50 pages 1 hour read

Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1920

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Summary and Study Guide


American writer Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Age Of Innocence (1920) was a post-armistice reflection on the 1870s New York society of her youth. Wharton, an American who lived abroad in Paris, was already the successful author of other novels, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911).

In a The New York Times article, Elif Batuman reflects that “eventually, each classic tells two stories: its own, and the story of all the times one has read it. In a way, in ‘The Age of Innocence,’ Edith Wharton wrote an allegory of this very process: of the way stories acquire new meanings over time” (Batuman). Batuman considers the novel Wharton’s meditation on how the customs of the 1870s America that formed her appear from the perspective of the more liberal time she was writing in. Wharton finds new significance in the events and tendencies that she previously took for granted.

The novel remains a classic to this day; in 1993, it was adapted for the screen by director Martin Scorsese.

This study guide uses the ClassicBooks Kindle Edition published on April 18, 2022.

Plot Summary

New York lawyer Newland Archer seeks to leave behind his decadent past of European travel and affairs with married women to seek a more morally upright existence by marrying the young May Welland. At the same time, May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska leaves her abusive husband in Europe to start a new life in New York. Ellen takes her own house and becomes a favorite with society gentlemen, who are enraptured by her charm. Meanwhile, society women are wary of Ellen for flouting social convention. Archer, who is also attracted to her, is ill at ease when May’s family encourages him to dissuade Ellen from divorcing her husband, for fear that the scandal will tarnish all their reputations. Archer obeys, however, in the interest of advancing his wedding date. He becomes sexually intimate with May to keep his feelings for Ellen at bay. May, who suspects that Archer is sentimentally attached to another woman, gives him leave to break their engagement. Archer refuses, denying all such claims. However, only days later, Archer finds himself before Ellen, confessing his love for her. Ellen kisses him but says that she will not be the reason for him breaking his engagement. Archer then receives a telegram—May’s parents have agreed to move the wedding forward.

May and Archer honeymoon in Europe and then take their place in New York society. Archer tries to forget Ellen. Ellen, for her part, sets up a bohemian existence in Washington DC. Ellen’s family, worried that she is becoming notorious, wish that she would return to her husband in Europe for propriety’s sake.

Count Olenski’s secretary finds Archer and persuades him to convince Ellen not to return to her husband. Archer and Ellen meet and are as much in love as ever. Ellen continues to insist that they cannot consummate their relationship and become an adulterous couple who hurt those who rely on them. She tenuously plans to return to Europe. May, who is languishing under the realization that her husband loves Ellen, sets out to out-maneuver them. She tells Ellen that she is pregnant, which causes Ellen to decisively leave America. At the farewell dinner Archer and May throw for her, Ellen returns the key that Archer gave her, signaling that she will never become his mistress. Archer imagines following Ellen to Europe and running away from his life until May announces her pregnancy.

The last chapter flashes forward into the future. May and Archer have three children and are respectable New Yorkers. After May’s death, Archer’s son Dallas reveals that he knows about his father’s love for Ellen. However, although Archer makes it as far as Paris, he finds himself unable to visit Ellen, preferring to console himself with his memory of her.