Monday, November 12, 2012


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, D Appleton and Company, 1920, 362 pp

I had the idea that I didn't like Edith Wharton but in fact I had only read one other of her novels, The House of Mirth. I read it in 2000 and I wrote in my reading journal that I found Wharton to be an excellent writer and had enjoyed the book very much.

I also enjoyed The Age of Innocence; in fact I liked it more than the movie which I remembered as being excellent. Even though she is blond, Michelle Pfeiffer played the Countess to perfection; Winona Ryder captured May; and Daniel Day-Lewis was splendid as Newland Archer. I know that Scorcese's favorite color is red but he may have gone overboard with it in that movie.

While Newland Archer was as spineless in the movie as he was in the novel, there was a distinct difference when it came to the women. It was the women who actually ran things in Wharton's portrait of upper class Old New York. Behind the scenes they spoke to each other in a special language, almost a code, as found in Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Propriety and maintaining the status quo were the touchstones among those females, constraining even the Countess and meaning that passion did not stand a chance. Newland Archer had no clue that he had been manipulated. He only knew that somehow the Countess got away from him.

I am not in favor of such feminine scheming. It only serves as a backlash to male patriarchal oppression and prevents the human male from attaining enough enlightenment to allow a parity between the sexes. I do however have to admire Wharton's stunning literary feat in portraying it so well.

1921 was the fourth year the Pulitzer Prize was awarded. Edith Wharton was the first woman to take the prize for a novel. She made me pity Newland and the Countess, she made me never want a female adversary such as May. Most of all she added immeasurably to my awareness of how women and men make each other miserable.

(The Age of Innocence is available on the Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. Judy,
    I have The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence-- in a book titled Three Novels of New York-- in my reading list. I agree with your assessment of the characters in The Age of Innocence; my perspective is from the movie since I haven't read the book, but that sweet, underhanded machination of May cost Newland his happiness.
    I have never forgotten how in the last scenes of the movie Newland, as an old man, finds out via his son that May knew all along what she was doing and I found it so despicable, that I felt as close to hatred as I've ever felt for a fictional character except perhaps the guy from Perfume.

    1. I understand. What a strange culture it was that Wharton portrayed. But what else was May to do? It was either her or the countess, don't you think?

    2. Yes, you're right, but obviously she wasn't thinking about him at all...Is that unselfish love?

    3. I think that Wharton was writing about a class of people where unselfish love was not an option.