Book Summary: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Are you looking for a book summary of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key points from Edith Wharton’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this The Age of Innocence book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Who is The Author of The Age of Innocence?

Edith Wharton was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer. Wharton used her insider knowledge of upper-class New York “aristocracy” to realistically portray Gilded Age life and morals.

The Age of Innocence Book Summary

It was New York society at its finest; “an exceptionally brilliant audience” was attending the opera that night. There in the box where the affluent and influential Mingott family posed, Newland Archer had just arrived fashionably late. “Poor” Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin to Newland’s new fiancée, May Welland, was being slated as the black sheep of the Mingott clan due to her “scandalous” breakup with her European husband.

Claiming she could find nothing “appropriate” to wear, Ellen even failed to appear later that evening at the party given by the renowned womanizer Julius Beaufort, where May and Newland formally announced their engagement.

Later that week as the informed gossip Sullerton Jackson dined at the Archer home, the conversation turned to Ellen and how she had escaped Europe – and the brute hands of her husband, the count – with the aid of a secretary. Newland daringly responded that he thought “women should be free … as free as we are.” Then, seeing Jackson’s shocked expression, he hastily added that society, of course, would never allow women to obtain such freedom.

A few days later, the Mingotts sent out invitations to a dinner in honor of the “Countess Olenska.” All the invitees declined, however, with the exception of Jackson and Beaufort.

When Newland learned of this cruelty, he convinced his reluctant mother to help Ellen. His mother, in turn, appealed to the van der Luydens, one of the few claimants to “real aristocracy” in New York society, who invited Ellen to attend a reception at their home to meet the Duke of Austrey, an unusual privilege indeed.

At the reception, Ellen “broke etiquette” by leaving the Duke in mid-sentence to take a seat next to her cousin’s fiancé, Newland. At the end of the evening, Ellen informed Newland that she would meet with him the next afternoon at 5:30. He was surprised, as they had not previously discussed any such meeting.

Nonetheless, he arrived at Ellen’s house on time, with only a tinge of regret for not having discussed his whereabouts with May – who might show up there at any moment herself. Ensconced in the parlor, Ellen told Newland that he and Beaufort were the only two friends in whom she could confide; all the others only wanted to exchange pleasantries. “Does no one want to know the truth here Mr Archer?” she pleaded. “The real loneliness is living among all those kind people who only ask one to pretend.”

The following day, as Newland and May sat discussing their engagement, he suddenly realized with disappointment that they were merely reciting the “proper” catechisms to each other. “We are,” he thought to himself, “as paper dolls cut out of the same folded paper.”

When Newland returned home that evening, he learned that Ellen had attended a social gathering with Beaufort. The van der Luydens disapproved of their protégée socializing with such a “commoner,” and fled to her rescue by tutoring her in the potential consequences of this social blunder. Newland was later severely disappointed to find that Ellen herself had acted as a “paper-doll cutout” by appropriately sending an elaborate thank-you note to the van der Luydens.

Two weeks later, Newland was approached by the head of his law office and asked to take on the countess’s divorce. He had just begun to erase Ellen’s image from his mind; yet, since both the Mingotts and the Wellands had commissioned him for the case, he was bound to take it.

Later, Newland was asked by members of Ellen’s family to urge the countess to drop the proceedings, as it would be scandalous to have an “unpleasant” divorce hanging over their heads. Newland dutifully undertook this mission also, and Ellen sadly thanked him for his advice.

Several days passed, and Ellen and Beaufort continued to see one another. It was almost as if the vulgar, philandering Beaufort had charmed Ellen against her will. Now when Ellen wrote to Newland to request that they meet again, Newland packed his bags and joined May’s family in St Augustine. There, in fear of succumbing to his desire for Ellen, he tried to talk May into moving up their wedding date.

His fiancée refused; she had to respect her parents’ request that she observe a long engagement. Upon his return home, Newland asked Mrs Mingott to appeal to May’s parents to move the date up. She agreed. Newland finally visited Ellen, who now was staying at her aunt’s house, and confessed his love for her; if she would accept his marriage proposal, he would break his engagement with May in order to marry Ellen.

She reminded him, of course, that he himself had made that impossible by convincing her to drop her divorce proceedings. What’s more, just days previous she had received a letter from her husband begging her to return home. At that instant – in the cruelty of timing – a telegraph arrived from May: she had accepted Newland’s request to move the wedding forward. Exactly one month later, they were wed. Newland’s mind was barely present during the ceremony.

Afterward, as the couple prepared to take their leave, May, oblivious to her groom’s faraway thoughts, excitedly turned to him. “… It’s just our luck,” she chattered, “the wonderful luck we’re always going to have together.” The newlyweds traveled to London, where they were introduced at a dinner party to a poor, learned Frenchman.

Newland found M. Revere’s intellectual and moral liberty refreshing; May saw the Frenchman as “dreadfully boring.” In time, Newland began accepting his marriage as an “inevitable sort of business.” Back in New York, he again happened upon M. Rivere and learned that he was in fact the secretary who had helped Ellen escape from her husband.

He had just been dispatched from London to offer Ellen a generous financial payment if she would return to the count. However, he begged Newland not to allow her to accept this offer; he knew the situation, and feared for Ellen’s safety if she returned. Newland immediately set up a “business trip” to Washington – where Ellen now lived in self-imposed exile – in order to offer his advice.

Ellen, though, who had fallen out of grace with her family after refusing her husband’s first bid for reconciliation, was soon summoned home to New York when Grandmother Mingott suffered a stroke. Since Ellen would be coming to him, Newland abruptly canceled his “business trip.”

Instead, he went to pick Ellen up when her ferry arrived. On their way home, Newland acknowledged that each time he was in Ellen’s presence – even the very first time they met – he knew that he loved her. No, Ellen insisted, it could never be. … With tears running down his cheeks, Newland stopped the carriage, got out, and walked the rest of the way home.

That night, he opened the bedroom window; the room was stuffy. May warned that he could “catch his death.” In fact, Newland felt like he already had. A week after Ellen’s arrival in New York, Mrs Mingott confided in Newland that she had invited Ellen to remain in her home, despite the fact the family wanted her cut off; and now she needed his assistance in fighting the family on Ellen’s behalf. He agreed.

Lastly, Mrs Mingott admitted that she knew of their situation and thought that he and Ellen should have married. When Newland next spoke with Ellen, she informed Newland that she was considering returning to her husband after all rather than stay and “destroy the lives of the very people who helped me remake mine.”

They agreed to meet again two days later. Hours before this rendezvous, Newland decided to appeal to May for his freedom. He had barely mentioned Ellen’s name, when May raised her hand to stop him. It didn’t matter anymore, she declared; it was over. She would divorce him properly and without making a scene.

Now it was Ellen’s turn. After all, she had recently been granted independence from her husband and was soon to return to Europe. May generously organized a farewell dinner for Ellen, a “tribal rally against a kinswomen who was about to be eliminated from the tribe.” Everyone attended.

But as Newland gazed on the guests’ faces, he suddenly became aware that everyone there – including his wife – thought of him and Ellen as lovers. After the party had ended, May notified Newland that she was pregnant. Furthermore, she had confided this possibility to Ellen on the evening of their conversation. “… And you see,” May finished victoriously, “I was right.”

Newland’s fate had been determined. Twenty-six years later, Newland sat reflecting on the past. He had been blessed with two sons and a daughter, and was universally regarded as a fine citizen and a faithful husband. May had passed away, heroically sacrificing her life to bring their last child into the world. Newland truly mourned her passing.

Now he was traveling to Paris with his oldest son, Dallas, who had recently become engaged to Fanny Beaufort. Upon their arrival, Dallas announced his plan to stop off and see Ellen Olenska. “After all,” Dallas said, “isn’t she the one you could have chucked everything for but didn’t?”

Evidently, on her deathbed May had told Dallas that his father had sacrificed the thing he most wanted when she asked him to. Newland admitted that his wife had never actually asked him to give up Ellen – or anything else.

Dallas broke in, “I forgot … you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf and dumb asylum. …” When they neared Ellen’s home, Newland settled down on a bench, then directed his son to go on ahead; he needed some time to think before going in.

After all these years, it seemed he was finally free to pursue his true love. Yet, as he sat there and imagined the scene of their reconciliation, Newland decided it was more real to him there in his heart than if he were to actually go inside. Getting to his feet, he turned and started back toward the hotel.

The Age of Innocence Characters

Newland Archer, a young man torn between convention and defiance

May Welland, his socially conventional fiancée

Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, a non-conformist,and Newland’s true love

Mrs Manson Mingott, May and Ellen’s grand-mother, matriarch of New York society

Julius Beaufort, a scandalous womanizer

Mr and Mrsvan der Luyden, a socially influential couple, capable of making or breaking any reputation

The Age of Innocence Review

The Age of Innocence is a brilliant portrayal of the struggle between individual aspiration and social entrapment. Wharton’s characters exist in a society where creativity and imagination are stifled within the narrow confines of a concrete frame, constricted by the conventional and unimaginative.

May and Ellen represent two opposing views: the ritualistic social tribe on one hand, the free latitude of personal identity on the other. Ironically, it is Newland’s inattention to the very social system in which he is trapped that finally decides his fate for him. He falls victim to his own ignorance of the conspiracy that is fashioned throughout his life to pigeonhole him into a societal and familial niche of expectations.

It is not until Ellen’s farewell dinner that it finally dawns on him “in a vast flash of many broken gleams” that, with Ellen’s departure, his life of confinement has just begun: “… By means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and his partner of guilt [Ellen], had been achieved.”

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