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Literature / The Age of Innocence

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Newland Archer: I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won't exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.
Ellen Olenska: Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?

The Age of Innocence is a novel by Edith Wharton. Originally published in 1920, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. A member of New York High Society, Wharton had formerly criticized that world extensively in her novel The House of Mirth, yet looking back at that world after World War I, she felt compelled to revisit the setting and write something less critical (at least by her standards).

The story follows Newland Archer, a lawyer who is engaged to May Welland. Both of them are part of the high society of 1870s New York, its circle of richest and oldest families. High society at this time was highly ritualized and snobbish and it faces a challenge with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen was a cousin of May who married and settled in Europe, but returns fleeing a bad marriage. The worldly Ellen is the exact opposite of the well-bred May, and Newland, who seems himself as more refined and sensitive than his fellow upper-class New Yorkers, becomes infatuated with her and begins questioning whether he should risk it all, break his engagement with May, and be with Ellen instead.

The novel was adapted into film versions in the 1920s and 1930s, but the definitive version is the 1993 adaptation, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder. This version is remarkably faithful to the novel, with whole passages and dialogue translated from page to screen. It won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Gabriella Pescucci) and is regarded as an exceptional recreation of old New York high society. Scorsese has called The Age of Innocence by far his most violent movie; considering his filmography, it's quite the statement.

Tropes common to novel and the 1993 film:

  • 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.
    • Averted in the 1934 film.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Newland's son Dallas is named Ted in the movie.
  • 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.
  • Anti-Hero: Newland Archer is arguably a Type One.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: According to Scorsese, explaining his belief even in 2018 that The Age of Innocence was his "most violent movie", stated:
    "What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didnít have that. It was so cold-blooded. I donít know which is preferable."
  • At the Opera Tonight: The novel and film's opening, 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 a 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.
  • Being Good Sucks: Newland and Ellen, are perfect for each other but for circumstances. They are too nice to hurt other people's feelings by actually consummating their relationship, and eventually Ellen walks away from his life, refusing to force Newland to choose between her and walking out on his family. In the end, Newland ends up being shackled to a disappointing marriage all because he was too nice a person to walk away.
  • 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Zig-zagged with May. While she genuinely loves Newland Archer and her desire to discourage his (suspected) affair with her cousin is by itself understandable, how she goes about it is downright manipulative and heartless. While she comes across as an innocent Ingenue, once married she knows her husband feels stiffed in their vapid New York society, but rather than trying to make him happy by encouraging his interests (like travel, literature, the arts, deep intellectual discussions, etc) she subtly tries to mold him out of it (see Passive-Aggressive Kombat below), which drives him to seek solace with like-minded Ellen. How does she respond to that? She uses a Baby Trap to drive Ellen away and keep Newland by her side. Then they spend years in a Happy Marriage Charade in which she knows Newland feels miserable and unfulfilled, but which she won't release him from because it's the life she wanted for herself.
    • It's less manipulative and heartless than it seems, since May did offer him a way out of the relationship if he felt affection for another woman, and he turned her offer down. Furthermore, the fate that would befall her and her child in 1800s America if her husband abandoned her would not be a pleasant one, meaning that her actions can be seen as protective and self-preserving.
  • 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 and 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: Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska never get together and live apart from each other, but both of them turn out to have fulfilling lives. Ellen lives in Paris, independently, free of abuse and reproach, while Newland becomes a beloved father and social figure. Newland is grateful if melancholy, that his son would not have to deal with the same problems and pressures that he faced in his youth.
  • 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; it's also repeatedly mentioned that she wore black at her society debut. 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.
  • Culture Clash: Ellen has been away from New York for so long that she unconsciously thinks and acts like a European, while Old New York society is having none of that.
  • 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 leads to them being crushed.
  • Dances and Balls: The ball at Beaufort's home.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Ellen may have dark hair (in the book) and wear dark red dresses, but she is a good, kind woman who is unfairly criticized by New York society.
  • 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.
    • Mrs. Beaufort is implied to endure the same thing from her husband in the novel. Society pities her, but expects her to bravely endure it.
  • Double Standard/Hypocrite:
    • Of social standing, more than gender. Because they never approved of Ellen's marriage or even Ellen herself, New York society is thoroughly unsympathetic to her regarding her husband's 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 Ingenue 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.
    • The novel often describes the double standard regarding sex and extramarital relations between men and women. Men "sowing their wild oats" before marriage is seen as forgivable (Newland Archer), but women doing the same are seen as criminal. While extramarital affairs are in theory frowned upon for both genders, in practice society will always look the other way for men (like the universally loathed Beaufort, whom everyone knows cheats on his wife but never pressures him to stop), but women who do the same are heartily condemned and shunned (like Ellen).
  • End of an Age: The New York of the 1870s was already a bygone era in the year of the book's publication. At the end of the novel, Newland reflects on how, despite being 57, so much has changed in the last four decades since he last saw Ellen and that he's already out of place despite being middle-aged. He notes that the values and mores that had prevented him from being with her weren't really there anymore and yet at the same time he was "old-fashioned" and not really suited to the new era.
    As Archer listened, his sense of inadequacy and inexpressiveness increased. The boy was not insensitive, he knew; but he had the facility and self-confidence that came of looking at fate not as a master but as an equal. "That's it: they feel equal to things—they know their way about," he mused, thinking of his son as the spokesman of the new generation which had swept away all the old landmarks, and with them the signposts and the danger-signal.
  • 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 did not know for sure at the time.
  • Framing Device: The 1934 film starts in the 30's with the elderly Newland beginning to relate the story to his grandson, who is in a similar situation, flashing back to the late 1800's, before returning to the 30's.
  • Generation Xerox: After marrying May, Newland Archer is disappointed to realize that she's becoming her mother, and trying to morph him into her father.
  • The Ghost: Ellen's husband, Count Olenski, who is frequently referred to but never seen. A few other characters as well—Annie Ring, etc.
  • The Gilded Age: Most of the story is set in the Gilded Age, except the end.
  • Good Bad Girl: The crux of Ellen's conflict with New York society. She is a kind woman, but she also shacked up with her adulterous husband's male secretary for a year after leaving him, and wishes to divorce him so she can marry someone else. Since New York society believes that women can only be all good or all bad, they've branded her as "bad" due to her technical infidelity and won't give her another chance.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: In-universe, men who cheat on their wives are deemed tolerable (like Beaufort and Count Olenski), while any woman who has an affair while still legally married, no matter the circumstances, is deemed unforgivable (Ellen). Narration-wise, said abusive husbands who cheat on their wives are depicted as despicable monsters (again, Beaufort and Count Olenski), while Ellen's affair with her husband's male secretary after leaving him is depicted fairly sympathetically. And, of course, Newland Archer's and Ellen's emotional affair on May is depicted sympathetically.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Newland and May are implied to have had this for decades, being committed to children and social reputation, even if Newland privately laments and misses Ellen. In the end, Newland's own son comes to understand the sacrifice his father made for his family and even asks him to consider a second chance at love with Ellen. Newland refuses.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Make love" is used to mean "flirt" in the book and the 1993 movie.
  • 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."
  • High-Class Gloves: After the opera attendees go from there to an annual ball, it's mentioned that gloves are switched from those appropriate to the theater to those appropriate for dancing.
  • 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.
  • Hotter and Sexier: There's a Wild and Wanton edition of the book with sex scenes added.
  • Irony: Ellen comes back to New York after leaving her husband partly because American laws favor divorce more than in Europe, only to learn that American culture frowns on divorce more while much of Europe is more forgiving of leaving unhealthy marriages.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Before getting married, May suspects Newland has feelings for someone else (though she doesn't know it's Ellen) and offers to release him from their engagement. This changes after she marries Newland, as she uses a Baby Trap to keep him with her in a Happy Marriage Charade even after she learns he's not happy with her. Ellen gets a familial version when she cuts all ties to Newland and returns to Europe, after May tells her she's pregnant.
  • Loving a Shadow: Newland, in the book, laments about this, when he finally decides not to go see Ellen. As the narrator says, "she had become the complete picture of all that he had missed".
    Newland Archer: It's more real to me here than if I went up.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Newland Archer laments how hard New York society is on women regarding their sexual mores. A woman is either a "good girl/woman" if she remains a virgin until marriage and then remains sexually faithful to her husband for the rest of her days, even if he beats her, cheats on her, he dies, they get divorced, etc (Mrs. Beaufort); or she's seen as a moral degenerate who must be shunned and disowned at all costs (poor Ellen). What little sympathy New York society had for Ellen regarding her marriage to her abusive and adulterous husband evaporated the second they found out she might have cheated on him too.
  • Meaningful Name: Newland Archer, a New York aristocrat who is in pursuit of a kind of ideal world of ideas. Archer is a Shout-Out to Isabel Archer, an American woman who goes to Europe. The theme of the book, and that of Henry James' novel, is the fact that despite representing a New World, Americans were in fact stuffy, staid and conservative. Ellen Olenska lampshades this when Newland dreams of an ideal world where they could love each other without social pressures but Ellen, who has lived in both America and Europe, asks him "Where is that country?"
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Sort of. 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. Newland realizes that he simply gave in to May's requests because she manipulated his conscience, knowing he was too good a person to abandon his wife and child for the sake of love.
    Ted: She said she knew we were safe with you and always would be because once when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most
    Newland (terse): She never asked.
  • The Narrator: The movie has one intermittently discuss what is 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.
  • The Oner: Newland's entry into the Beaufort's ball is a lengthy steadicam shot nearly as impressive as the Copacabana shot in GoodFellas, it mixes and matches movement, social detail, background painting, music and voiceover.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Newland doesn't raise his voice often, because this often happens when he does.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: How May slowly establishes her authority over Newland during their marriage. Any time Newland makes plans to go somewhere he thinks is interesting, May gets bored and inserts some tiny complaint that breaks Archer's enthusiasm. Newland eventually stops fighting.
    • New York society in general, which the narrator describes as the kind of place where the real thing is never even thought . Ergo, their disapproval of Ellen is communicated by them declining en masse to attend a dinner in her honor, rather than telling her to her face.
  • 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.
  • Protocol Peril: Ellen is almost made into a complete social pariah when she first arrives in Old New York partly because she does not show due sensitivity for their many essential social protocols—like walking by herself across a room at a party instead of sitting and waiting for a male escort to walk her across the room (a real social taboo for the time), or being casually polite to the more revered members of their community instead of acting overcome with reverence that they graced her with their presence. Only later does she learn how narrowly she escaped the dire consequences for these egregious missteps, and apologizes and promises to try to learn New York's customs.
  • 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.
  • R Evenge SVP: New York society deciding as a whole to decline an invitation to dinner with Ellen.
  • Reverse Relationship Reveal: Newland Archer is having an affair behind his seemingly innocent and clueless wife's back. Said wife is really the clever and manipulative one, who managed to keep him within her grasp and get rid of his other love interest, while he is the innocent and clueless one.
  • Rule-Abiding Rebel: Newland Archer is eventually disgusted to learn this about himself. At the start of the novel/movie he becomes disillusioned with his society's strict, stiffing mores, and over the course of the novel he subtly tries to rebel against their petty, small-minded thinking; but every time he encounters Ellen he's forced to confront that for all his little passive-aggressive rebellions, he still thinks like them. In the end, when his wife has died and society's mores have relaxed so that nothing is stopping him from pursuing Ellen, he's forced to confront that he really is a product of his era.
  • Setting Update: The novel "The Innocents" transports the story to a Jewish community in modern-day London, with the Relationship Upgrade of the Newland and Ellen analogues actually sleeping together, albeit only once.
  • "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 bastard daughter of Beaufort and his mistress 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.
  • Shout-Out: In the film version:
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Ellen's maternal family matron, Catherine. Her old age and relation to several high society members is implied to be pretty much the only thing that lets her get away with being the only New York high society member who always speaks her mind.
  • Shipper on Deck: Mrs. Mingott, Ellen's "Granny," doesn't even try to hide how she feels Newland Archer and Ellen should have been married from the first. Every time he goes to see her, she pretty much asks him point blank why he and Ellen aren't married yet.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The worldly wise and exotic Ellen Olenska is chased by New York lotharios like Beaufort who want to make her their mistress and Newland initially feels he's too boring to attract her, but Ellen returns his affections, appreciating his sensitivity and kindness. May likewise also appreciates Newland's goodness, and manipulated him away from Ellen to keep him shackled to her.
  • Spiritual Successor: Some consider the book one to the 18th century classic Dangerous Liaisons.
  • Stepford Smiler: Pretty much everyone and how. Ellen bursts into tears under the immense pressure to remain one, Newland feels like he's going to suffocate under the same pressure, and May is so much of one that it's almost frightening—despite knowing full well that Newland lied to her about his reason for a supposed business trip (he was actually planning to visit Ellen), she doesn't confront him and remains as placid as ever. Even Newland seems disturbed by this, almost wishing that she would get angry with him.
  • Stepford Suburbia: It's an urban setting, but this trope applies:
    Narrator: In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs."
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Though it's only an emotional affair, Newland's longing for Ellen while feeling utterly stifled in his marriage and New York society makes him this.
  • Time Skip: The epilogue shifts from 1870 to Paris on the eve of the First War, at the end of La belle epoque. We get a glimpse of motorcars in the street.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Ellen ends up being this to Newland Archer, as they played together as children but never managed to form a solid romantic relationship with each other.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Newland and Ellen throughout most of the story, particularly (in the 1993 film) when Newland unlaces Ellen's glove and kisses her hand while they are in May's carriage on the way to Ellen's grandmother, and (in the book and the 1993 film) when Ellen taps Newland's knee with her fan.
  • Voiceover Letter: Several in the film.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: The Archers, Wellands, and other families in the novel.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Newland Archer's Old Maid sister Janey kind of disappears halfway through the novel, and it's never revealed whether she ever got married or not, or what even happened to her.
  • What You Are in the Dark: The scene at the Lighthouse which serves as a motif in the film, where Newland gazes at Ellen standing at the docks and hesitates to walk over to her, hoping that she would turn and see him first. The finale shows Newland reimagining that scene but this time Ellen turns back just like he hoped she did. The moment becomes the "complete picture of all he had missed", signifying that Newland, even when nobody was around, was too rigid to pursue his his love and would have always waited for Ellen to make the first move.

Alternative Title(s): The Age Of Innocence