Recap: New York City in the 1870’s is nothing like the Manhattan we know today. And that’s what Edith Wharton shows us in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. An American fiction classic, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, an upstanding New York lawyer who comes from a family of wealth and aristocracy. Archer is set to marry the lovely, fair, and innocent May Welland. But when May’s “foreign” cousin Madame Ellen Olenska returns to New York after her marriage fails in Europe, things get complicated.
Because Ellen Olesnka wants a divorce, she is black-labeled as the scandalous member of the family. On top of that, her time spent in Europe makes her “different” from the other women in New York. While most are embarrassed by her, Archer is intrigued. Their relationship quickly falls into the realm of flirtation when he is asked to deal with her divorce. But because divorce is so vehemently frowned upon, he encourages her to stay married to her husband but to continue living away from him in New York.
As their relationship progresses, so does Archer’s insistence that May move up the date of their wedding. In 19th century New York, the only thing people discuss more than divorce is an affair, thereby making Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland the talk of the town.
Analysis: The Age of Innocence is a classic story of expectation versus desire, and this is mostly due to the setting of the novel. In 1870’s New York, there are certain things that are expected from members of the high society. For instance, marriage, children, trips to Europe and the opera, and dinner parties. But Archer’s relationship with Madame Olenska opens his eyes to a world where people make decisions based on what they feel, rather than what they’re expected to do.
Madame Olenska is the woman he most obviously loves. He admires her strength, beauty, and passion. But May represents what’s expected of him: a nice New York girl who’s beautiful, has done no wrong and comes from a good family. As tempted as he is, the story does not turn out the way a modern day love triangle story would. In that period of American history, avoiding scandal was a priority.
So it seems that the story’s setting itself is its own character in the novel. The time and place directly control the characters’ actions. But because we live in modern times, it also makes the story suspenseful, thrilling, and above all, romantic, in the most heartbreaking of ways.
MVP: Madame Olenska. She’s the only character in the novel who truly shows strength and bravery. Yes, she’s “different” from the other New York women, but it’s because she’s willing to stand up for herself by getting out of a bad marriage and befriending those who she legitimately likes, rather than those who come from good family backgrounds. She speak her mind, when everyone else’s mouths and minds stay shut.