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The Age of Innocence
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Group Reads Archive > June 2012 - the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Welcome to the June 2012 Fiction group read of...

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton


Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) I read this book a couple of months ago for the first time and wondered why I waited so long. It is wonderful and Wharton writes with a wit that I did not expect. Highly recommended.

Leshawn | 6 comments I'm constantly quoting this book and Wharton's comment about Americans being more anxious to leave their entertainment than they were to arrive.

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
The English Duke is a fabulous character - or really not his character as such but Wharton's use of him to highlight the differences in the 'rules' of society between America and England. Very funny.

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) I think one of the saddest things about the book is in the overall society shaped and ruled the lives of those in the upper class. Love and marry within your class and although you may fall in love with another, divorce was out of the question. As we see with the Countess, divorce labeled you as "not quite nice", regardless of the circumstances.

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I'm not really finding any of the Charaters particularly likable (except perhaps Ellen Olenska). Newland Archer is especially difficult as I started out both trusting and liking him but have ended up thinking he's behaving appallingly. After marrying May he quickly becomes what he hated before his marriage. May herself is not 100% sympathetic. How/where are other readers finding their sympathies lying???

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) Good point, you, I don't think the characters are very sympathetic and frankly, Newland is a prig. But again, it appears to be the "rules" of society that have molded the characters into stuffy, hypocritical snobs. Ellen is probably the only one who acts naturally and had to suffer for it because of the divorce.

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Ally wrote: "The English Duke is a fabulous character - or really not his character as such but Wharton's use of him to highlight the differences in the 'rules' of society between America and England. Very funny."

As the book goes on the differences between American high society and British & European high society become really heightened. Why do the New Yorker's fear the European way of doing things so much?

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) Ally wrote: "Ally wrote: "The English Duke is a fabulous character - or really not his character as such but Wharton's use of him to highlight the differences in the 'rules' of society between America and Engla..."

I think that the New Yorkers were attempting to develop their own culture of manners.....without a peerage and titles, it was important for them to make a delineation between the "haves" and the "have nots". So they adopted some of the rules of society from the Europeans and tweaked them into a code of behavior that fit their needs. I also think that they were in awe of the centuries old "rules" of the European society and were uncomfortable in the presence of those who represented that society. Does that make sense?

message 10: by Ally (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
It does, but in many ways the New York 'rules' are a lot more restrictive than anything in Britain or Europe. It surprised me that culture played no part i.e. no cultivation of writers and artists etc in American high society and that Countess Olenska was looked at as slightly bonkers for wanting to be intellectually and culturally sitimulated. Also, the British aristocracy can come across as a rather ramshackle bunch - land and property rich but cash poor. The customs here relect that so that it is not what you wear or how good your menu is that denotes your class position. English Lords and Dukes have no fears about their position and are not therefore as bound by 'correct behaviour' as the American society of the time seems to have been. Is this because the American wealth was more precarious...the fate of Beaufort shows this well.

message 11: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) I think the Americans were so new to the concept of "society" that they thought they were emulating the upper classes of Europe and went overboard. Most of them started "in trade" and were trying to rise above it so they adopted sometimes ridiculous rules that belied their origins.( I have an etiquette book from the early part of the 20rh century that is hilarious to our eyes in the current day....the accepted way things were done was so rigid.)
As far as culture was concerned, it also makes me wonder why the artistic community which was considered bohemian at best, was on the outside looking in.

message 12: by Ivan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ivan | 561 comments I know there must have been some, but when one thinks of the great artists and writers to come from the USA during this period (and the generation before), those that come to mind like O'Neal, Millay, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Mark Twain (d. 1910), Jack London, Upton Sinclair, were not from "society." I think our literature is richer for it.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
oh absolutely Ivan - writers and artists cannot be bound by rigid rules, creativity has to be accompanied by a certain level of freedom. The artists themselves lost nothing from being 'on the outside looking in'. 'High Society' on the other hand may have lost a great deal of cultural and intellectual development and even entertainment and may have been made narrow minded because of it. I suppose that's part of what Wharton was satirising.

message 14: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) So right, Ally. Plus, the Countess was chastised for her intellectual leanings since women in that society were not supposed to be interested in anything but marriage, leaving their calling cards,and providing an heir......a very limited life style.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
What about the title - where is the 'innocence' here?

message 16: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) I found this explanation at Penguin books:

"The Age of Innocence is a title both ironic and poignant: ironic because the "age" or period of the novel, the late nineteenth century, teems with intolerance, collusion, and cynicism; poignant because the only innocence lost is that of Newland Archer, the resolute gentleman whose insight into the machinations of aristocratic life comes late. The novel proceeds from a working assumption that is best summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance": "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." Edith Wharton advances this belief with a vengeance, and it gives tragic depth to the life of Newland Archer, a life that might otherwise seem pedestrian and unworthy of close examination."

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Thanks Jill, very interesting. I don't see anyone as innocent in the sense of untainted naivety as they are all complicit in the type of society that is developing. Countess Olenska cannot be seen as innocent as she is more worldly due to her experiences in Europe. May isn't innocent as she clearly knows exactly what Archer is up to. It goes without saying that Beaufort isn't innocent and his wife clearly turns a blind eye to his many indiscretions. The granny practically 'organises' society from afar etc etc.

The penguin explanation suggests that Archer is innocent to begin with. I'm not so sure, quite early on he comments on the women and what they lack and how he wants a woman to be a true companion. That shows an understanding of the limits and a subversive dream of overthrowing accepted practice. He seems to cynically realise the benefits of that type of society when he finds himself married to someone who is, by now, his second choice. He no longer sees the point of educating and cultivating a wife who could be a real companion because she could never compare to his lost love - Countess Olenska.

message 18: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) Good points, Ally and I tend to agree with your conclusions.
Another approach to the word "innocence" in the title could represent the love that Archer has for the Countess, which is innocent in the biblical sense of the word. That love is idealized by Archer as a great passion but is indeed innocent, both in the physical and social sense....he cannot act in the same manner as Beaufort and therefore remains an "innocent" in that sense of the word.

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Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) I just re-read my post and it sounds stupid!!!!! :)

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
It doesn't sound stupid at all! I like your idea of linking innocence with purity and perfection. Archer's love for madame Olenska is his perfect version of love but is only innocent because the Countess stops him from acting upon his feelings in various ways. He would have left May several times if the countess had given the word.

The ending of the novel is interesting. Why doesn't he go to her when he is finally free to do so? Perhaps its because he wants to preserve the perfection of that pure love he felt many years ago.

message 21: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) Well, I guess it wasn't as stupid as I thought it was!
Your conclusion about Archer's failure to go to the Countess in the end is exactly what I thought. He could not or would not break the illusion of "the perfect love" and would rather live in memory than the present. Possibly he also was not prepared to see her in old age (depending on what we consider "old age").....what if the beauty that he remembered, was gone? She was, in his mind, the woman of his youth and maybe he was not willing to shatter that image.

Michael Canoeist (michaelcanoeist) | 23 comments I think most of the Innocence is Wharton's. She was 12 years old in the year she sets her novel in, 1875 (hope I am remembering that accurately!), and there was a lot she loved about that society.... even as she details some of its failings. Our childhoods are (mostly) precious. Hers was probably particularly protected and wonderful, given the privilege into which she'd been born. So she is nostalgic for her own innocence, and that which she felt in her world -- to whatever degree projected, or accurately perceived.

That society was built upon a striving to be better, to be upright, to be moral. Yes, those goals were turned into sources of hypocrisy by all the poor humans who had trouble living up to the loftiness. But they are worthy goals. And that is also why Europe and its corrupted ways were so disapproved of; the Europeans had allowed for human deviousness and perversity, as it cannot be avoided for long. (The Count Olenska, whatever his unspeakable doings consisted of.) There was still a huge dose of Christian devotion underlying American society; the foundation upon which many of the original colonies was built. The version of Christianity then most in practice kept the pillars of society very much on guard against sin, sinning, and to the extent possible, the sinners themselves. They had principles to uphold that were not only important to them, but were handed down from Biblical text, so there was no question about how important it was.

Wharton hated some of the results that flowed from that proprietary construct, but she loved it, too, I think. The book exudes nostalgia -- the inevitable nostalgia of the woman writing at 56 or 57 for the world of her girlhood four to five decades back. She knows she is now closer to death than she is to that child she once was. And, compared to the New York City she saw in 1913 and occasionally later, her much smaller New York must have seemed a safer and more sensible place. She was writing just out of World War I, in which she had been very active in relief work. Think how lost her own past must by then have seemed to her.

Krista the Krazy Kataloguer (kristathekrazykataloguer) | 1 comments I had read Ethan Frome in high school, but nothing else by Wharton until I read this book a couple of years ago for a book discussion. Reading everyone's comments here makes me wish I had time to re-read it! Even if I had had no interest in the plot I would have been compelled to continue reading The Age of Innocence because of Wharton's beautiful writing style. Her insight into society at that time period fascinated me. I personally can't imagine living like that--it wouldn't have made me happy despite all the money. I agree with several of the comments here that Ellen Olenska was really the only likeable character. Reading The Age of Innocence also made me curious about Wharton herself, who led an unusual and interesting life. I recommend Hermione Lee's biography of her. It would be interesting to compare this novel with Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which depicts a similar type of society peopled with characters you can't really like.

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