Literature: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is a novel by Edith Wharton. Originally published in 1920, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

The story follows an upper class couple living in New York in the 1870's. Newland Archer is a lawyer who is engaged to May Welland. While he does love her, Newland ends up doubting his choice when he meets her cousin Countess Ellen Olenska. Though she has been living abroad in Europe, it is rumored that Ellen has returned to New York after leaving a bad marriage. The worldly Ellen is the exact opposite of the well-bred May. Newland soon becomes infatuated with her and begins questioning whether he should get married to May.

In 1993, the book was adapted into a film. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder. Scorsese calls the film his most violent film. From a Certain Point of View, it certainly is.


The Age of Innocence provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the movie, Ellen Olenska is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. However at several points in the book, she is described as unattractive, although the perception of her looks seems dependent on Newland Archer's feelings towards her—she is described as beautiful just as often.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In the book, the "perfect" May is repeatedly described as blonde and blue-eyed, but in the movie, she is played by the dark-haired Winona Ryder. Similarly, the family outcast Ellen is dark-haired, but played by the blonde Michelle Pfeiffer.
  • Anti-Hero: Newland Archer is arguably a Type One.
  • Aside Glance: After telling Newland that Ellen has decided to return to Europe, May hands him the note that Ellen sent her regarding this. As she turns away, declaring, "I thought you knew", the expression on her face heavily implies she had something to do with this. And as we later learn, she did.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The film's opening scenes, where Ellen returns to New York society and she and Archer, happily engaged to May, meet. Later in the film, they meet at a play whose plot mirrors their situation. And towards the end, the now-married May and Newland attend. This is the most significant scene for several reasons—several years later, the situation is now completely reversed—Newland is suffering in his loveless marriage to May and longing for Ellen. Meanwhile, the heretofore clueless May is showing hints of her scheming—she seems to have deliberately chosen to wear her wedding dress. Although it's a tradition in Old New York society for brides to wear their dress during the first year of marriage, her real motive for wearing it is to remind Archer of his marriage vows.
  • The Baby Trap: When Newland tells May that he'd like to give up his law practice and travel the world (in reality, he's planning to pursue Ellen to Paris), May tells him that "I'm afraid you can't dear. Not unless you take me with you. That is, if the doctors will let me go, and I don't think they would. . .", thus revealing that she's pregnant.
  • Batman Gambit: The way May gets rid of Ellen.
  • Betty and Veronica: The love triangle between May (The Betty), Newland Archer, and Ellen (The Veronica). This is possibly even a Betty and Veronica Switch or at least a deconstruction, as it's Ellen who is far more suited to him, but ultimately it appears that both women love him very much.
  • Blatant Lies: Newland claims he has to go to Washington to argue a court case when in truth, he's planning to visit Ellen. However, when Ellen has to come to New York for a family emergency, Newland changes his plans, claiming that the case is postponed as one of the other lawyers told him so. However, May mentions having spoken with the lawyer in question, forcing Newland to fumble and come up with an even lamer excuse. It's painfully obvious—to both of them—that May not only knows Newland is lying, but the reason for his lie, yet she can't bring herself to confront him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: One of the most famous and poignant ones in literary history.
  • Broken Treasure: May wears her wedding dress to the opera (it's a tradition in Old New York for brides to do so during the first year of marriage) the night before Newland intends to consummate his relationship with Ellen. As they return home, it gets caught on the wheels of their carriage, leaving it torn and muddied—very symbolic of what's happening to their marriage.
  • Captain Ersatz: The Valley of Love community is a collectivist free-love community based on Oneida.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In the final scene (shot in Paris and set around 1920), Newland, aged and wizened, leaves a broken man after watching uselessly the balcony of Ellen's apartment. He passes by two typical 1920s classic cars. As he fades into the background, both cars stay in the scene and a third Edwardian Age car passes by. None of the three plays any role in the film, they might have been just as well left out. His disappearance as the cars fill the spot was symbolic, to show he was out of his time, a relic of a bygone era, while the new age of automobile, airplane, radio and jazz was unfolding.
    • May' s conversation with Ellen, which she offhandedly mentions. It turns out this is when she told her she was pregnant, explaining Ellen's abrupt decision to return to Europe.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the book, the "perfect" May is blonde, while "bad girl" Ellen is brunette, as well as frequently dressed in colors like red or pink. Also, the yellow roses Newland impulsively sends to Ellen—a bright splash of color and a far more romantic flower—than the white lilies he sends to May.
  • Cool Old Lady: Ellen and May' s grandmother, the only one in New York who not only doesn't shun Ellen for leaving her husband, but practically praises her for it and takes her under her wing, offering to support her financially. She also picks up on Archer' s feelings for Ellen as well as that Ellen is better for him, outright asking him "Why didn't you marry her?", while also gently, but firmly pointing out the impossibility of their situation, "Ellen is still a wife."
  • Cool Train: Newland Archer takes the Fall River Boat Train, then the most luxurious train in the world, from New York to Boston.
  • Costume Porn/Scenery Porn: And how. Gorgeous, stunning, late 1800's dresses and suits galore, and the numerous settings are equally lush.
  • Cultural Rebel: Most of New York's high society are superficial, with poor taste in art, culture and conversation and care mostly about gossip. Newland Archer reads English and French literature, collects Japanese prints and is highly knowledgeable. This leads to his love for Ellen, who represents his imaginative ideal(but who herself is fleeing the world he wants to be a part of, being less romantic than he is). In the end, his failure to break away or make the world around him adjust to his desires lets it being crushed.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Several snide comments imply that Count Olenski's infidelities included men as well as women.
  • Domestic Abuse: Aside from being unfaithful, it's hinted that Ellen's estranged husband Count Olenski was also abusive to her.
  • Double Standard/Hypocrite: Of social standing, rather than gender. Because they never approved of Ellen's marriage or even Ellen herself, New York society is thoroughly unsympathetic to her regarding his infidelities and her decision to leave him, as demonstrated by the snubs she receives—not inviting her to social events, refusing en masse to attend a dinner in her honor. May on the other hand, is a beloved Mary Sue and when she suspects Archer and Ellen of having an affair, society's love of her and dislike of Ellen cause them to instantly rally around her and help her do everything she can to separate them and save her marriage. This is foreshadowed earlier in the book when at least two men who are known to have mistresses condemn another character for his infidelity because his mistress isn't of the proper social class.
  • Fake Pregnancy: Subverted: May does this to Ellen, her husband's love interest, to drive her away. It turns out she really is pregnant, but she does not know at the time.
  • The Ghost: Ellen's husband, Count Olenski, who is frequently referred to but never seen. A few other characters as well—Annie Ring, etc.
    • Ellen herself, at the end, who is never seen again after the final dinner at Newland and May's, though she's often alluded to.
    • May also, aside from a few brief flashes in the montage covering the subsequent 20-something years afterwards. In fact, she's a literal example of this trope, as The Narrator informs us that she died at some point during this time.
  • Hidden Depths: May, who has quite a crafty nature hidden under her vapid exterior. And touchingly, was apparently the only one to truly realize the extent of Newland's love for Ellen and have compassion for him as he spent years pining away for her.
    "It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that after all, someone had guessed and pitied. And that it should have been his wife moved him inexpressibly."
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Frightened by his burgeoning feelings for Ellen, Newland asks May to accelerate their wedding plans. Not only does she refuse, she pinpoints the exact reason for his haste, asking if there's someone else and offering to break off the engagement if that's the case. He denies it and continues to press the issue. Just as Newland finally confesses his feelings to Ellen (who herself encouraged May to hasten things, for the same reason) and admits that he wants out of his impending marriage, they receive a telegram from May confirming that their wedding date has been advanced. The close-up of his hand crumpling the paper says it all.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: May suspects Newland has feelings for someone else (though she doesn't know it's Ellen) and offers to release him from their engagement. Ellen gets a familial version when she cuts all ties to Newland and returns to Europe, after May tells her she's pregnant.
    • It's subverted slightly since both the book and the film paint this as a final triumph by her to show her son that she was an understanding mother and loving wife.
  • Loving a Shadow: One of the reasons suggested to why at the end, Newland doesn't go up to see Ellen, aside from a sense of disappointment to how his life turned out to be, but another being his belief that, as the narrator says, "she had become the complete picture of all that he had missed".
  • Magnificent Bastard : invokedMartin Scorsese expressed this as his opinion of May, believing that Newland, his sympathetic hero, keeps underestimating women around him and the one who seemed to be the most placid was the smartest of them all.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: A very close subversion. Newland and Ellen engage in a very intense emotional affair, but physically, it never goes beyond a few kisses. However, at the going-away dinner that he and May host for Ellen, Newland realizes that everyone present, including May, assumes that the relationship is physical, the one thing that they have either refrained from or been unable to achieve.
  • More Than Mind Control: In the coda, Newland discusses his relationship with Ellen to his son, who tells him that his mother had told him that she had asked him to give up the one thing he wanted most for the family.
    Newland (terse): She never asked.
    • Essentially, Newland was in the end too good and moral to truly abandon his wife or actually commit infidelity in a way to hurt her, and all May had to do was manipulate his own conscience against him.
  • The Narrator: The movie has one intermittently discuss what it going on.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • May comes across as vapid, clueless, and superficial, but as the story progresses, it's hinted that she's known all along about Newland's feelings for Ellen, and finally confirmed with the stunt she pulls to get rid of Ellen once and for all. The stunned look on Newland's face when she tells him she's pregnant—but admits that she told Ellen this without being 100% certain—tells you how vastly he underestimated her.
    • New York's high society in general. Newland is shocked to realize just how much everyone has conspired to separate him and Ellen, all without ever doing or saying anything that implies that they're aware of their relationship.
  • Oh Crap!: Essentially Newland's reaction when May tells him she's pregnant "...he gave a sick stare..."
  • Old Maid: Newland's sister Janey, said to be nearing the age where "grey poplin and no attendants would be more appropriate" for her wedding, rather than the white gown and elaborate ceremonies meant for younger brides.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Newland doesn't raise his voice often, because this often happens when he does.
  • Pretty in Mink:
    • Archer's mother attends his wedding where she "sat weeping softly under her Chantilly veil, her hands in her grandmother's ermine muff".
    • In the movie, a fair number of furs are worn, like a fur-trimmed coat Ellen wears, and an ermine scarf May wears.
  • Revealing Hug: May comes in, prattling about nonsense, offhandedly mentioning that she visited with Ellen. Newland cuts her off, asking about their dinner plans. She abruptly hugs him, and at this point, we see the near panic and terror in her eyes. we later learn that during this conversation with Ellen, she told her she was pregnant and is desperately hoping that her plan to get rid of Ellen works.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: In the Time Skip epilogue, Newland is amazed to consider how certain things which were unacceptable in his youth, such as marrying a girl from a controversial or tainted family is no longer taboo, since the daughter of the Beauforts is making an accepted marriage with his son. He then wonders what really stopped him from pursuing Ellen, or whether his son was bolder than him and realizes that in the end, he never really wanted to go against the grain and that he was finally a conventional man of his times after all.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The heart of the story is Ellen and Archer's emotional affair. The irony is that everyone in New York society, including his wife, believes the relationship is physical as well, the one things they have either refrained from or been unable to achieve. Meanwhile, we learn Ellen left her husband because he was unfaithful to her (it's implied his lovers included men as well as women) and that she herself fled into the arms of another man, while several other characters are revealed to have mistresses and none of them would have especially bothered if Newland had kept Ellen as his mistress discretely. Newland's sincere love for Ellen however and his temptation to abandon it all to live with her, albeit as social pariahs, threatens the social fabric of their middle-class world which is why they quietly conspire with May to force them apart.


Alternative Title(s):

The Age Of Innocence