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Edith Wharton and "The Age of Innocence"

Summary

By Floramaria Deter

Edith Wharton's Pulitzer prize winning turn-of-the-century novel, "The Age of Innocence," shows Newland Archer as a wealthy lawyer happily engaged to the sweet and innocent May Welland, a young woman from a socially acceptable upper-class family. Newland has been raised with proper family values: he’s marrying a woman his family accepts. On the other hand, because the parents of this society have raised their children not speak of unpleasantness, May ignores any unpleasing situations and tends to appreciate superficial relationships with friends and family, which consist of gossiping about other women, rather than revealing her own feelings and opinions.

May’s controversial cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, returns to New York after leaving her husband in Europe. When Newland and Ellen suddenly fall in love, this passionate affair jeopardizes Newland and May's superficial relationship, which is based only on the innocent behavior society expects from each of them and the behavior they expect from each other. Newland must then choose between marrying May, an honorable woman by society's standards, or risk losing everything by eloping with Ellen, the woman he loves. He ultimately chooses May, but is left wondering what he missed by not eloping with Ellen. After May’s death, he learns that May knew about his affair with Ellen and when given the opportunity to meet with Ellen again, he declines and walks away.
 

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