Original date of publication: 1920
My edition: 1992 (Collier)
Why I decided to read: the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die list
How I acquired my copy: the Philadelphia Book Trader, March 2011
“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done of even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…” (Ch. 6).
Newland Archer is a member of upper-crust, Gilded Age New York Society, about to marry May Welland, a naive heiress. He becomes attracted to May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, back in New York after disgracing herself. Part of her attraction for Newland is the fact that she is so free-spirited, and so a struggle ensues: will Newland choose the conventional path with May, or will he flaunt society’s expectations of him and choose the Countess?
Edith Wharton’s observations of Gilded Age New York are extremely incisive; although she was a part of the society she wrote about, she was nevertheless able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. The society she writes about was limiting, in which everyone did more or less the same things over and over again, day after day; so it’s easy to see why Newland finds the Countess Olenska so fascinating. I think he’s not so much in love with her as he is with the lifestyle she represents. It’s also easy to see, conversely, how New York society sees her as a threat, too. The Age of Innocence was written in 1920, nearly fifty years after it’s set; and so the novel is not so much a polemic about an ongoing issue. But it’s a fascinating look into the way that things were; and, maybe, still are in upper-crust New York society. I love Edith Wharton’s prose style, too; it’s not sophisticated, but she gets her point across succinctly.