Home My take on The Age of Innocence: the movie and the book


I saw the movie, then read the book to find out where the author, Edith Wharton, was coming from.  The movie had put me off because it seemed to romanticize an experienced flirt's casual seduction of a shallow man, whose choice at the end of the novel was inexplicable and exasperating.  Was this novel the simple retelling of a cheap romance story, or something more comprehensible and satisfying?  I had to solve the mystery.

The movie follows this basic plot: Newland Archer, a 32-year-old bachelor, a lawyer by profession, is engaged to 22-year-old May Welland.  In their 1870s social elite Boston society, she is already verging on "old maid" territory, and this has been her choice, with little resistance from Archer.  We learn, fairly far into the story, that she's reluctant to marry him because of a romantic involvement he had with another woman, apparently during their engagement.  Thirty-year-old Ellen (Mingott) Olenska, May's cousin, who has acquired the Countess title via a marriage in Poland, arrives back on Boston after 12 years of marriage, leaving her husband behind.  Unlike the prudent May, whose heart is carefully guided by her head, Ellen is fancy-free, led by her whims and passions.  Newland is captivated by her flirtatious ways (and perhaps by the similarity of their ages) and falls in love with her during a meeting in which she asks for his help in a practical matter, i.e., a possible divorce.  She toys with the idea of a romantic relationship with him, but changes her mind after realizing how this would hurt May.  She gives Newland the bad news, but he remains in love, in denial because of their apparent great chemistry, the abruptness of her decision, and her stringing him along with her indecision.   He marries May, however, but only her telling him (and Ellen) about her pregnancy heads off his decision to depart for Europe, ostensibly to treat a state of malaise.  Obsessed with Ellen, he sleepwalks through his 25-year marriage, which ends when May dies of pneumonia caught from a sick child that she nursed.  The children turned out well, however: an obviously charming and attractive daughter is happily wed, and his son, an amiable person with a vibrant and generous personality, invites Newland to Paris to meet up with Ellen again.  Newland joins him in Paris but decides not to see Ellen at the last minute, cherishing the memory more than the relationship.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Newland as a kind of slyly dishonest character, while Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen comes across as a practiced seducer.  Wynona Ryder portrays a fairly sympathetic May, however, carefully considerate to everyone she deals with, and very dignified and respectful in the scene in which she heads off Newland's plan to escape to Europe by telling him she's pregnant.  She is believable as someone who would later give up her life for her son.

Most accounts of the movie and the novel frame it partly as a pretty costume-and-set drama, and partly as a tragic love story thwarted by the marriage of one lover to an undeserving and unsuitable person.  They portray May as being cold-hearted and manipulative, caring only about preserving her position in society.  Newland's attraction to Ellen is explained by her exotic, free-wheeling ways, and her European glamor.  The critics emphasize the subtleties of their interaction, especially his unbuttoning her glove to kiss her hand. And, the way they read it, surging hormones explain everything else.  All in all, it is easy to get the idea that taking in this story is mainly a guilty pleasure, a feast for the senses.

On the other hand, the novel keeps the reader in a state of constant discomfort.  Although it presents this story from Newland's point of view, he is hardly a sympathetic character, and, as seen through his eyes, neither is May, presented as an unimaginative, inflexible person who sees him mainly through her self-centered and apparently bitter widowed mother's critical eye at first and later as an emotionally unreliable person who requires constant vigilance and manipulation. Even before he deviates from his society's conventions, it is clear that Newland is not regarded with much respect or affection by his family or employer and kept at arm's length by the other men in his social circle; he shows that he knows it by resisting Ellen's grandmother Mrs. Mingott's expression of faith in his persuasive ability in support of Ellen's staying with her by saying, "Oh, I don't count -- I'm too insignificant." (p. 245) He feels more comfortable among the bohemian people in a much poorer neighborhood because they take him into their confidence and never criticize him.  And it is in this environment that he meets Ellen.

But there is not much evidence that he is in awe of Ellen because of her European origins or sophistication.  He initially regards her with disapproval and concern that her aura of scandal will somehow disturb his relationship with his fiancee if he associates with her.  Nor does she come across as calculating, although she has apparently gotten in the habit of depending on the kindness of male strangers because of her compromised situation.  But it is evident that he feels comfortable in the setting of their meeting, and, after she moves, thinks of it nostalgically.  And she is not so much seductive as sad, needy, and clear-eyed.  Later on, when Newland makes vague but insistent romantic pleas, she delivers a hard-headed response: "Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress -- since I can't be your wife?" (p. 235)

What wins Newland over at the start is her grateful and humble response at their first meeting alone to his rather stuffy advice to refrain from pursuing a divorce.  For the first time, Newland feels valued and respected as an individual, not just for having been born into the "right" family.  After so many descriptions of his invalidating interactions with others, this scene stands in stark contrast.  When Ellen speaks of feeling alienated, albeit for very different reasons, this resonates with his feeling of being an outsider in his own society.  Respectability is not enough to be respected; the novel persists in reminding us that it is human nature to judge others largely on the basis of their perceived character, to value them on the basis of their competence, caring, and even courage, regardless of their position in society.  And through his interaction with Ellen, Newland begins to realize that he has the real choices that he needs to develop the self-respect and the sense of unique identity that had formerly seemed to be beyond his reach. 

In sum, The Age of Innocence is a tragic psychological novel, one that shows an emotional invalid making a desperate, though quickly thwarted, attempt at repairing his stunted growth, but not gaining the necessary insight to benefit from this key experience.  He remains dependent on manifestations of Ellen's love to sustain his hope, but apparently senses that it is just an illusion that can be easily shattered because he never takes the next step of managing to trust his perceptions.  This provides a plausible explanation for his decision not to see her in Paris years later; perhaps he dreads the risk that she might treat him in the trivializing way that he had gotten used to being treated by others, thereby making it impossible for him to keep what might simply be a cherished illusion.  Unfortunately, because of his past behavior, this is a realistic expectation.  In the end, he has neither the courage to face that possible disappointment nor the kindness to consider her needs.

One things that impressed me about this novel was Wharton's modern perspective.  She makes sure that the reader knows the maiden names of all of the married female characters: for example, we're frequently reminded that Mrs. Mingott was once Catherine Spicer (and was widowed at age 28).  She also notes that women in this society are allowed to be less honest because they have less freedom than men, and are regularly put in situations that make them unhappy, while they are not allowed to burden others with expressions of that unhappiness.

Copyright © 2019 by Dorothy E. Pugh.  All rights reserved. 


Wharton, Edith (1920) The Age of Innocence.  New York: Barnes & Noble.