The Age of Innocence was a softer and more gentle work than The House of Mirth, set in the time of her childhood. Wharton wrote, "I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America... it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914." Scholars and readers alike agree that The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a story which struggles to reconcile the old with the new. Wharton was raised in that old world of rigid and proper New York society which features in the story. She spent her middle years, including World War I, in Europe where the devastation of new mechanized warfare was felt most deeply. As explained by Millicent Bell in the Cambridge companion to Wharton, “The Age of Innocence was composed and first read in the aftermath of Roosevelt’s death and in the immediate wake of World War I. We frame the ending remembering the multiple losses… not only the loss of Roosevelt but the destruction of the prewar world and all that Wharton valued in it." With World War I, a definitive line was crossed. There would be no return to the New York of old from which Wharton was raised. And for all that can be condemned in that, there is a certain tenderness with which she crafts the world, "as if she had forgotten nothing." This intones the title word innocence, as the novel seems to connect personal innocence with that of national innocence. To Robert Martin, The Age of Innocence, was "fundamentally about America and its failure to fulfill its own possibilities".
The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple's impending marriage, and the introduction of the bride's cousin, plagued by scandal, whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s New York society, it never develops into an outright condemnation of the institution.The novel is noted for Wharton's attention to detail and its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and the social tragedy of its plot. Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she had lived in that world and had seen it change dramatically by the end of World War I.
The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society when compared to its inward machinations. It is believed to have been drawn from the popular 1785 painting A Little Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds that later became known as The Age of Innocence and was widely reproduced as the commercial face of childhood in the later half of the 18th century. The title, while ironic, was not as caustic as the title of story featured in the The House of Mirth, published in 1905.
Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's best families, is happily anticipating a highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic and beautiful 30-year-old cousin. Ellen has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a bad marriage to a Polish count. At first, Ellen's arrival and its potential taint on the reputation of his bride-to-be's family disturb Newland, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen, who flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.
Ellen's decision to divorce Count Olenski causes a social crisis for the other members of her family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated, but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from divorcing the count. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her; afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date, but she refuses.
Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified that their love will aggrieve May. She agrees to remain in America, separated but still married to Count Olenski, only if they do not sexually consummate their love. Newland receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry. He tries unsuccessfully to forget Ellen. His society marriage is loveless, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington and has remained distant, he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while he and May are in Newport, Rhode Island. Newland discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen to return to him, but she has refused, although her family wants her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe. Frustrated by her independence, the family has cut off her money, as the count had already done.
Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen, obsessed with how to finally possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he urges her to become his mistress. Then Ellen is recalled to New York City to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance.
Back in New York and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However, Newland then discovers that Ellen has decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe when May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night, after the party, Newland resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to tell him that she learned that morning that she is pregnant; she reveals that she had told Ellen of her pregnancy two weeks earlier, despite not being sure of it at the time. The implication is that she did so because she suspected the affair. Newland guesses that this is Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland decides not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his children, remaining in a loveless marriage to May.
Twenty-six years later, after May's death, Newland and his son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching the balcony of her apartment. Newland considers going up, but in the end decides not to; he walks back to his hotel without seeing her.
The story's protagonist is a young, popular, successful lawyer living with his mother and sister in an elegant New York City house. Since childhood, his life has been shaped by the customs and expectations of upper-class New York City society. His engagement to May Welland is one in a string of accomplishments. At the story's start, he is proud and content to dream about a traditional marriage in which he will be the husband-teacher and she the wife-student. His life changes when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska. Through his relationship with her—first friendship, then love—he begins questioning the values on which he was raised. He sees the sexual inequality of New York society and the shallowness of its customs, and struggles to balance social commitment to May with love for Ellen. He cannot find a place for their love in the intricate, judgmental web of New York society. Throughout the story's progress, he transgresses the boundaries of acceptable behavior for love of Ellen: first following her to Skuytercliff, then Boston, and finally deciding to follow her to Europe (though he later changes his mind). In the end, though, Newland Archer finds that the only place for their love is in his memories. Some scholars see Wharton most projected onto Newland's character, rather than Ellen Olenska.
The matriarch of the powerful Mingott family, and grandmother to Ellen and May. She was born Catherine Spicer, to an inconsequential family. Widowed at 28, she has ensured her family's social position through her own shrewdness and force of character. She controls her family: at Newland's request, she has May and Mrs. Welland agree to an earlier wedding date. She controls the money—withholding Ellen's living allowance (when the family is angry with Ellen), and having niece Regina Beaufort ask for money when in financial trouble. Mrs. Mingott is a maverick in the polite world of New York society, at times pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, such as receiving guests in her house's ground floor, though society associates that practice with women of questionable morals. Her welcoming Ellen is viewed skeptically, and she insists the rest of the family support Ellen. Mrs Mingott was inspired by Edith Wharton's own portly great-great-aunt, Mary Mason Jones.
May's mother, who has raised her daughter to be a proper society lady. May's dullness, lack of imagination, and rigid views of appropriate and inappropriate behavior are a consequence of this influence. She has effectively trained her husband, the weak-willed Mr. Welland, to conform to her desires and wishes. Mrs. Welland is the driving force behind May's commitment to a long engagement. Without her mother's influence, May might have agreed sooner to Newland's request for an earlier wedding date. After a few years of marriage, Newland Archer perceives in his mother-in-law what May will become — stolid, unimaginative, and dull. He later comes to feel the same training by May which was imposed upon Mr. Welland.
Newland Archer's fiancée, then wife. Raised to be a perfect wife and mother, she follows and perfectly obeys all of society's customs. Mostly, she is the shallow, uninterested and uninteresting young woman that New York society requires. When they are in St. Augustine, though, May gives Newland a rare glimpse of the maturity and compassion he had previously ignored. She offers to release him from their engagement so he can marry the woman he truly loves, thinking he wants to be with Mrs. Rushworth, a married woman with whom he had recently ended a love affair. When he assures May that he loves only her, May appears to trust him, at least at first. Yet after their marriage, she suspects that Newland is Ellen's lover. Nonetheless, May pretends to be happy before society, maintaining the illusion that she and he have the perfect marriage expected of them. Her unhappiness activates her manipulative nature, and Newland does not see it until too late. To drive Ellen away from him, May tells Ellen of her pregnancy before she is certain of it. Yet there still is compassion in May, even in their loveless marriage's long years after Ellen's leaving. After May's death, Newland Archer learns she had always known of his continued love for Ellen; as May lay dying, she told their son Dallas that the children could always trust their father, Newland, because he surrendered the thing most meaningful to him out of loyalty to their marriage. May is a picture of Innocence.
May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. She became a countess by marrying Polish Count Olenski, a European nobleman. Her husband was allegedly cruel and abusive, stole Ellen's fortune and had affairs with other women. When the story begins, Ellen has fled her unhappy marriage, lived in Venice with her husband's secretary, and has returned to her family in New York City. She is a free spirit who helps Newland Archer see beyond narrow New York society. She treats her maid, Nastasia, as an equal, offering the servant her own cape before sending her out on an errand. She attends parties with disreputable people such as Julius Beaufort and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and she invites Newland, the fiancé of her cousin May, to visit her. Ellen suffers as much as Newland from their impossible love, but she is willing to live in emotional limbo so long as they can love each other at a distance. Ellen's love for Newland drives her important decisions: dropping divorce from Count Olenski, remaining in America, and offering Newland choice of sexual consummation only once, and then disappearing from his life. Her conscience and responsibility to family complicate her love for Newland. When she learns of May's pregnancy, Ellen immediately decides to leave America, refusing Newland's attempt to follow her to Europe, and so allow cousin May to start her family with her husband Newland. The reception of Ellen's character has changed overtime. From a willful temptress to a fabulously independent woman, far ahead of her time, one thing is for certain: “Ellen has only to walk alone across a drawing room to offend its definitions.”Christine Nilsson: A famous singer who performs in an opera on the night of Archer and May's engagement. She sings in the same opera two years later.
Mrs. Lovell Mingott: May and Ellen's aunt, and the daughter-in-law of Mrs. Manson Mingott.
Lawrence Lefferts: A wealthy young man and a member of Archer's social circle. He is considered the expert on manners. Archer believes that Lefferts is behind New York society's rude refusal to attend the welcome dinner for Ellen. According to Archer, Lefferts makes a big show of his morality every time that his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Lefferts, suspects that he is having an affair.
Sillerton Jackson: The expert on the families that make up New York society. He knows who is related to whom, and the history of every important family. Mrs. Archer and Janey invite him over for dinner when they want to catch up on gossip.
Julius Beaufort: An arrogant banker who tries to have an affair with Ellen. He even follows her to Skuytercliff during the weekend that Archer goes to visit Ellen. His banking business eventually fails, and he leaves New York society in disgrace.
Regina Beaufort: Julius Beaufort's wife and Mrs. Manson Mingott's niece. She comes to Mrs. Mingott to ask for a loan when her husband's bank fails. Her visit causes Mrs. Mingott to have a stroke.
Janey Archer: Archer's dowdy, unmarried sister who never goes out and relies on Archer. She and her mother invite guests to dinner so they can gossip about New York society. Janey disapproves of Ellen, because she is unconventional and independent, and does not simply tolerate her husband's abuse.
Mrs. Adeline Archer: Archer's widowed mother. She does not get out to events often, but loves to hear about society. She and Janey strongly believe in the values of New York society. Like Janey, she views Ellen with suspicion. Henry van der Luyden is her cousin.
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers: A woman on the fringes of New York society. She is treated with mistrust and scorn until Ellen befriends her. She eventually becomes popular; at the end of the novel, May thinks it appropriate to go to her parties.
Count Olenski: Ellen's husband, a dissolute aristocrat who drove Ellen away with neglect and misery. At first, Count Olenski is content to let Ellen go. Later, though, he sends his secretary to America to ask Ellen to return, with the stipulation that she only appear as his hostess occasionally. He never appears in the story, but is described as half paralyzed and very pale, with thick feminine eyelashes. He constantly cheats on Ellen, and a veiled remark of Lefferts' implies that he copulates with men, too. What other abuses and infidelities he commits are unknown, but he seems quite malicious.
Sophy Jackson: Sillerton Jackson's unmarried sister. She is a friend of Janey and Mrs. Archer.
Louisa and Henry van der Luyden: Cousins of the Archers, and the most powerful people in New York society. They only mingle with people when they are trying to save society. Mrs. Archer goes to the Van der Luydens after New York society snubs Ellen. They invite her to a very exclusive party in honor of the Duke of St. Austrey to show society that they support her.
Duke of St Austrey: An English Duke. A cousin of the Van der Luydens, he is the guest of honor at a dinner party thrown by them. Both Ellen and Archer find him dull.
Nastasia: Ellen's Italian maid. She invites Archer and the other guests to wait in Ellen's sitting room.
Mr. Letterblair: The senior partner of Archer's law firm. He gives Archer the responsibility of talking Ellen out of her plans to divorce the Count.
Mrs. Rushworth: The vain, foolish married woman with whom Archer had an affair before his engagement to May.
Ned Winsett: A journalist. He and Archer are friends, despite their different social circles. He is one of the few people with whom Archer feels that he can have a meaningful conversation. Ned Winsett challenges Archer to think of things outside society.
Reggie Chivers: An important member of society. Archer spends a weekend at their country home on the Hudson River.
Marchioness Medora Manson: The aunt who took Ellen to Europe as a child. She now lives in Washington, where Ellen goes to take care of her. During a visit to New York, she tries to persuade Archer to convince Ellen that she should return to the Count. Beaufort's bank failure eventually ruins Mrs. Manson's fortune, and she moves back to Europe with Ellen.
Dr. Agathon Carver: A friend (and possible love interest) of the Marchioness Manson. Archer meets him at Ellen's house.
Du Lac aunts: Archer's elderly aunts. They offer their country home to May and Archer for their honeymoon.
Mrs. Carfry: An English acquaintance of Janey and Mrs. Archer. She invites Archer and May to a dinner party while they are on their European wedding tour.
M. Rivière: The French tutor of Mrs. Carfry's nephew. He fascinates Archer with his life story and intellect. Later, Archer learns that he was Count Olenski's secretary and the man who helped Ellen escape her marriage. The count sends him to Boston to try to convince Ellen to return to Europe.
Emerson Sillerton: An unfashionable, eccentric professor who spends his summers in Newport with the rest of society. His wife throws a party for the Blenker family that no one wants to attend.
Blenker family: The unfashionable, socially inferior family with whom the Marchioness and Ellen stay while in Newport. They are the guests of honor at Mrs Emerson Sillerton's party, and seem to be a clever, kind bunch.
Miss Blenker: The youngest daughter of the Blenker family. When Archer visits her empty family's house on the day of Mrs Sillerton's party, she is there. Archer briefly confuses her with Ellen, and she flirts with him. Through Miss Blenker, Archer learns that Ellen has gone to Boston.
Dallas Archer: May and Archer's eldest child. He takes his father on a trip to Europe. Through Dallas, Archer learns that May felt sorry for his empty heart after Ellen left.
Fanny Beaufort: Dallas Archer's fiancée and the daughter of Julius Beaufort and his second wife. She asks Dallas to visit Ellen while he and Archer are in Paris.
In 1921 when The Age of Innocence was published newspapers from New York to Oregon documented the event. It appeared on recommended reading lists and was reviewed. Almost every review was positive. Advertisement like that in the Morning Oregonian quoted William Lyon Phelp's criticism that the book was "one of the best novels of the century". Phelps wrote an authoritative review of the book for The New York Times where he expressed Wharton's mastery explaining, "Wharton is a writer who brings glory on the name America and this is her best book... The style is a thing of beauty from the first page to the last", emphasizing that "the appearance of such a book... by an American is a matter for public rejoicing... [it] looks like a permanent addition to literature." Phelps compares Wharton to Henry James, between who there was a relationship of correspondence, which would become a trending topic in modern literary criticism of the book. More glowing reviews appeared when The Age of Innocence debuted. James Doublas wrote in the Sunday Express that "Edith Wharton [was], of course, the greatest American novelist [then] living."
Two common themes appeared in the reception of the novel in America. The first was recognizing the skill with which Wharton crafted a picture of America for the reader. The second was the pride at the European reception of Edith Wharton's novel. The Omaha World Herald published a snippet promotion for Wharton's book which described the novel as "an admirable characterization of a certain kind of American life", and duly noting the massive change between old and new world which Wharton sought to capture. This reaction also appeared in the Miami Herald a few months later, where it was insisted that Wharton had captured faithfully the New York Social life of the 1870s, "thoroughly to be recommended as an historical document".
The second resonating reaction was actually to a reaction in of itself. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer documented the news that the French had requested a set of American novels for the great library at Sorbonne. This set was to include Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Doublas also noted the European popularity of the novel, citing both England and France as a market for the work, calling The Age of Innocence the "flower of [United States] literary effort. Edith Wharton was a part of a movement which revealed the refinery and talent of the yet young America.
The only negative review of note came from on Katherine Mansfield who proclaimed, "Does Mrs Wharton expect us to grow warm in a gallery where the temperature is to sparklingly cool? We are looking at portraits- are we not?" Mansfield's criticism claimed that the work was cold, passionless and uninteresting.
Killoran explains in The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton, that critics have always admired Wharton's craftsmanship, her structure, and her subtle ironies, along with the description of interiors (this is owed to Wharton's time as an interior designer). Over time, more stress has been placed on the concept of money as portrayed in the book, as well as class distinctions. However, these have undoubtedly always occupied a corner of the readers mind.
Ellen Olenska and May Welland have also long been at the heart of discussion for criticism. Originally perceived as doing the right thing by lying about her pregnancy in order to save her marriage, May Welland has come under more speculation in recent years. She is now seen as manipulative rather than sympathetically desperate. Ellen Olenska brings up questions of feminism and the general "Woman Question" in the bulk of literary criticism now written.
Another point of interest originally overlooked by the public was the futility and frustration felt by Newland Archer. His life appears to be a game where the moves have already been set. This grim outlook resonates with readers of today. Far from envying the lavish lifestyle which Archer has not had to work for, one can empathise with his search for purpose.In 1924, a silent film film adaptation was released by Warner Brothers, directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Beverly Bayne as Countess Olenska and Elliott Dexter as Newland Archer.
In 1928, Margaret Ayer Barnes adapted the novel into a play, first produced on Broadway, starring Katharine Cornell as Countess Ellen Olenska.
In 1934, a film adaptation was directed for RKO Studios by Philip Moeller (based on the 1920 novel and 1928 play), starring Irene Dunne as Countess Ellen Olenska and John Boles as Newland Archer.
In 1993, a film adaptation, The Age of Innocence, was directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Winona Ryder as May Welland Archer, Richard E. Grant, and Miriam Margolyes. Ryder won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of May Welland Archer, and the film won an Oscar for costume design.
In 2009, the television show Gossip Girl aired an episode entitled "The Age of Dissonance," which loosely follows the plot of Wharton's novel as reimagined in the New York of the 2000s.