Discussion Two of The Age of Innocence Read-Along

It still seemed wonderful that across all those miles and miles of country--forest, river, mountain, prairie, roaring cities and busy indifferent millions-- Dallas's laugh should be able to say: "Of course, whatever happens, I must get back on the first, because Fanny Beaufort and I are to be married on the fifth."

 Well, bookworms, what did you think?

I must admit after just recently finishing off the last 20 pages, I'm setting the novel aside, and feeling a little bewildered.  So much time elapsed-- so much was said, so much left unspoken.

As much as many people view The Age of Innocence as a very tragic love story, I, on the other hand, was less focused on the relationship between Countess Olenska and Archer, and more on the budding society of New York that blooms before the reader's very eyes. The quotation above really emphasizes the enormous changes occuring during Archer's life admist the growth of the nation.  For his character to have remained unchanged and indifferent would have been a travesty, and, of course, we'd be left without a story. Archer's struggle with new ideas that confront the only way old society's ever taught him how to live, is a very realistic account of these changes.   

Despite sheer disappointment with the ending, and I'm very much open to your interpretation, as I had no idea what to make of Archer's decision to walk away from a meeting with the Countess after a 30-year absence, I really loved this novel.

So, let me just get straight to the ranting.

The second half of the novel quickly captures Archer's loss of  whatever innocence he may possess as he assumes the "duty" and responsibilites of a male of his age.  His marriage to May Welland being the first blow to his imagination and progressive habits.  However fiery Archer may feel he still may be, and as much as he struggles to escape the life society has so neatly carved for him, he sinks deeper into his role as head of the household rather quickly.  His attempts to win Olenska, and himself, over, are weak and fleeting.  There are so many questions to ascertain amidst the drama.  How much of a "new" man is Archer? Is the weakening of Archer's generation necessary for the production of his son's generation and the possibility of change it initiates?

Furthermore, the society, itself, is anything but innocent. Their insistence upon "saving face" is mostly absurd.  While Beaufort continuously sleeps his way through numerous cities, it isn't until his bad business deals bust that he's decidely a disgusting creature in the sect.  Meanwhile, his mistress, Fanny, is ostracized for the mere fact that she's involved in an affair.  The double-standard appeal isn't really shocking; it's the way in which members of society are so pleasant in everyday interactions, sombre to the extreme, yet spit venom the moment it has been agreed they may do so. Descriptions of danty women, May especially, with clear blue eyes and clean, fresh skin, is such a sharp contrast to the nature of many of the "trusted" women in this little world.  The society is so preoccupied with saving their family names and status, that their peers are merely the ones they were destined to interact with, regardless of whether or not they truly care for one another.  It's such an enormous scene of repression. Yet, these characters hardly seem to notice that they really have no control over their own futures. Although, we only see the world through the eyes of Olenska and Archer, the reader is never sure if society members even recognize or care that they've no control.

 I felt that the last chapter was a little rushed.  Characters were quickly written in to fill the space of Archer and May's three children.  Archer was seeing the world from new eyes, that much is clear, finally recognizing the naivete of his youth; yet, still questioning the decisions he made at that young age.  We find that May has known all along of the love between Olenska and Archer, although the reader understands this early on.  I've read arguments that suggest that May was relieved that Archer chooses duty over the love he could have had simply to save their names.  As well as, the idea that the party thrown before Olenska leaves is one celebrating the relief of all involved, that the disgraced woman has finally gathered the sense to leave before causing further damage.  The fact that May is more concerned with saving her family's name by asking Archer to remain with her is, both, very saddening, and very real in this circle. Furthermore, May in some way victorious, throws a large party honoring her cousin, only to tout that Archer will remain in his habit with her by his side. 

There were so many topics to discuss in this novel that I feel this entry could span many pages, but I want your opinion, so feel free to rant and rave!

What did you enjoy most about this novel?  What did you find least appealing?

How would you interpret Archer's refusal to see the Countess in the final scene? 

 Leave your comments below and be sure to link up to your personal page! 

Thanks for participating; it's been a real treat reading together and sharing, gathering so many different perspectives along the way!


  1. I was so frustrated by the ending. I know that Archer had a "duty" to both his family (or their good name) and May, but isn't it the American way to choose love over obligation?!

    I found Wharton's snark to be most appealing in this novel. I liked having the narrator's voice break through occasionally - very Jane Austen.

    Thanks for hosting! It's been fun to read-along with everyone.


  2. Melissa,
    I think that this decision marks the end of this type of societal duty, as we witness Archer's own son marry Beaufort's daughter. It seemed that the idea of the love he could have had with Olenska was enough to last his life. It was almost as if he had been tamed, and recognized that his duty had been performed thus far and would need to remain as such. It was frustrating, but I feel appropriate. It wouldn't be Wharton if it were any different. The snark is just brilliant!
    I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  3. OK - a few things:
    (a) I am so happy you chose this for the read-along! There is so much to discuss and I really enjoyed the novel overall.
    (b) I wasn't disappointed with the ending at all. I think it was fitting to the novel as a whole. I like that Wharton highlighted themes of regret and constraint. That the not knowing what could have been can be more peaceful than the finding out.
    (c) Great wrap up review, Beth!

  4. I enjoyed the claustrophobic atmosphere the novel had and how the families grouped together (not liked eactly but I thought it was clever) but I did find some of the enless detail quite boring.

    The countess was 'the one that got away' the one that I am sure Archer pondered how his life could have been. I think if he had seen her it would have made his life and marriage seem a waste and that would have been too upsetting.

    anyway these are my thoughts

  5. Brenna,
    Yes! The novel was perfect for such an endeavor. It provides so much to discuss. I really loved it. And so very different from Ethan Frome-- I crave more of her work! Despite inital disappointment, I realized that the novel had to end with Archer's refusal. It really pressed this sharp and unrelenting pain. I haven't been so emotionally stirred by a classic work in quite some time. I am looking forward to reading more on the work. It was so fascinating! I want to thank you for participating, as well!

    Jessica, There's no doubt that Olenska was the one that got away. In the end, Archer finally realized that and decided against changing his destiny any further. Wharton's language does make the novel incredibly repressive and overwhelming at times. I find this to be a defining aspect of the power of her words. Thanks for participating!

  6. *Sigh* I loved this book so much. Definitely now in my top five favorites. Thanks for hosting! Here is my write-up, in which I wax sentimental and dramatic:

  7. Lorren, Yes! It's a new favorite! This was also a title on my classics challenge reading list. Your review is spot on! Thanks for participating!

  8. I loved this book. Thank you Beth for hosting the read-a-long.
    I think the book couldn't have ended any other way. For thirty years Archer has also been in love with the idea of 'what might have been" it has become a part of who he is - to meet Olenska now would challenge that love. Here is my take on book two.

  9. I'm afraind I didn't care for this book at all! I loved the movie, mind you, but the book was a dead bore, and Wharton's style grated on my nerves. As for the ending - I actually liked the end very much. I think had the ended up together they both might have discovered that they weren't meant for each other after all!... throughout the novel I kept wondering why they loved each other. As far as I could see, Ellen was on the rebound (of sorts) and Archer had been kind; while, to Archer, Ellen was different from any other women he knew. There was bound to be an attraction because of these outer circumstances. When you look at it, neither of them really knew the other! I think, whatever else I might've thought about Wharton, she ended this book perfectly!

    My thoughts can be found here:

  10. What a great review. I read "Age of Innocence" about six months ago, but I just finishing "House of Mirth" today and some of the comments you make about society hold true there as well. Being a part of "society" reads like a job; people spend time with other people not necessarily because they enjoy their company, but because it's what must be done, because social ranking and value depends so much on who you spent with. And it's a little shocking to see what sort of incidents can cause the sudden dismissal of someone from that society, as in beaufort's case here.

    i loved the ending of "age of innocence," didn't feel rushed to me but like a fair summation of newland's life.

    -- ellen

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