska expresses judgment to Newland Archer about New York's high society. Finding it tiresome and pointless, Ellen has moved to Washington, where the culture is more diverse and original. Ellen has no reverence for the conservatism, narrow-mindedness, and uncritical clinging to tradition of New York's high society. Striving to be a reproduction of Victorian Great Britain, New York is all the more ridiculous for upholding a way of life that is increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing world.


Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!

Ellen Olenska, Book 2, Chapter 24

During their meeting in Boston, Newland Archer berates Ellen Olenska for her unwillingness to have him leave May Welland so they can be together, telling her the situation is beyond enduring. His marriage to May requires that he sacrifice his freedom and personal desires—the very thing he convinced Ellen to do when he counseled her against divorce, for the family's sake. Ellen reminds him she is in the same position as he is, and if she can endure it, so can he.


Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer.

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 25

During their meeting in Boston, Ellen Olenska promised Newland Archer she wouldn't return to Europe as long as their relationship maintained its propriety. In light of this, Newland feels he has the power to decide whether Ellen stays or goes. He believes the mere fact of Ellen's presence will be satisfying enough that he won't try to cross the boundaries of propriety with her, but this is a limit he won't be able to stick to for long.


If the family had ceased to consult him it was because some deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their side.

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 25

Newland Archer becomes uneasy after speaking to M. Rivière, who tells him the family has received Count Olenski's proposals and is of the unified opinion that Ellen Olenska must return to her husband. He has come to regard his family as blinded by their absorption in trifles, but now realizes he underestimated their capacity for sensing and understanding the unspoken.


There was always a traitor in the citadel ... after he ... had surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable?

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 26

New York likes to imagine itself as an ancient fortress of aristocratic morality, immune to the degrading influence of outsiders. However, for all the energy it spends protecting itself from outside influences, people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers manage to find a way in, eventually exerting a liberalizing influence on its norms. Newland Archer's reflection is occasioned by May Welland's announcement that she attends Mrs. Struthers' Sunday evening get-togethers, with her mother's approval—the very same events that were once considered scandalous and which Ellen Olenska was condemned for attending.


Now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything.

Narrator, Book 2, Chapter 33

At the farewell dinner May Welland holds for Ellen Olenska, Newland Archer realizes society has long believed he and Ellen to be lovers and has conspired, successfully, to separate them. He realizes the dinner is a performance meant to erase all traces of his supposed infidelity and Ellen's scandalous presence, so that nothing improper will have ever happened to threaten the honor of May Welland's marriage. The troublesome situation has been skillfully eradicated without anyone ever speaking of it.

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