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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Analysis

Quiz

Why does Wharton include so many material details in her novel?

In a society filled with conspicuous consumption, descriptions of furniture, dishes, even locations of summer homes all act as subtle indications of differences in wealth even amongst the very elite. In addition to their commercial value, any of these items may also suggest the personality of their owner. For example, May's bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley and her white dresses indicate her innocence and her purity. The eclectic furnishings in Ellen's New York flat gives her character an air of wild freedom. It is also important to remember that Wharton was writing about a world that no longer existed. Details add a sense of historical veracity and serve to maintain a sense of distance between Old New York and the modern world. In addition, Wharton was writing at a time when anthropology was becoming a new field of study. With her close observances of cultural artifacts, Wharton mimics the scholar of ancient and primitive civilizations. As a result, Old New York itself appears somewhat primitive, despite its own claims of high culture and morality.

Several years ago, The Age of Innocence was made into a critically acclaimed film directed by Martin Scorcese. What do you think would be some problems inherent to making a film version of Wharton's novel?

There are many problems inherent to making a film from an existing novel. The most basic of these is that films can use visual images to great effect, whereas unillustrated books cannot. As a result, much of the textual nuances of a novel get lost in its translation to film. In The Age of Innocence, a single glance can contain a world of meaning, and Wharton is careful to analyze the exact nature of the glances exchanged by Archer and May, and Archer and Ellen in order for the reader to understand their exact meanings. In addition, Wharton invests physical details with a significance that may not be immediately apparent. Details of fashion, particularly Ellen's departures from the traditional styles of her time, might go unnoticed by post-First World War audiences unless their significance is commented upon. In the film version of The Age of Innocence, Scorcese grapples with this problem of the necessity of commentary by incorporating a voice-over narration.

What are some of Newland Archer's character flaws?

Newland may keenly feel the hypocrisy of Old New York, but he is not exempt from it himself. The most notable example of his double standards comes with his ideas on women. In Book One, he remarks privately that he wishes that May would learn to think independently despite the upbringing that taught her never to question authority, yet he also feels a proud sense of possession over May. On a broader scale, Archer claims that women should be granted the same rights as men, and should not be censured for having private relationships. Yet he also makes a judgmental distinction between "the women one loved and the women one pitied."

Archer can also be remarkably naïve. While he is astute to the complex authority the Mingott family wields, he underestimates its cleverness. While he feels he can defy the family's powerful solidarity by contradicting their opinions, Archer realizes with a start in Book Two that he has simply been excluded from consultation. He is also naïve in the sense that he feels that he is somehow exceptional to the usual codes and judgments of good society. He quixotically hopes that somehow Ellen and he can form a relationship that will defy the usual dreary terms of adultery. It is Ellen who must keep Archer's feet planted to the ground.

Do Newland Archer's character flaws ultimately prevent him from having a relationship with Ellen Olenska? Or was the relationship, weighed down by New York moral codes doomed before it even began?

Is this truly an age of innocence, according to Wharton? If the age itself isn't innocent, were there certain people within New York society who were innocent? In what ways were they innocent?

Is The Age of Innocence a tragedy? Why or why not?

Wharton has often been criticized for making her male protagonists into weak, spineless creatures, dominated by the values and morals of upper class women. In what ways is the New York society of the novel a woman's world?

How does Archer's view of his wife May change throughout the course of the novel?

Describe the differences between Newland's outlook on society and Ellen's. What do their views have in common? On what grounds do they differ?

Why does Old New York fear European culture?

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