Places: The Age of Innocence

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1920

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Age of Innocence, TheYork City. The novel’s city is the “Old New York” of the second half of the nineteenth century, comprising affluent old families who descended from earlier settlers and revolutionaries. Presided over by well-off bankers, lawyers, businessman, and their fashionable wives, this community was situated in lower Manhattan, in areas such as Lafayette Street or Washington Square, rarely venturing north of Thirty-fourth Street. The social lives of these Old New Yorkers was governed by church-going, dinner parties and balls in individual homes, and ritual attendance at the Academy of Music, a luxurious opera house on Fourteenth Street. Children were reared to a strict standard of manners and morals, which allowed for little independence or originality. Although narrow-minded and exclusive, this society lived well, with the women attired in impeccable dresses, jewels, and elaborate hairstyles, and the men exuding an aura of affluence and entitlement. Fearful of innovation or change, this dignified society was engaged in forestalling the future and secured their power by encouraging conservative views and marriages only within their established social set. This “Old New York” background is a deep subject in this novel; the power of this particular place is overwhelming, and individuals are often defeated in their efforts to overcome its influence on their personal lives and choices. At the end of the novel, however, after World War I, it is clear that Old New York has lost its power and prestige. What had seemed inalterable before the war is now subject to tremendous change. Even before the war, individual characters in Wharton’s novel undergo an awakening in which they realize they have allowed their lives to be shaped by outdated and arbitrary conventions.

Newland Archer’s home

Newland Archer’s home. Much of the story in this novel takes place in a number of different private residences, but it is at the home of Newland Archer and his new bride May that the power of Old New York exerts itself most triumphantly. Newland’s house is the site of the farewell party for May’s rival, the expatriate Old New Yorker now known as the Countess Ellen Olenksa. The lavish dinner May has arranged is one in which all the glittering movers and shakers of Old New York seem to surround Newland like guardians to ensure he will not defy convention for the sake of the woman who is the great love of his life.

Mrs. Manson Mingott’s house

Mrs. Manson Mingott’s house. While most of the homes in Old New York replicate Archer’s, one exception is the house of the obese Mrs. Manson Mingott, who lives quite unfashionably in the open fields of Central Park. This house is a little enclave of free-spiritedness that acts as a bracing antidote to the otherwise stifling respectability of Old New York.

Ellen Olenska’s house in New York

Ellen Olenska’s house in New York. Home of the Countess Ellen Olenska on an unfashionable part of West Twenty-third Street and is another outpost that resists the rigid decorum of Old New York.

*Newport

*Newport. Affluent Rhode Island port town in which vacationing Old New Yorkers maintain well-appointed summer homes. It is here that Archer is once again frustrated in his attempt to establish a close relationship with Ellen.

Ellen Olenska’s home in Paris

Ellen Olenska’s home in Paris. Situated on an avenue near Invalides, this apartment is where Archer comes at the end of the novel, when he is a widower past middle age. Although the passage of time and the fact that he is in Paris have freed him from the rules and restrictions of Old New York, Newland still struggles with a variety of inner restraints and fails to call on Ellen, instead gazing up at her window from a bench below until night falls.

Suggested ReadingsAmmons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. An insightful study that chronologically traces Wharton’s evolving point of view and her complaints with American society from the female perspective. Extremely well written and particularly useful for feminist issues, the text covers all Wharton’s works. Contains bibliographical notes and an index.Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. New York: Viking Press, 1971. An excellent biography that contains many photographs of Wharton and her houses, friends, and travels.Bloom, Harold, ed. Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of ten essays that analyze both her stories and novels. The essays are arranged chronologically; the first appeared in 1968, the last in 1985. They are each brilliant and full of useful information. An index and a bibliography are provided.Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An important inquiry into the meaning of actual and imagined spaces in the works of the two women writers. Explores Wharton’s anthropological knowledge in the structure and characterizations of The Age of Innocence.Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1962. An excellent collection of critical essays. Also includes a letter to Wharton from Henry James about her book The Reef and a memoir of Wharton by Edmund Wilson. Contains a bibliography.Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. This biography of Wharton’s life won a Pulitzer Prize. Enormously detailed, beginning with a discussion of Wharton’s English and Dutch colonial ancestors and tracing her life and artistic development.Lewis, R. W. B., and Nancy Lewis, eds. The Letters of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. Wharton’s letters from 1874 to 1937. Includes letters to Henry James and Morton Fullerton. Contains photographs, a biographical chronology, and a helpful index.McDowell, Margaret. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976. An excellent introduction to Wharton’s life and work. Interprets The Age of Innocence as satirical portrait of a society that Wharton also respected. Annotated bibliography of secondary sources.Vita-Finzi, Penelope. Edith Wharton and the Art of Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A close look at Wharton’s sources of inspiration and imagination, which then turns to her method in practice. The appendix contains extracts of Wharton’s notebook, chapter summaries, and excerpts from typed drafts. An index is provided.Wershoven, Carol. The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. An exceptional psychological study of Wharton’s life and artistic career that complements the Lewis biography. The Age of Innocence is read as Wharton’s most significant Bildungsroman, tracing Newland Archer’s struggle to mature.Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “The Age of Innocence: Wharton’s Portrait of a Gentleman.’” Southern Review 12, no. 2 (1976): 640-658.
Categories: Places