Life after Work

The Age of Innocence – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1921

Of the Pulitzers of the 1920s, Edith Warton’s “The Age of Innocence” is probably the best known, because of Martin Scorsese’s film with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. Also notable is that this was the first time the prize was awarded to a woman.

The story takes place in New York’s high society of the late 19th century. At the beginning, Newland Archer is set to marry May, a young girl of a good family. However, fate throws him a major curveball in the shape of May’s exotic cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who returns to New York to escape her unhappy marriage with an abusive Polish count. She is a woman of the world and very independent, as opposed to May who is – as is expected – an innocent virgin. Ellen gets in trouble for wanting a divorce from her husband (the scandal!), but Newland, as a lawyer is tasked by the family to talk her out of it and manages to persuade her not to, saving the family’s reputation. Over several conversations, Newland realizes how much more interesting Ellen is compared to the pretty but bland May and falls in love with the countess (and she with him), but the wedding plans with May are already underway… what to do?

The entanglement between a heart’s desire and duty is the subject of many classic novels and they usually don’t have happy endings. Not that I would want a happy ending, but there’s also no surprise here, really. My modern self got annoyed with Newland several times because he could not make a clear break with Ellen or May. He was so torn between ideals and self-fulfillment but, of course, in the end chose to do what was expected after all. What I enjoyed much more than the back-and-forth of Newland’s heart were the rich (no pun intended) descriptions of opulent New York’s wheelings and dealings in the Gilded Age. Wharton really has a gift of language; there is a lot of sumptous detail about society rules, living spaces, manners, dress and the sardonic tone is so much fun. I consumed “The Age of Innocence” as an audio book and I only regret that this did not allow me to copy some passages as examples.

In other words, I enjoyed this book very much, but the love story part was not as interesting to me as hearing about the surroundings. I can’t say I would read (or listen to) it again.

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