Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920) begins at the opera on a January evening in the early 1870s. All of fashionable New York is there to see soprano Christine Nilsson sing in Faust. Among them is Newland Archer, an affluent lawyer in his thirties, who is "sincerely yet placidly in love" with the beautiful May Welland. Newland never questions that his fiancée, May, will be the perfect wife—especially since they both come from distinguished families—until her cousin, the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska, returns suddenly home after many years spent in Europe.
From the moment Ellen enters the opera in a European-style dress that reveals too much shoulder, she shocks Old New York. When she soon buys a home in an artists' area, she faces criticism from her family. When she attends Sabbath evening music parties with the married Jewish businessman, Julius Beaufort, she encounters more censure. But when she wants to divorce her Polish husband, Count Olenski, she risks public disgrace.
The family believes their only hope for social respectability lies in Newland—if he can only persuade Ellen to withdraw her petition for divorce. At first he takes the case so that her secrets will remain hidden from those less sympathetic. But with time, Newland not only falls in love with Ellen—despite his impending wedding to May—he also begins to see the hypocrisy of his world. In a society that believes "divorce is always unpleasant" because of the scandal that results for the family, Newland's deepest beliefs are challenged. Will he follow the wishes of his family and convince Ellen to remain in an oppressive marriage? Or will he risk his own name and encourage Ellen to seek the divorce she wants?
The Age of Innocence re-creates New York's Gilded Age, but it also has a great deal to say to the twenty first century. Ellen's wish to be accepted in America will strike a chord with anyone who's ever felt like an outsider in her own family. Newland's struggle should be familiar to everyone who has ever weighed the social cost of following his desires. The couple's illicit romance—and their commitment not to hurt those around them—linger in the reader's mind with all the persistence of a lifelong regret.
The Language of Flowers
Flowers are important symbols in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Many Victorian families had a book on the "language of flowers" in their home, or even a flower dictionary. Giving flowers was not only a way to express wealth, but also a way to communicate a subtle message.
Every morning during his engagement, Newland Archer sends lilies-of-the-valley to May Welland. Lilies-of-the-valley symbolize purity, modesty, and return of happiness. Newland believes May to be as naïve and innocent as these white flowers suggest.
After Newland's first visit to Ellen Olenska's home, he sends her a bouquet of yellow roses. The message of a yellow rose is more complicated. Yellow roses can represent jealousy, infidelity, friendship, or a decrease of love.
Edith Wharton, 1908 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Wharton's property in Lenox, MA, "The Mount" (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Edith Wharton at her writing desk at the Pavillon Colombe in France, 1931 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)