Essay: The Age of Innocence

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  • The Age of Innocence
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Exposition and other mechanics (Joice)

Title: The Age of Innocence

We believe that the title relates directly to May based on her change of character, resulting from her loss of innocence, and the start of her doubt and questioning to Archer’s and Ellen’s relationship. In addition, in the beginning chapters Archer delivers the flowers to May, the lilies of the valley, which represent innocence and they blossom in the month of May. We believe the author picked this title over any other titles because it resembles May the most, who is focused on and emphasized throughout the plot of the book.

Opening chapter/first few pages

The book begins by introducing the setting, a city in New York and in a theater, where all characters in the plot are mentioned and described. The setting and certain lines expressed by the characters provide a background that the novel will be about love and societal class. They influence and affect the reader by creating a sense of unity by matrimonial relations and understanding of the period in which the characters lived and were expected to act accordingly. The author began his book this way to provide us with the general concepts that will be discussed throughout the novel (love, society, and class) in detail that conflict with each other and to provide an opening that will tie the novel all together to the end.


New York, United States: This is where the book takes place during the 1970s and begins mentioning the high classes of New York in which all characters of our novel are part of.

Theater: The first chapter of the book introduces us to the characters as they all sit in a theater to watch the play of Faust being performed and this setting is brought later on in the last few chapter to tie to novel again, emphasizing the general concepts addressed in the first pages of social class and love once more.

The Welland’s Home: This is where Archer’s and May’s family meet up to have discussions about current news in the city or others’ affairs. This is also a place to meet the head of the family who everyone abides by her rules and words but she’s not mentioned often. We believe it’s the most symbolic place for societal conformation and traditional values.

The Archer’s Home: This is where Archer and May live together. It’s a place of relaxation in the beginning of the novel but it turns through time into a tense place created by the mood of the couple and their hidden feelings.


Newland Archer

We characterize Archer as conflicted because he’s in this struggle between choosing May or Ellen to spend his life with. He loved May in the beginning until Ellen arrived in New York. Ellen was the opposite of what society deemed conservative and, hence, her uniqueness allowed Archer to fall in love with her. As much as he wants to be with Ellen, he ended up marrying May. However, even with their marriage bond, Archer still sought to see Ellen and have a loving relationship with her. As a result, he’s in a constant struggle between what he wants, a relationship with Ellen, versus what he should abide by or must keep holding on to, his marriage with May. We also described him as problematic because it’s clear to May that she starts having suspicions about Ellen’s and Archer’s relationship, which makes their relationship weak and covered, where both couples are not being honest or open with each other.

Madame/Countess Ellen Olenska

We describe Ellen as selfless because she decides to give up on her love life, her “relationship” with Archer, for the sake of her cousin, May and for their marriage. Similar to Archer, she deals with an internal conflict of what she wants, a relationship with Archer, versus what she must abide by, that he’s married and according to her respect for May and her marriage as well as society’s standards, she can’t be with him. We also characterize her as free-spirited, which is why Archer fell in love with her but also it’s the cause of her external problems with her family and New York’s society during that period. She acts according to her will and she desires to end her marriage with Count Olenski, which is frowned upon by her family for their name and status. She’s not the perfect model of a conservative woman in her time period and as a result, she finds it hard to get along with her new New York society after she left Europe.

May Welland Archer

We believe that May Archer is best described as ignorant and conservative. In the beginning, she welcomed Archer’s company to Ellen but in excessiveness. She would allow him to be by her side to help get along but she couldn’t see that her naiveness and extreme friendliness was progressing her relationship with her husband, Archer, into a problematic one. She started doubting later in the novel and their marriage would have been set to failure if Ellen accepted Archer’s offer to have a hidden relationship with him. Toward the end, her fears build up consistently about where all three of them are going and how connected they all are and if something might compromise her marriage. As a result, she jumps into assumptions to keep her husband nailed to her side and push Ellen away. This started by always questioning her husband’s actions and her family and herself refusal to bring Ellen up in any discussions when he’s around. As a result, she has this internal fear building up and distrust as the couple are not open with each other and honest about their feelings. Externally, she’s afraid of losing her husband to Ellen and judging from her family and being labeled as not “qualified” enough to be a wife by her family, that’s in case anything happens. She struggles to hide her emotions to keep her family together and to avoid even her thoughts of doubt in front of her husband because family and conformity are highly valued than anything else in her family and society.

Point of view

The book is written in 3rd-person limited point of view because the narrator uses the words “she” and “he” and doesn’t refer to himself using personal pronouns like I. In addition, the narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of Archer Newland only not every character, which would make it omniscient instead. He describes certain thoughts Archer is unwilling to express or speak to certain people as if something holds him back or as he’s about to utter them and his love toward Ellen.

Main conflict

The main conflict of the novel is that the Archer is torn between society’s traditions and love. These two concepts are expressed through May and Ellen, correspondingly. Archer marries May, his lover and everything went well and he was ready for commitment through marriage until Countess Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe after leaving her husband to settle with her family after being confined “like a bird in a cage” with him. However, she doesn’t realize that New York’s society, especially the values of her family, is even more confined and reserved to follow certain standards. Archer falls in love with the countess because she’s different from all the expectations that society has put on ladies like her. He ends up marrying May, according to the customs, but at the same time, he can’t forget about her. As a result, he’s always torn between his mind, the right thing to do and his heart, what he desires. He doesn’t want to hurt and break May’s heart or ruin their relationship, even if by means of divorce, but doesn’t want to give up his love from Ellen either.

This is both an internal and external conflict as he dares to defy society while dealing with his confronting and contradicting thoughts and emotions. Newland Archer is directly involved but it indirectly involves May Welland Archer and Ellen Olenska, firstly and their families, secondly.

tary on plot, etc. (Maggie/Melanie)

Character values and purpose/Society’s influence on each character

Archer: Archer in the beginning of the novel enjoys his life in the high society of wealth. Although he does question certain actions done by the social elites and recognizes their ignorance and judgements against others, he follows them, accepting the New York society. After he meets May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, his perspective changes and he begins to pity Ellen Olenska for the decisions she makes in his society and defends her. Later on, Archer accidentally falls in love with her and counteracts a complicated and tragic relationship that he cannot escape.

Ellen: Ellen values independence, passion, and freedom. Her personality and May’s are completely opposite of each other. Unlike May, she doesn’t live by society’s rules and does not care about her own reputation. Therefore, society doesn’t affect her. For example, Ellen wants a divorce from her husband even though this is looked down on by New York society at the time.

May: May values tradition and conformity. Her purpose is to serve as an example of what society deems normal and acceptable. Her character and personality contrast Ellen. She is submissive and dull. In addition, many of her actions were influenced by society and its standards.



Newland Archer has recently been engaged to May Welland, a young, beautiful, and respected socialite. Archer is overjoyed to be marrying May. However, the arrival of May’s captivating cousin, Ellen Olenska, causes Archer to question his love for May. Although New York society shuns Ellen, Archer becomes drawn to Ellen and her non-traditional manners and views as he continues to get to know her.

Freytag’s Pyramid


The novel begins with an introduction of Newland Archer and the New York society of wealthy, successful families at an Opera. Archer is engaged to May Welland but finds himself enchanted by an unexpected appearance of Ellen Olenska, who is also May’s cousin. Ellen Olenska captures everybody’s attention at the Opera but gossips runs fast and the story reveals her to have left her husband.

Rising Action

Archer and May announce their engagement at the Beaufort Ball. The social elites are excited and accepting but their concern goes towards Ellen when she decides to not show up to their ball. Rumors and gossip arise about Ellen Olenska by the society.

Since Archer is going to be part of May Welland’s family, his duty is to defend and support their decisions. When he learns that their family supports Ellen Olenska, he decides not to judge her. Later on, Archer is found defending Ellen for her decision of leaving her husband. He emphasizes how women like her also have the right to be as free as men are.


Archer begins to show attraction and deep interest in Ellen. He sends her yellow roses and finds warmth in his heart and pleasure when she speaks to him about them, identifying that she knew it was him who would send them.

When Archer hears of the good deeds Ellen has done, for example bandaging a young little boy who fell and cut himself, chasing after his kitten, another moment of pleasure indulges him. He pities her since she feels alone and unhappy. Society only views her for her past and not from her present or for how incredibly sweet she is.

Archer allows himself to be late to his office by wanting to find more yellow roses for Ellen. He questions himself as to why he does not think of May or decides to be with her at that very moment. He believed that what he was doing was normal but in reality, picking flowers for another woman looked disloyal.

Archer receives a note from Ellen Olenska that says she ran away to Skuytercliff. After thinking things over, Archer decides to go rescue her and found out from what she was running away from. Learning that she was away dissatisfied him.


Joy fills Ellen when she sees that Archer had arrived to Skuytercliff. Archer urges Ellen to tell him why she ran away. As Ellen was about to throw her arms onto his neck, Beaufort approaches and jealousy consumes Archer. He ponders on whether Ellen had ran away because her temptations were too strong to not let go of Beaufort. Later on, Archer receives a note from Ellen that she will explain everything to him finally. Within that moment, Archer realizes that he has fallen in love with her and packs his bags and leaves Skuytercliff, returning home to May.

Archer asks May to push the wedding sooner and May asks whether he urges her out of fear of wanting someone else instead and he is being hasty with his decision. Archer reassure May that he is in love with her and that his decision stands firm.

Archer finally admits to Ellen that he is in love with her and that May was not being ridiculous for wanting to make the engagement longer. Her reason of having a long engagement is out of a noble act to see if Archer would rather marry someone else– Ellen Olenska. Except, Ellen rejects him horribly and crushes his heart, making him lose hope and roam into darkness. Ellen wants to believe there’s hope that they can be together, but she reassures Archer that it is too late.

After being conflicted over who to choose, May or Ellen, Archer chooses to marry May. Ellen leaves to Europe but later returns to visit her ill grandmother, Mrs. Mingott. Ellen and Archer still have deep feelings for each other and Archer still believes in them to be together. But Ellen abruptly plans on returning back home to Europe and with that, May decides to plan a dinner for her. This reveals that May knew all along about Archer and Ellen. May had told Ellen that she was pregnant and Ellen eventually returns home. May feared that Archer would have wanted Ellen back and desperately chose to lie to both of them about her pregnancy.

Falling Action

26 years later, May Welland passes away from pneumonia and Archer becomes a widow with three children. May leaves with a message to Archer, telling him she knew of his unhappiness. May had resembled to be the perfect wife in their society, but ironically, she did not resemble to be the perfect wife in Archer’s eyes. His love continued to be with Ellen but he remained with May for the sake of his future throughout those 26 years.


The children of Archer discover who Archer’s true love is and his son, Dallas, takes Archer to Ellen Olenska’s apartment. As his moment is finally there to be happy with who he longfully loved, Archer decided to not visit her and only keep her in his imagination. He prefers to have her real in his imagination and to go on with his life since he has now accepted his conformity.

List any parallel or recurring events you see

In The Age of Innocence, Archer frequently mentions the New York society and how everyone has high expectations on keeping a good reputation amongst each others family and wealth. An example of the social elites having a powerful say in things is when May’s family decided to invite Ellen Olenska to May’s engagement party at the ball but Ellen refused to show up. In chapter 5, gossip runs in the air when Mr. Jackson begins to talk about her to Archer and his family, judging her for showing up at the Opera with a, “dark blue velvet, perfectly plain and flat– like a nightgown” (Wharton 34). Archer’s mother then discusses Ellen was better off not to arrive the ball due to her lack of appropriate fashion. Mrs. Archer commented, “What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?” (Wharton 34). Later on, Mr. Jackson and Archer discuss the escaping of Ellen from her husband and Archer furiously debates, “Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I’m sick of the hypocrisy that woul
d bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots” (Wharton 36). Rather than agreeing with Mr. Jackson’s opinion of how Ellen should have acted, Archer tells him that women deserve the right to be free like men are with their actions.

See if you can make a connection between this work and another story with similar plot line or similar characters, etc.

Another work that can resemble The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Both works resemble hatred against the society’s way of acting hypocritical. Judgement and reputations are found the most important to keep the high society entertained, defining the social elites to be seen “phony” as Salinger frequently mentions in his book. Ellen Olenska shares the same feeling against the New York society as Holden Caulfield does and they both value independence. Ellen Olenska is judged from the prestigious families due to her running away from her husband- as that is seen in their preferences as inappropriate since she is married and divorce is seen as a sin. Holden can also be compared to Ellen because he is judged for moving to different schools due to lack of motivation in wanting to pursue his future. Holden inhabits the quality of alienation because he believes that he is not the problem but the society is. His mental instability for obtaining interactions with others controls him and only increases the more chances of him running away due to his fear of feeling alone and misfitting.

About the conclusion–was it a satisfactory ending to the work? Why/why not? If not, how would you have ended the work, and why?

Overall, the conclusion was a satisfactory ending to the book. Although it would have been happy for Ellen and Archer to end up together, that is an expected resolution to the story. When Archer decides not to go up to Ellen’s apartment, it is an unanticipated twist readers most likely did not expect. Also, the ending illustrates Archer’s important character development. After 26 years, he has conformed to society. Furthermore, he has become accustomed to his life and no longer has hopes and dreams.

Memorable lines/scenes (Nikki)

Memorable lines from the book that you liked or that illustrated important ideas in the work.

“He perceived that such a picture presupposed on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage become what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.” (Chapter 6)

This quote stuck out a lot to me because it uses a lot of strong words to describes things that May has “possessed” herself not to do. Just thinking about that part of May makes Archer “shiver” thinking about their marriage. This enhanced our meaning of the book by telling us about how he views May, and how he views his marriage with her.

“ ‘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 lie to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.’ ” (Chapter 29)

In this quote readers are able to see how much Ellen and Archer truly love each other, and how they would give up their current lives to just be together. This quote stuck to me because they both were still able to remain their love despite all the things they’ve been through.

“I couldn’t have spoken like this yesterday, because when we’ve been apart, and I’m looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you’re so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much more than an hour or to every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this…” (Chapter 29)

This quote stuck out to me because it make me feel bad that they can’t be together. The quote mentions how their love grows more and more stronger as time goes on, but they both know they can’t’ be together, and that makes readers pity them.

Find quotations that illustrate the writer’s skill in establishing mood/tone, imagery, symbolism, and characterization.

“ ‘The very good people didn’t convince me; I felt they’d never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands- and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference.’ ” (Chapter 18)

“ ‘Well, she opened by eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people. What she does is just the contrary- she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in the blessed darkness.’ ” (Chapter 29)

“He looked away into the fire, and then back at her shining presence. His heart tightened with the thought that his was their last evening by that fireside, and that in a moment the carriage would come to carry her away.” (Chapter 18 )

Theme and other abstract ideas (Sanaa)

What are the major themes of the work? Provide a short phrase for each theme.

Social Class

Class can define how one acts and feels.


Not conforming to societal standards is bad when you are of higher class.


You might not marry the ones you truly love.

How is each theme portrayed in the book?

Higher class is about tradition. May is a perfect example of social class because she all about tradition and knows her role in society. She knows what people expect from her and what her society expects from others.

Conformity is accepted for those of a higher class. Being a nonconformist makes you an outcast of society. Madame Olenska is an outcast of her society and is someone who they look down upon . She is very independent and unique compared to everyone else around her. Lots of gossip and assumptions fall around her and she is very aware of it. Her individuality is why Archer likes her.

Newland is head of heels for Olenska but he cannot do anything about it because he is already engaged to May. If he breaks off the engagement and marries Olenska a whole scandal will surround the three.

What are the moral and ethical problems explored in the story?


What you are forced to believe in

The characters are taught to know what is good or bad by their parents. They lived in a small bubble of society that was different from the average person. Everyone wanted to be where they are because they “had it all.” Their life choices were mostly premade by their parents like career choices and sometimes who they were going to marry. Some of these kids rarely got to think for themselves. They were forced to believe in whatever their parents or their society around them wanted them to believe.

How you are supposed to act

As kids all the characters were forced to act proper and consistently be well behaved, which is hard for kids to do. That constant pressure of being this perfect man or woman during that time period was intense. You were taught to fit in and grow up fast.


Conformity vs. Individuality

The society around the characters are all about conformity and when you step out of the conformatal zone you are looked down upon. The idea of being different and being your own person is accepted in our society but in the book it’s not. Olenska is different and because of that she is not respected amongst others. But May who fits the conformatal mold is respected by all. It’s unethical to look down upon someo
ne who is different.

What was the author’s purpose in writing this book?

The author’s purpose of writing the book is to show the reader that being rich and in a higher class isn’t all amazing and glamorous as it seems. The rich and high class is the gilded age of classes where it looks all glamorous in the outside but in the inside it isn’t.

Does the author use imagery, symbolism, allusions, etc. to develop his/her themes? How?

Golden ring

The golden ring was expressed when Archer was about to confess to May about him and Olenska but before he could she shushed him as if she knew. It symbolizes his marital bond with May and his past secrets that are now sealed and at some degree forgiven by May.


Paris is a symbol of new beginnings for Olenska. Her husband did not love her and Archer was married. She took that opportunity to leave and start over in a different country. A freedom from all those who looked down upon her. She didn’t belong in that society it frankly not her style.

The wedding dress

White symbolizes purity and innocence. May’s wedding dress was white and soon it became,“torn and muddy wedding dress dragging after her across the room” (Wharton pg 326). The dress represents the corruption of May’s innocence. Wedding dresses are valuable and pure the fact that hers became muddy and torn is unspeakable. The dress gives a representation of her and Archer’s relationship moving forward.

Style (Nikki)


“For a long moment she was silent; and in that moment Archer imagined her. Almost heard her, stealing up behind him to throw her light arms about his neck. While he waited, soul and body throbbing with the miracle to come, his eyes mechanically received the image of a heavily-coated man with his fur collar turned up who was advancing along the path to the house.” (Chapter 15)

“As his glance traveled from one placid well fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking people engaged upon May’s canvas backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over him, it a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies.” (Chapter 33)


“ ‘I hear she means to get a divorce,’ said Janey boldly. ‘I hope she will!’ Archer exclaimed.” (Chapter 5)

“ ‘Or if not,’ she continued, pursuing her own thought with a painful application, ‘if it’s not worthwhile to have given up, to have missed things, so that others may be saved from disillusionment and misery- then everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by contrast so bare and so poor because no one there took account of them- all these things are a sham or a dream-’ ” (Chapter 24)

How does the author’s diction, grammar, sentence structure, organization, point of view, detail, syntax, and irony enhance the meaning of the work and show his/her attitude?

Diction: In The Age of Innocence, the author uses words that were commonly said during the Old New York era. It enhances the experience reading the book because we get to fully understand how people acted and talked during this time.

Grammar: The grammar in this story reflects how people spoke during the time this book took place.

Sentence Structure: The Author’s sentence structures relate to the grammar and syntax, because they all still relate to how we talk presently, and it was able to help readers feel like they’re in New York with the characters.

Organization: The way the author organized the book was very detailed and alluring. With her use of imagery, detail, and words, she was able to put readers in the book itself to make it feel like we are there with the characters.

Point of View: This book took place in the point of view of Newland Archer. Through his point of view, we saw his struggles with his love life, and how he reacted to each and every person. We saw how he dealt with his struggles, and this point of view enhanced the book by letting us get to know Archer in a saw the other characters weren’t able to do.

Detail: There was a lot of detail scattered throughout the book. At almost every moment, Archer was giving readers details on what he saw, like what people were wearing, the sounds he was herding, and many other sources of imagery. This helped us visualize and feel like we are there with him and the characters.

Syntax: The syntax is related to the grammar where it definitely show how people spoke during that time. Personally I don’t see much of a difference of how they spoke then, compared to now because it was so easy to understand ad. But there are words like “dear” that make it seem like it was a story placed a little while ago.

Irony: The irony in this story is that Archer and Ellen both love each other a lot. But things like life, social status, and May get in the way of their love. They do a lot for love, and they both have admitted to each other that they love each other, but in the end of the book, when I thought they would choose to be together, Archer, who for most of the book showed his love for Ellen moore, decided not to go see her.

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