The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's most famous novel, is a love story, written immediately after the end of the First World War. Its brilliant anatomization of the snobbery and hypocrisy of the wealthy elite of New York society in the 1870s made it an instant classic, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Newland Archer, Wharton's protagonist, charming, tactful, enlightened, is a thorough product of this society; he accepts its standards and abides by its rules but he also recognizes its limitations. His engagement to the impeccable May Welland assures him of a safe and conventional future, until the arrival of May's cousin Ellen Olenska. Independent, free-thinking, scandalously separated from her husband, Ellen forces Archer to question the values and assumptions of his narrow world. As their love for each other grows, Archer has to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies.
Stephen Orgel's introduction and notes set the novel in the context of the period and discusses Wharton's skilfull weaving of characters and plot, her anthropological exactitude, and the novel's autobiographical overtones.
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Somewhere in this book, Wharton observes that clever liars always come up with good stories to back up their fabrications, but that really clever liars don't bother to explain anything at all. This is the kind of insight that makes The Age of Innocence so indispensable. Wharton's story of the upper classes of Old New York, and Newland Archer's impossible love for the disgraced Countess Olenska, is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in this country was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when "society" had rules as rigid as any in history.