The Age of Innocence

Front Cover
Random House Publishing Group, Jan 14, 1996 - Fiction - 308 pages
Set in turn-of-the-century New York, Edith Wharton's classic novel The Age of Innocence reveals a society governed by the dictates of taste and form, manners and morals, and intricate social ceremonies. With amazing clarity and sensitivity, Edith Wharton re-creates an atmosphere in which subtle gestures and faint implications bespeak desire and emotion, in which beauty and innocence are valued above truth, and in which disturbing the social order disturbs the very foundations of one's identity.
Newland Archer, soon to marry the lovely May Welland, is a man torn between his respect for tradition and family and his attraction to May's strongly independent cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Plagued by the desire to live in a world where two people can love each other free from condemnation and judgment by the group, Newland views the artful delicacy of the world he lives in as a comforting security one moment, and at another, as an oppressive fiction masking true human nature.
The Age of Innocence is at once a richly drawn portrait of the elegant lifestyles, luxurious brownstones, and fascinating culture of bygone New York society and a compelling look at the conflict between human passions and the social tribe that tries to control them.

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Contents

Section 1
3
Section 2
10
Section 3
23
Copyright

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About the author (1996)

Edith Wharton was a woman of extreme contrasts; brought up to be a leisured aristocrat, she was also dedicated to her career as a writer. She wrote novels of manners about the old New York society from which she came, but her attitude was consistently critical. Her irony and her satiric touches, as well as her insight into human character, continue to appeal to readers today. As a child, Wharton found refuge from the demands of her mother's social world in her father's library and in making up stories. Her marriage at age 23 to Edward ("Teddy") Wharton seemed to confirm her place in the conventional role of wealthy society woman, but she became increasingly dissatisfied with the "mundanities" of her marriage and turned to writing, which drew her into an intellectual community and strengthened her sense of self. After publishing two collections of short stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) and Crucial Instances (1901), she wrote her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), a long, historical romance set in eighteenth-century Italy. Her next work, the immensely popular The House of Mirth (1905), was a scathing criticism of her own "frivolous" New York society and its capacity to destroy her heroine, the beautiful Lily Bart. As Wharton became more established as a successful writer, Teddy's mental health declined and their marriage deteriorated. In 1907 she left America altogether and settled in Paris, where she wrote some of her most memorable stories of harsh New England rural life---Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1917)---as well as The Reef (1912), which is set in France. All describe characters forced to make moral choices in which the rights of individuals are pitted against their responsibilities to others. She also completed her most biting satire, The Custom of the Country (1913), the story of Undine Spragg's climb, marriage by marriage, from a midwestern town to New York to a French chateau. During World War I, Wharton dedicated herself to the war effort and was honored by the French government for her work with Belgian refugees. After the war, the world Wharton had known was gone. Even her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), a story set in old New York, could not recapture the former time. Although the new age welcomed her---Wharton was both a critical and popular success, honored by Yale University and elected to The National Institute of Arts and Letters---her later novels show her struggling to come to terms with a new era. In The Writing of Fiction (1925), Wharton acknowledged her debt to her friend Henry James, whose writings share with hers the descriptions of fine distinctions within a social class and the individual's burdens of making proper moral decisions. R.W.B. Lewis's biography of Wharton, published in 1975, along with a wealth of new biographical material, inspired an extensive reevaluation of Wharton. Feminist readings and reactions to them have focused renewed attention on her as a woman and as an artist. Although many of her books have recently been reprinted, there is still no complete collected edition of her work.

American novelist, poet, and critic John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, and studied at Harvard (which he attended on a scholarship) and the Ruskin School Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. After returning from England in 1955, he worked for two years on the staff of The New Yorker. This marked the beginning of a long relationship with the magazine, during which he has contributed numerous short stories, poems, and book reviews. Although Updike's first published book was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), his renown as a writer is based on his fiction, beginning with The Poorhouse Fair, published in 1959. When Couples was published in 1968, Wilfred Sheed (N.Y. Times) looked back on Updike's career to that time and commented, "Updike can be quite a virtuoso. But with each book, his position seems a little less flashy and more solid." The mixture of flashy versatility and solid achievement has been apparent in Updike's writing since that judgment was made, and his deep artistic commitment is apparent not only in the abundance of his works in several genres, but also by his willingness to experiment with new forms and themes. Updike has shifted directions with each decade as he has responded to the changing times, while at the same time maintaining a basic, if sometimes ambiguous, personal integrity. Updike's work, sophisticated and inventive, focuses on middle-class America and their major concerns---marriage, divorce, religion, materialism, and sex. Among his best-known works are the Rabbit tetrology---Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1988). Rabbit Run introduces Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom as a 26-year-old salesman of dime-store gadgets trapped in an unhappy marriage in a dismal Pennsylvania town, looking back wistfully on his days as a high school basketball star. Rabbit Redux takes up the story 10 years later, and Rabbit's relationship with representative figures of the 1960s enables Updike to provide social commentary in a story marked by mellow wisdom and compassion in spite of some shocking jolts. In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry is comfortably middle-aged and complacent. Much of the book seems to satirize the country-club set and the swinging sexual/social life of Rabbit and his friends, but Updike again moves the story onto a higher plain, which would seem to justify those critics who think that his vision is unquestionably religious in its essential nature. Finally, in Rabbit at Rest, Harry arrives at the age where he must confront his mortality. Updike's other novels range widely in subject and locale, from The Poorhouse Fair, about a home for the aged that seems to be a microcosm for society as a whole, through The Court (1978), about a revolution in Africa, to The Witches of Eastwick (1984), in which Updike tries to write from inside the sensibilities of three witches in contemporary New England.The Centaur (1963) is a subtle, complicated allegorical novel that won Updike the National Book Award in 1964. Another recent trilogy includes A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger's Version (1986), and SS (1988). In addition to his novels, Updike also has written short stories, poems, critical essays, and reviews. His short fiction is notable for the crisps, efficient way in which he treats a wide variety of subjects. Self-Consciousness, a memoir of his early life, his thoughts on issues such as the Vietnam War, and his attitude toward religion, was published in 1989. Updike currently lives near Boston with his second wife. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.

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