Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Posted September 15, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 16 Comments

Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Published by Barnes & Noble Classics on 2004 (Original pub. 1920)
Pages: 305
Genres: Classics, Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

Set in the old New York of the early 1870s, The Age of Innocence is an examination of the tension between society’s demands and personal freedom. Newland Archer is a young man from a wealthy family about to be married to May Welland, a sweet but unimaginative girl. A bookish dilettante, he leads a comfortable life among New York’s moneyed set. However, his life is turned upside down with the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, a damaged woman fleeing her troubled marriage to a European count.

In contrast to conventional May, Ellen goes against the grain, spurning society’s expectations. Newland is immediately drawn to the more free-spirited cousin. Although Newland follows through with his promise to May, he secretly yearns for her Ellen. Some melodrama ensues, blah blah blah, you can read the novel.

I did not love this book. The social criticism of the first few pages was really biting and funny, but the tone of the book quickly changed to something more somber and less enjoyable. I also had trouble relating to Archer; I understood his frustrations with his rigid society and his desire to break free and follow his heart, but at the same time I was thinking, “You’re a rich white man at the top of New York society, and you’re about to marry a very nice girl. Man, you just have it SO HARD.” (I probably need to work on that empathy thing.)

I was, however, fascinated by Ellen. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I am ALL ABOUT anything feminist. I loved that this woman pretty much does what she wants to, and her reputation be damned. She gets married off to a European, has a horrible life with him, and then takes off with the help of ANOTHER MAN (Scandal with a capital S). And then she returns to New York, where she grew up, and proceeds to dress provocatively, socialize with people at whom the “real” old-money crowd look down their noses, and attend parties members of the most privileged set wouldn’t be caught dead at. I so admire her fight for independence, especially considering the time period.

Overall, The Age of Innocence was kind of “meh” for me. I appreciate the themes Wharton portrayed, and I thought her nuanced depiction of old New York society was interesting. I just had trouble connecting with the narrator. However, if someone wants to write a spin-off of this story, Longbourn or Death Comes to Pemberly-style, told from Ellen’s perspective, I would totally get behind that.

This is my third book out of 50 read for The Classics Club.

  • I love The Age of Innocence! For many of the reasons you mention. And I think Newland is a privileged ass too, of course, but I think it was appropriate for the story.

    I’m usually not a fan of the adaptation/retelling thing but I would be all over something from Ellen’s perspective, if it was done right.

    Have you read House of Mirth? You might enjoy that more, as it’s from the heroine’s perspective.

    • I’m not usually interested in retellings, either, but this is one I could get behind. I haven’t read House of Mirth, but I’ll look into it! Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

  • I agree with your comment about the narrative, it is ice cold, but with an ending that is so powerful (unsatisfied man on a park bench in Paris who must decide if he has the courage enough to to pay the call to Ellen….) I must I respectfully disagree with the comment “meh”.

    • Agreed, the ending was very powerful, and I thought that part was perfect. To each her own; I see why this is a classic, but I didn’t personally enjoy it.

  • The ending…THE ENDING. Sigh. I was so done in and angry about the ending, even though I knew that’s the way it had to happen.

    • I did really like the ending… looking back over Newland’s life and seeing his emotions as he’s faced with the possibility of seeing Ellen again felt exactly right.

  • Good review- I am so tempted to join the Classics Club!

    • Do it! I’m way behind track to reach my goal, but it’s fun.

  • Wharton’s novels have been kind of “meh” for me. And I didn’t finish this one. Really may try to remedy that one day. I just bought Ethan Frome recently, so we’ll see if my luck has improved.

    • Good luck with it!

  • I like reading Wharton’s novellas and I actually have this one. I was meaning to read this shortly after, but never did. It’s on my classics list though, so I should get to it in the next 5 years 🙂

    Too bad you didn’t like it! I hope I will like it 🙁

    • It was purely personal preference. I hope you like it!

  • I loved Wharton’s writing style in House of Mirth, but hated the ending. I think I might give this one a try sometime in hopes that the plot appeals to me more. Ellen sounds like a great protagonist 🙂

    • I only wish Ellen were the actual protagonist; I found her much more compelling than Newland. It seems like House of Mirth might be more up my alley.

  • Isi

    This is also in my Classics club list, but I still haven’t read it. I have the feeling that I won’t love it, just like you, but I would like to read it anyway – it’s a classic!

  • Leah, you’re SO funny!

    “I was thinking, “You’re a rich white man at the top of New York society, and you’re about to marry a very nice girl. Man, you just have it SO HARD.” (I probably need to work on that empathy thing.)”

    I don’t think you have, by the way!

    Will you try another Wharton after this? I have long wanted to read The House of Mirth (a much more feminine story).