The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence centers on one society couple's impending marriage and the introduction of a scandalous woman whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and mores of turn of the century New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for the earlier, more brutal and critical, "The House of Mirth". Not to be overlooked is the author's attention to detailing the charms and customs of this caste. The novel is lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the nineteenth-century East Coast American upper class lived and this combined with the social tragedy earned Wharton a Pulitzer - the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. (From feedbooks.com)
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This story is set in the 1870s and was published in 1920. What kind of differences can you anticipate seeing as you read?
What do we learn about the world depicted in this novel right from the beginning?
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently... Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
To what does the highlighted text refer?
In British English, which greatly influenced Ms. Wharton's writing, "to try it on" means to behave badly. To what is Mr. Jackson referring and what does his statement suggest about him?
"The lady in the Empire dress" will evolve as a main character in this novel. To help you appreciate how Wharton develops her, as well as many other characters, watch the video featured below. (This annotation contains a video)
Wharton capitalizes some nouns that are not ordinarily written this way. A likely reason for this is
Critiquing the rigid adherence to social mores, as well as exposing hypocrisy among members of New York's elites, are at the heart of this novel. Edith Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her searing social critique and outstanding use of language. The photo below of Ms. Wharton allows us to see how she was part of the very society depicted in her work. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following is NOT suggested by the highlighted text?
"Droit de cite" is one of several French terms appearing in this work; it means "right of place." How does the use of French, along with references to things European, contribute to the overall tone and mood of the novel?
Why might the author introduce so much information about Mrs. Beaufort, Mr. Beaufort, and their home at this point in the story? Jot down your ideas about each of these three.
"The Blue Danube" is a famous waltz composed by Johann Strauss II in 1866. Below is a link to a fine recording of it; listen for a couple of minutes and consider what type of mood this music creates. (This annotation contains a video)
The author uses _____________ here to reinforce the notion of a perfect future ahead for this couple.
Compare the description of Mrs. Mingott's physical appearance to the woman depicted in the painting by Fernando Botero. Are they similar or different? Why? (This annotation contains an image)
What does the highlighted paragraph tell us about Mrs. Mingott's society?
Throughout this book, Newland Archer struggles with his adherence to convention and his attraction to a life outside of those conventions. As you learn more about his relationship with May, consider whether he is in love with her, in love with what she represents, or a mix of both.
We can anticipate that one role of the character of Sillerton Jackson is
Food, especially haute cuisine, appears enough to be considered a motif in this work. For a greater understanding of motifs in literature, check out the following video. (This annotation contains a video)
Why is so much hinted at, rather than stated directly, in this work? What does it tell us about this society?
Have you noticed the use of "should" in places where today we use "would?" It was considered to be more polite during Ms. Wharton's time.
Which of the following best explains why Newland defends Ellen in the face of criticism by his mother and sister?
It is interesting to hear Newland's views on women's rights, especially when referring to double standards around issues of sexuality. Try to follow this throughout the story and decide if he is consistent or not.
The highlighted text uses _______________ to express the subject of the sentence.
So far, we are getting to know May Welland only through Newland's eyes. How does this narrative technique shape our understanding of her, and their relationship?
How is the Countess Olenska's presence affecting Newland? Is it affecting others in the same way?
What do you think of the hierarchy among the elite? Below is an image depicting visits among the rich and powerful of New York in the 1870s. (This annotation contains an image)
What does Mrs. Archer mean by "Society" here?
Here is one of many examples of irony in this book. Wharton uses verbal irony in this passage to poke fun at Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden.
The word "sacerdotal" in the highlighted passage means
Although Larry Lefferts is known for his expertise in "FORM," he is known for cheating on his wife and lying as well. What do you think the author wants us to think of him?
What do you think of the van der Luydens' solution to the problem of the Countess Olenska being snubbed? What does it suggest about social class and power?
While much of this novel is narrated through the point of view of Newland Archer, the voice of the first few pages of this chapter belongs to an omniscient narrator.
This background about the Countess Olenska as a child allows us to see that she and her family have always been
Clothing, like food, is also a motif throughout this book. The 1993 film version of The Age of Innocence won an Oscar for best costume design in 1994. Below is an image from one of the scenes. (This annotation contains an image)
What are some of the Countess's qualities that attract Newland to her?
Can you explain why Mrs. van der Luyden's words are ironic? Do you believe she intends them as such?
Which of the following can we infer from the highlighted text?
As we shall continue to see, Newland rationalizes his actions as well as his inaction. Watch the following video and consider Newland's internal and external struggles. (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Newland regret having told a lie of omission to his fiancée? What do we learn about him through this?
Below is a photograph of a brougham from this book's era. The horse is not pictured, but is needed for the carriage to move. (This annotation contains an image)
By saying that the van der Luydens "do nothing by halves," Newland is
Newland gives voice to a powerful insight: we can often see something more clearly when viewed through a newcomer's eyes.
Which of the following is not suggested by the highlighted passage?
What can it mean that Newland sends the Countess flowers, and that he does it anonymously? Also consider his thinking about which roses are suitable for his fiancée, and which for the Countess.
Newland tells May that he sent the Countess roses, but does not mention that he visited her. This exemplifies
For the (male) members of the society depicted in this book, holding a law degree and practicing law are commonplace and taken for granted.
Can you imagine why Newland is so cruel to his sister Janey in this scene? What is eating away at him?
Newland's use of the hyperbolic "the whole of New York" is an example of how he and members of his social class ignore the existence of anyone but themselves. The poor and working people of the city are definitely not sitting around bored on Sunday evenings.
Why exactly is Mr. van der Luyden visiting with Mrs. Archer?
What do you think of the development of the character of Janey Archer? What is her role in this story so far?
Why does the Mingott family oppose Countess Olenska's desire to divorce her husband?
Newland refers to the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that lived during Biblical times. While they were important to the development of Judaism, later, they were much maligned in the Christian Bible. Archer uses the term to show his displeasure with the hypocrisy of his small world.
This is an example of dramatic irony; we know that Newland is behaving selfishly and is not motivated by caution, but Mr. Letterblair thinks otherwise because of his limited knowledge of the situation.
According to the narration, why don't the city's artists and writers frequent the gatherings organized by Medora Manson and others?
"Bohemian" is often used to refer to artists, writers, and other creative people who shun conventional practices and live according to their own beliefs. The family members use it as a euphemism for "poor people," reflecting their own prejudices.
"Imprevu" is not in the online dictionary. Looking at its context, choose the most likely definition.
The highlighted sentences encapsulate one of the novel's underlying themes. If Archer is right, and the Countess will never fit in, what does this portend for her future in New York and their relationship?
The highlighted passage creates tension through the use of
Consider how Wharton alters the pacing of the narrative within different chapters. The slowness of this scene helps us appreciate the tension and overall mood.
Age of Innocence - Quiz 1
"The Shaughraun" is an Irish melodrama first performed in 1874. Below is a photograph from a more modern production. (This annotation contains an image)
What does Newland's reaction to the play suggest about him?
Newland desists from accompanying the Wellands to Florida out of respect for social mores. By staying in New York, it also gives him more opportunities to see the Countess.
Which is probably not a reason for Archer's annoyance with Ned Winsett?
Do you think the author is critiquing the Winsetts for their slovenliness, or Archer for the assumptions and attitudes that come with his privileged position?
The "bosses" refers to the municipal politicians who ran things in New York City during the 1800s. Many were Irish-Americans.
"Gentleman" is used here to signify
Can you tell if Newland enjoys these activities or not? What clues does the author provide?
Pictured below is author Wharton's home in Lenox. While not identical to the one described at Skuytercliff, it gives us an idea of the grandeur. (This annotation contains an image)
The Countess and Newland seem to be playing a bit of a hide-and-seek game, both physically and verbally. What are they actually talking about here?
Why do Archer and the Countess's moods change so often and quickly?
Several different inventors worked on versions of a telephone in the 1800s. Below is an early example of one. The lack of telephones (and mail service) explains why characters in this book are frequently sending one another notes via their servants. (This annotation contains an image)
Archer is obsessing about Madame Olenska's relationship with Beaufort. What does this reveal about him?
Archer is clearly suffering from inner turmoil. What motivates his hasty trip to Florida?
The descriptions above of May and Newland's encounter suggest
While this work is filled with irony, perhaps the strongest examples have to do with the Welland family's encouragement of Archer regarding the Countess. The video below will give you a greater appreciation for dramatic irony. (This annotation contains a video)
Can you think of what Archer means by this? What might he want May to imagine and experience?
Archer's response to May's question is quite revealing. Why do you think he is angry?
Why is May saying this?
The image below gives us an idea of the level of elegance Janey is describing. (This annotation contains an image)
What does this description of Mrs. Mingott suggest?
What is Mrs. Mingott hinting at here? Do you think she is aware of the feelings between her niece and Archer?
Wharton's description of this unknown man suggests that he is
We do not learn much about Dr. Carver nor his Valley of Love Community. It is quite likely that this fictitious organization is modeled after one of the utopian communities established in the U.S. in the 1800s.
What values does the Marchioness reveal as she describes Madame Olenska's life with the Count? How do they compare to Archer's values?
What drives the Marchioness? Is her niece's well-being her main concern, or is she preoccupied with other matters?
What is Archer trying to find out from Ellen?
Do you notice how the silences and pauses and overall pacing of this scene contribute to the mood? Do you feel tension building?
Archer implies that he has had no choice in whom he marries. Is fate one of the themes of this book?
Which of the following statements is most likely to be true?
The photo below, from the 1996 film version of the novel, captures the angst felt by both characters in this scene. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Archer laugh? What do you think of this as an ending to Book One?
As you read the following pages, try to notice how Wharton invites us to use our different senses to imagine the wedding scene.
You can listen to Handel's March here and imagine yourself in the church. (This annotation contains a video)
What does the highlighted text suggest about Archer?
The descriptions of the guests, both vivid and at times amusing, are all from Archer's point of view. How does this contribute to our sense of each of them?
What do you think Archer is daydreaming about? What does this suggest about his state of mind?
This is the first chapter in which May speaks more than just a few words. Do you anticipate more development of her character, or do you think she will remain static?
Which of the novel's central ideas is reflected in this brief exchange between the newlyweds?
By comparing her to the Roman goddess Diana, Archer is seeing his wife as
May's desire to fit in where she is is reminiscent of Ellen's wish to be just like everyone else. What are we learning about conformity in this society?
It is helpful to remember that "gay" and "queer" simply meant "happy" and "odd" when this book was written; today we are aware that "queer" can mean homosexual and should not be used as a insult.
What do you think of the reference to Pocahontas in the same sentence as "savages?" What does it tell us about both Wharton and the society about which she writes?
What do the references to French writers suggest about Wharton's readers when the book was initially written? Have you heard of any of these authors?
What does May's reaction to Archer's new acquaintance reveal about her?
In keeping with Archer's indirectness and repression of feelings, this seems to be the first hint of difficulties in his marriage with May.
To what do you attribute Archer's change in feelings?
Does Archer's thinking seem credible to you? Why or why not?
The word "expiatory" in this sentence tells us that
With a bow and arrow in her hand, May approximates the goddess Diana in another way. See the image depicting Diana below. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the most likely reason that May is blushing?
By recalling the scene from the Shaughraun, a play that already holds meaning for Newland and the Countess, Wharton is perhaps foreshadowing something. What are your thoughts?
How would you summarize the effect that seeing Ellen, after all this time, has on Newland?
Why do the Wellands respond so negatively to this invitation? What does their response reveal about them?
The character of Mr. Welland is not well-developed, but from what we do know about him, we can say he is
Do you think that Archer's obsession, as reflected here, is common or unusual? What might it portend for his future?
Which of the images in the highlighted text seems to symbolize lost love?
In this chapter, Archer has resumed his lying. Do you think he will tell May why he wants to travel to Boston?
Which of the following statements is not supported by the text in this section?
What is the significance of Archer's questions about whether or not Ellen is traveling alone?
Which of the following best describes the tone of the dialogue in this scene?
The invention of stylographic pens marked an improvement of the technology used for writing in the late 1800s. Below is an advertisement for a later one. (This annotation contains an image)
Does Archer's repeated mentioning of fate and destiny seem consistent with what we know of his character? Explain your thinking with at least two reasons.
What do you think of this chapter overall? What is the mood as it ends?
The author uses _____________ to describe Newland and Ellen's lunch conversation.
With this short question, Ellen suggests that an overriding concern for May and her welfare will drive the future of her relationship with Archer.
What is this highlighted text suggesting?
Age of Innocence - Quiz 2
Can you summarize what makes Archer satisfied with his encounter with Ellen?
What is inducing Archer's "golden haze?"
Archer is clearly upset by this encounter. Take a minute and think about the different ways in which he might react and respond.
How does the author convey Archer's disrespect for M. Riviere?
Notice how the tone of their conversation shifts, and how it affects the overall mood of the rest of the scene. Can you articulate how the author accomplishes this?
What revelation has caused M. Riviere to support Madame Olenska's desire to stay in the United States?
What is being described in the highlighted passage?
The referenced Biblical verse reads as follows: "Withhold thy foot from being unshod, and thy throat from thirst: but thou saidst, There is no hope: no; for I have loved strangers, and after them will I go." (King James Version, Cambridge Edition) What do you think it means?
Why is Archer surprised by May's intervention in the conversation about Ellen? What does it reveal about May, and about her husband's image of her?
Today we would consider Miss Sophy's remark as passive-aggressive. It reflects the judgmental, gossipy society that she inhabits.
Why is Archer angry with Mr. Jackson?
Compare and contrast the rules of etiquette present in this book with the ones practiced in your family. Are any similar? Are some different?
What do you think of the unspoken message that May sends Newland, giving him her approval for seeing Ellen? Is he imagining this for his own benefit, or do you believe she simply pre-empting a lie?
Consider the parallels between Beaufort's situation and modern day financial scandals, such as insider trading.
What has triggered Mrs. Mingott's stroke?
What do you think of the limits of "family" responsibilities described here? Do they seem consistent with what we have learned so far in this book?
May uses _________________ in the highlighted passage, suggesting she knows more about her husband's feelings for Ellen than previously believed.
How does the character of Lawrence Leffert add to this story? When does he seem to appear?
Why is the phrase "derisive chuckle" being used to describe a reaction to praise for Mr. Welland?
Paying close attention to May will give us a clue as to how much she knows about her husband's relationship with Ellen. What do you think she knows?
Which statement best describes the dynamic between May and Newland during this conversation?
What impact does the highlighted description have on the mood right now?
In this scene, Ellen and Newland each bring up something to remind the other of their marriages. Do you think they are motivated by the same reasons? Compare and contrast.
Ellen refers to the ancient Greek goddess, Medusa, depicted below, who is perhaps the most famous Gorgon. What do you think she means by this reference? (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted text shows Newland to be
What are the implications of what Ellen says here? Is she trying to make it clear that they do not have a future together?
From the highlighted text, it seems that Newland
Michelet is the surname of both Jules and Athénaïs, who collaborated on many published works. It is interesting that Wharton does not make it clear if she is referencing one or both of the writers, particularly because Newland no longer seems interested in his wife's opinions.
Which of the following is not expressed in this paragraph?
Mrs. Mingott's age and physical condition may suggest she doesn't think clearly, but now, as at other times, she represents a voice of truth. What might be the author's purpose in writing this scene?
The use of the word "perspicacity" here suggests that
What are Mrs. Mingott's intentions by ending the conversation with these words about May?
What does the highlighted text mean?
Are you convinced by Archer's thinking here, or do you think he is simply rationalizing to justify his intentions?
Founded in 1870 (the time frame of this novel) and pictured below, what is now known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States. (This annotation contains an image)
Madame Olenska is talking about museum artifacts; what else might she be referring to?
What is Ellen suggesting here?
Why does Ellen look at her watch? Is she pretending to have an appointment, or might she really have one? It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.
Given Ellen and Newland's plan to make love in the near future, there is ____________ in May's words here.
Mr. Jackson refers to the Tuilleries often; below is a photo which allows you to see the beauty and grandeur of the place. (This annotation contains an image)
The assembled group is critical of Ellen because
Why might May have chosen to wear her bridal dress at this juncture?
Why might May have been described as "languid" and "pale" in the last couple of chapters?
This is Ellen's way of informing Archer that their relationship is over. Do you think he will accept this?
What is May implying about her conversation with Ellen? What does she want Archer to think?
To this day, Tiffany's represents elegance and wealth. Below is a photograph of a bristol (mirror) from the store. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following most aptly describes Newland's thinking about Ellen now?
What do we learn about May here? Does Newland have a say in the decision to hold a party in Ellen's honor?
The party given in honor of Ellen prior to her departure reveals the group's
This party seems to take us right back to the beginning chapters of the novel, with its emphasis on "correct" behavior.
Given the context, it is most likely that the highlighted phrase suggests that Chivers
What does the highlighted text signal? Can there be much "story" left at this point?
What is May revealing to Newland?
What do these lines reveal about May? How has she changed since the beginning of the story?
Almost three decades pass between the previous chapter and this final one. How does this pacing affect the narrative?
A true product of his environment, Archer looks back on his life and is glad he fulfilled his duties. Are we to judge him as a successful?
Why would the family avoid France on its family trip to Europe?
Is there some kind of poetic justice in an Archer marrying a Beaufort? What does it suggest about changes in Archer's society?
A beautiful, impressive landmark in Paris, the Place Vendome has been the site of much French history. It is pictured below. (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted text contains a suggestion that
Can you imagine Newland's thought process as he wanders through the Louvre, enjoying the art and thinking about Ellen? Notice how the author slows down the narrative, to build up to his reunion with Ellen.
Why might Ellen be called "Madame Olenska" in this chapter instead of by her first name?
Age of Innocence - Quiz 3
Watch the clip below after reading the final sentence. Is this how you picture Archer at the end? (This annotation contains a video)
What do you think of this ending? What does it reveal about Newland Archer?