Masterpiece Monday: The Age of Innocence

Film poster for The Age of Innocence (film) - ...

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Earlier this month I borrowed Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence from my local library. I’ve said before that I read her novel Ethan Frome in high school, which I didn’t enjoy, partly because the tone was so dreary, but also because I believe that it takes maturity to fully appreciate Wharton’s work.

The Age of Innocence takes place in New York during the 1870s and opens with protagonist Newland Archer at an opera with his very wealthy, elite relatives and friends. He admires his fiance May Welland for her youth and purity.

However, May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenksa, comes to town, bringing with her a scandalous reputation. Rumor has it that she has fled from her horrendous husband in Europe into the hands of his secretary. Now she wishes to gain her family’s support as she attempts to divorce her husband and live independently.

Of course, Ellen’s mysteriousness and refusal to live according to social norms makes her irresistible to Newland, who is growing bored with Old New York society and its thirst for controversy and gossip. The two quickly fall in love, and the novel follows their forbidden relationship. Will Newland and Ellen choose passion over propriety?

There’s many reasons why The Age of Innocence won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize (the first Pulitzer given to a woman, by the way). Wharton obviously knows what it’s like to live in a prestigious family, since the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” allegedly refers to her maiden name. The details that she uses to describe all the people and places immerses you within the story. The emotions are real and heartbreaking, the characters moving and unforgettable. Although very different in style compared to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, they share the same majestic sentiment.

I highly recommend this novel, not only because it’s one of the best of all time, but also because its themes are timeless. I also recommend the 1993 movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder: the dialogue is word-for-word, the actors fit the characters perfectly (other than the women’s hair color), and the story is just as beautiful. Overall, The Age of Innocence is both an exquisite read and watch.

Favorite Quote: “He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.”