National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

No novel worth anything can be anything but a novel ‘with a purpose,’ and if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself.


Edith Wharton, 1908 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

  1. Edith Wharton's original title for The Age of Innocence was “Old New York.” Which title do you think is more fitting?
  2. In the first chapter of The Age of Innocence, the narrator describes Newland Archer as being “at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization.” How does this brief character analysis foreshadow his future choices?
  3. The novel is told entirely from Newland Archer's point of view by an unnamed omniscient narrator. How does this shape the reader's understanding of May Welland and Ellen Olenska?
  4. In Book One, Newland compares marriage to a “voyage on uncharted seas,” noting that May's “frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.” How does the action of Book Two prove his early intuition correct?
  5. How does Newland view himself compared to other men in Old New York, especially Julius Beaufort?
  6. It may be easy to forget that Ellen Olenska is not especially beautiful. Why are both Newland and Julius so drawn to her? What else do these two men have in common?
  7. In contrast to her artistic European cousin, May Welland is an accomplished athlete. What does her skill in archery reveal about her character?
  8. How does Newland feel the first time he visits Ellen Olenska's home? What distinguishes it from other homes in fashionable New York?
  9. Newland's relationship with Ellen leads him to see “how elementary his own principles had always been.” Which principles, in particular, does she challenge?
  10. What is revealed about Ellen's life in Europe? What is concealed? What kind of cruelty did Ellen endure as the wife of Count Olenski? What kind of cruelty does she experience in America?
  11. In Book Two, “the whole of New York was darkened by the tale of Beaufort's dishonor.” What is this failure, and why does it rupture all of society?
  12. Is there an innocent character in the novel? Is there a villain? What might playwright David Ives mean when he says the novel is “an extraordinary portrait of the villainy of innocence”?
  13. Does Wharton's narrator condemn this society or does she merely describe the hypocrisies of New York in the 1870s? Is the tone sarcastic, ironic, or mocking?
  14. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton reveals a clue to her fiction: “My last page is always latent in my first; but the intervening windings of the way become clear only as I write.” How is this true in The Age of Innocence?
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