Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Age of Innocence is one of four novels — together with One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Great Gatsby and Breakfast of Champions — I enjoyed re-reading at least once a year since 2001. The book is Edith Wharton’s twelfth novel, initially serialized in four parts in the Pictorial Review magazine in 1920, and later released by D. Appleton and Company as a book in New York and in London. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the prize. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s, during the so-called Gilded Age.

The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple’s impending marriage, and the introduction of the bride’s cousin, plagued by scandal, whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s New York society, it never develops into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an apology for her earlier novel, The House of Mirth, which was more brutal and critical. The novel is noted for Wharton’s attention to detail and its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and the social tragedy of its plot. Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she had lived in that world and had seen it change dramatically by the end of World War I.

The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society when compared to its inward machinations. It is believed to have been drawn from the popular 1785 painting A Little Girl by Sir Joshua Reynolds that later became known as The Age of Innocence and was widely reproduced as the commercial face of childhood in the later half of the 18th century.


In 1924, a silent film film adaptation was released by Warner Brothers, directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Beverly Bayne as Countess Olenska and Elliott Dexter as Newland Archer.

In 1928, Margaret Ayer Barnes adapted the novel into a play, first produced on Broadway, starring Katharine Cornell as Countess Ellen Olenska.

In 1934, a film adaptation was directed for RKO Studios by Philip Moeller (based on the 1920 novel and 1928 play), starring Irene Dunne as Countess Ellen Olenska and John Boles as Newland Archer.

In 1993, a film adaptation, The Age of Innocence, was directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, Winona Ryder as May Welland Archer, Richard E. Grant, and Miriam Margolyes. Ryder won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of May Welland Archer, and the film won an Oscar for costume design.

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