Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence can rightfully lay claim to the title of the Great American Novel. Written in 1920, after World War I, this “simple and grave” story of a doomed love affair is Tocquevillian in its themes of America and Europe, democracy and aristocracy, change and tradition, liberty and order, the individual and society.

“Edith Wharton is a writer who brings glory to the name America,” wrote the New York Times, and fellows will find in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel both a profound critique and a defense of American society.

Image: William Powell Frith, The Fair Toxophilites, 1872

Martin Scorsese on THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)

Faculty

Cheryl Miller

Cheryl Miller is executive director at the Hertog Foundation. Previously, she served as deputy director of research in the Office of Presidential Speechwriting and as research assistant to David Brooks at The New York Times. Her reviews and commentary have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard. She graduated from the University of Dallas with Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Politics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

  • Timeline of Edith Wharton’s Life
  • Edith Wharton’s World (Google Map with key locations in Wharton’s life and the novel; focus on the NYC locations [in maroon]. You should visit this map throughout the seminar. Click on the locations and zoom in with your mouse to explore.)
  • Wharton and AoI Family Trees
  • The Age of Innocence, Chs. 1–8 (pp. 1–56)

 
Recommended Listening:

 
Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe Newland Archer. How is he like others in his society? How is he different?
  2. In The Art of Fiction, Wharton writes that the “first page of a novel ought to contain the germ of the whole.” What do the first two chapters—their setting and situation—suggest about the novel to follow?
  3. Compare the two cousins—May Welland and Ellen Olenska. What about these two women attracts (and repels) Newland Archer?
  4. Describe the “Old New York” society of the 1870s and its principal characters. In what ways is it democratic? Aristocratic? Pay particular attention to pp. 41–43.
  5. Compare Julius Beaufort and Catherine Mingott, who are said to rule the different ends of Fifth Avenue (p. 42). How do they keep—and break with—Old New York traditions?

Readings:

  • The Age of Innocence, Chs. 9–18 (pp. 57–146)

 
Discussion Questions

  1. Archer visits Ellen’s little house three times (pp. 57–67; 88–95; 130–46). Describe the house, its furnishings, and her manner of dress at home. What do these objects reveal about her?
  2. How does Archer’s view of New York and May Welland change as his intimacy with Ellen grows? Does he see his city and his betrothed more objectively?
  3. Why does Archer advise Ellen against a divorce, and why does Ellen accede to Archer’s advice?
  4. Why does Archer send Ellen yellow roses, and why does she acknowledge the gift at Wallack’s Theater?
  5. What place do the arts and politics hold in Old New York society (see pp. 85–87, 102–5)?
  6. What is Ellen running away from? What does she mean when she tells Archer that she doesn’t “speak [his] language” (p. 111)? Do they enjoy a moment of communion in the Old Patroon house?
  7. Why does May offer to release Archer from their engagement? What does she suspect? How does Archer understand her offer and her motives? Is he correct?
  8. Is Ellen right that, “In reality it’s too late to do anything but what we’d both decided on” (p. 143)? Should Archer marry May knowing he loves her cousin?

Readings:

  • The Age of Innocence, Chs. 19–29 (pp. 147–242)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. “How like a first night at the Opera!” Archer thinks at his wedding (p. 150). How does this opening scene compare to the opening scene of Book I?
  2. Describe the Archers’ married life. What is the “code” that exists between Archer and May (p. 221)? Do they understand one another?
  3. Archer sees Ellen three times—on the beach at Newport (pp. 179–80), on the ferryboat in Boston (pp. 199–203), and in May’s carriage (pp. 236–42). What do we learn about their relationship? Are they living a “sham” life (p. 201) by hiding their love for one another?
  4. Who is M. Riviere, and what role does he play in the events of the novel? Why does he ask Archer to dissuade Ellen from returning to her husband (pp. 207–11)? What does he reveal about Ellen?
  5. What is the significance of the “Beaufort smash”? How does Old New York react? Does society’s punishment of Beaufort and his wife seem fair?

Readings:

  • The Age of Innocence, Chs. 30–34 (pp. 243–300)
  • Selections from Theodore Roosevelt, “Good Citizenship in a Republic,” April 1910
  • Alternate Endings for The Age of Innocence

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Old New York tolerates—if not, condones—adultery (e.g., Archer’s affair with Mrs. Rushworth, Larry Lefferts’ multiple affairs, Beaufort’s mistress). What makes the relationship between Archer and Ellen so threatening?
  2. Why does Wharton set Ellen and Archer’s final private meeting at the Metropolitan Museum (p. 257)?
  3. May makes a revelation to Archer after the dinner party, “her eyes wet with victory” (p. 285). Is Archer right to understand the party and May’s disclosure as acts of retaliation?
  4. In the last chapter, the novel flashes forward to the late 1890s / early 1900s. Compare New York at the turn of the century to the New York of the first opera scene and the second opera scene (pp. 261–67). How has New York changed? Has it become less “innocent”?
  5. Why is Teddy Roosevelt in this novel (p. 287–88)?
  6. What does Dallas reveal to Archer about May (p. 296)? How, finally, should we understand their marriage?
  7. Wharton outlined three alternate endings for The Age of Innocence, in which Archer and Ellen consummate their love, but soon grow apart. Why do you think she chose this ending?
  8. Why does Archer not go up to meet Ellen? (Why does she not go down to meet Archer?)

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

Study Jane Austen's beloved novel of marriage and manners.

Democracy in America

Examine the political, religious, and social character of American democracy.

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities

Read Tom Wolfe’s devastating, irresistible satire of urban and racial politics.

The American Character

Explore issues of American identity, character, and citizenship with classic short stories.

American Political Thought

Study the American ethos through examination of The Federalist Papers and Democracy in America.

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Reflect on the human consequence of modern thought with Doestovesky's 1864 novella.