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The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

No novel worth anything can be anything but a novel ‘with a purpose,’ and if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself.


Edith Wharton, 1908 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and he was perfectly aware that in metropolises it was not “the thing” to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not “the thing” played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation.

Reed: That was Alfred Molina reading from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we'll discuss a story of forbidden love in old, aristocratic New York, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

David Ives: Sitting down with this novel is like sitting down next to the most wonderful dinner guest who knows all of the guests at the party, all of their secret lives and who tells you about those secret lives, but without ever speaking aloud the secret, so that you get it in the inflection or in the tone or in a glance or the lift of an eyebrow.

Louis Auchincloss: It's such a perfect rendition of the time that's beautifully done, that New York is just there—there it is.

Jay Cocks: There're themes of societal expectations, conscience, commitment, and the unexpected, fateful byways of love.

Gioia: The Gilded Age, an era named for the wealth and comfort of its privileged few. This was the time of Edith Wharton's childhood, and this is the world she recreates in The Age of Innocence, New York high society of the 1870's.

Writer and political satirist P.J. O'Rourke.

P.J. O'Rourke: It is an upper class setting, but it is a small and interrelated upper class.

Gioia: Stephanie Copeland.

Gioia: It was said that this group of individuals could fit in Mrs. Astor's ballroom. They were the 400 who could fit in Mrs. Astor's ballroom.

O'Rourke: It's not an upper class in the sense that we would define upper class today. That is to say it's not defined by money, primarily, although they've got money. It is defined largely by family, but even more so, it is defined by duty and attitude. A certain sort of reticence.

Gioia: The Age of Innocence focuses on the character of Newland Archer, a young man who was engaged to be married to May Welland.

Stephanie Copeland is the President of The Mount, Wharton's Country Estate in Western Massachusetts.

Copeland: Newland Archer is a classic gentleman. He is delighted by his engagement to May Welland. She comes from the same stock that he comes from. She's your ideal American woman.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the table. With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but an uncharted voyage on seas.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke: On the face of it, it is the story of frustrated love. There is this sort of stodgy young lawyer and he is engaged to a sweet gal, rather unimaginative gal, kind of a dull gal, as a matter of fact, and he meets her swanky cousin, separated from a Polish count, dark and mysterious cousin and, boy, she just looks like fun and he'd like to have some fun, but he can't quite bring himself to have any fun.

Gioia: Playwright, David Ives.

Ives: At one point in the novel, Edith Wharton describes New York society as a terrible engine which could possibly crush Newland Archer. That is as good a description as I can think of how this society works. It is a sort of invisible octopus stretching its arms around the characters and slowly crushing them whenever they tried to elude its grasp.

Gioia: May Welland's cousin, Ellen Olenska has just returned to New York after having lived most of her life in Europe. Her foreign mannerisms and style of dress are almost too much for New York society to bear, but Newland Archer, despite of his devotion to the codes and rules of that culture, is irresistibly drawn to Ellen.

Copeland: When he first sees Ellen, he's immediately struck by her exoticism.

Gioia: Stephanie Copeland.

Copeland: He's drawn to it. He's curious by this. This is really something from outside that's come into his world that is so different from what he is normally surrounded by.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke: There certainly is something in Ellen that represents to him an idea of freedom, but he has a very vague idea of freedom. It's not like he really wants to do something that he isn't doing. He doesn't want to be doing what he is doing, but it's not like he has a passion for something else. He feels stifled by his environment, but he is yet to face up to the fact that he is utterly, perfectly suited to the environment that he feels stifled by.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: When you read on in this book and feel the constrictions of these levels of society and then Ellen enters into it, you feel like there's a breath of air there at last.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known. He knew that the Countess Olenska had brought some of her possessions with her—bits of wreckage, she called them—and these, he supposed, were represented by some small slender tables of dark wood, a delicate lit­tle Greek bronze on the chimney-piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the discolored wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames. [...]

“How do you like my funny house?” she asked. “To me it's like heaven.” [...]

“You've arranged it delightfully,” he rejoined, alive to the flatness of the words, but imprisoned in the conventional by his consuming desire to be simple and striking.

“Oh, it's a poor little place. My relations despise it. But at any rate it's less gloomy than the van der Luydens'.”

The words gave him an electric shock, for few were the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy. Those privileged to enter it shivered there, and spoke of it as “handsome.” But suddenly he was glad that she had given voice to the general shiver. [...]

“Why—have you waited long? Mr. Beaufort took me to see a number of houses—since it seems I'm not to be allowed to stay in this one. [...] I've never been in a city where there seems to be such feeling against living des quartiers excentriques. What does it matter where one lives? I'm told this street is respectable.”

“It's not fashionable.”

“Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one's own fashions? But I suppose I've lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what you all do—I want to feel cared for and safe.” [...]

“But you'll explain these things to me—you'll tell me all I ought to know,” Madame Olenska continued, leaning forward to hand him his cup.

“It's you who are telling me; opening my eyes to things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see them.”

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: Well, she is painted as an exotic bird in this rather drab aviary of New York society so, needless to say, she simply shines by virtue of the fact that she is cosmopolitan, very wise in her way, beautiful in her way. She's never described as really beautiful, but her manner and her ease in the world, I think is what makes her so wonderful.

Gioia: Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862, into a family that could have stepped right out of the pages of The Age of Innocence.

Novelist and Wharton biographer, Louis Auchincloss, also hails from one of New York's old families. In fact, his relatives were acquaintances of Wharton and her family. Louis Auchincloss.

Auchincloss: They were the very inner circle of New York society. The famous Mrs. Astor of the 400 was the first cousin of her father's, but her mother was born a Rhinelander, that was, you know, that was one of New York's old families and they were related to everybody—everybody in that small world of course, I'm speaking of.

Gioia: Writer, Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: Edith Wharton knew all the ins and outs. She was brought up in this society. She knew every in and out of it. She was a Jones and the expression keeping up with the Joneses literally came from that family.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: Her mixture of detailed knowledge.

Spencer: Infinitely small things have to be done in a certain way.

Ives: Along with perspective on how it worked.

Spencer: Myriad customs.

Ives: If you had Roman punch at dinner, it meant you are going to have terrapin duck.

Copelland: After dinner, the men would remove themselves to have cigars and brandy in the gentlemen's library.

O'Rourke: He does not show up at the beginning of the opera, not because he does not much like opera, because it just is not the thing for young man to do.

Copeland: And the ladies would return to the drawing room for coffee.

Spencer: Little things like which dress you wore at four o'clock and what kind of flower you wore to a dance.

Ives: What can you expect of a young woman who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming out ball.

O'Rourke: Newland's mother still harks to expect to an era where gentlemen didn't smoke anywhere near ladies.

Ives: Those little things, and there are a million of them scattered through the book, make that world come absolutely alive because this is a woman who knew every inch of this.

Gioia: Louis Auchincloss.

Auchincloss: The tight little bow brownstone society that she described was very much a result of her own nostalgia because it is written after the First War and she was very much as many, many people of her generation were, were disillusioned and disgusted by the, the chaos that followed World War I, and manners and new things and jazz and blah, blah, blah.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke: So, Edith Wharton at the same time, she was talking about how fragile the human heart is and then how easily frustrated, how social convention can stifle our exotic and passionate and artistic urges, was also upholding the stodgy old civilization of New York and combating, in her peculiar sort of oblique way, the vulgarity that she'd seen growing in the Gilded Age when she was a girl and that she saw it growing even larger and more pronounced in the 1920s.

Gioia: Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: She's amazed, but she's not savage. She has respect for it and I think Newland Archer also had respect for it and that's why he can't kick it.

Gioia: Jay Cocks collaborated with Martin Scorsese to write the Oscar nominated screenplay for their 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence.

Jay Cocks.

Cocks: It's a very deep theme in her books about someone straining against the iron bounds of society, expectation, and convention, but she's a brilliant writer because she also understands the ironic strength of some of those conventions and expectations. She understands what frustrations and sacrifice can lead to and she also understands what good may come of it.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we are discussing The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

As he went out into the wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent, and May Welland the loveliest woman in it. He turned into his florist's to send her the daily box of lilies-of-the-valley which, to his confusion, he found he had forgotten that morning.

As he wrote a word on his card and waited for an envelope he glanced about the embowered shop, and his eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her—there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska; then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card out again, and left the empty envelope on the box.

“They'll go at once?” he inquired, pointing to the roses.

The florist assured him that they would.

Gioia: Newland recognizes is that it's inappropriate for an engaged man to send flowers to another woman. So he suddenly decides to send them anonymously. This is one of the first scenes in which we see Newland beginning to stray from the conventions of respectable society.

Novelist, Amy Tan.

Tan: I think for Newland Archer, it became gradually a decision as to whether he was going to play it safe. Where the rules and where he was going to fit in society were pretty clear, and he had to keep that up. Whereas there comes a moment, I think, where passion takes over and suddenly passion overrides all the rules; it may not lead to where you think.

Gioia: The Age of Innocence is suffused with sexual desire and longing, even though Newland's passion for Ellen is constantly defeated by the unbending rules of high society and his commitment to May.

Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: He's torn between, all his life, between these two women and he knows the one that he wants to be with, but there's no way to reach her because she has stepped out of the circle of innocence. And she's become, somebody said a “shady lady,” well, maybe she is, but she undoubtedly has a great freedom.

Gioia: Amy Tan.

Tan: The novel may be about a former old society, but I think it's still relevant to our lives today because we're all concerned that some point in our lives about belonging. We're especially concerned when we feel that we don't belong. When a group of people has not accepted us and you don't quite know why.

Copeland: Ellen Olenska comes from an exotic mysterious world outside...

Gioia: Stephanie Copeland.

Copeland: ...and she enters this cocoon, but because she has lived outside and picked up habits that are not acceptable, including leaving her husband and seeking a divorce from him, she is closed out. Very politely, always very politely, but the message was loud and clear.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

“May guessed the truth,” he said. “There is another woman—but not the one she thinks. [...]

“You are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.”

“Possible for either of us?” She looked at him with unfeigned astonishment. “And you say that—when it's you who've made it impossible?”

He stared at her, groping in blackness through which a single arrow of light tore its blinding way.

“I've made it impossible—?”

“You, you, you!” she cried, her lip trembling like a child's on the verge of tears. “Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing—give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage ... and to spare one's family the publicity, the scandal? And because my family was going to be your family—for May's sake and for yours—I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah,” she broke out with a sudden laugh, “I've made no secret of having done it for you!” [...]

The silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart. He did not move from his place, or raise his head from his hands; his hidden eyeballs went on staring into utter darkness.

“At least I loved you—” he brought out.

On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-corner where he supposed that she still crouched, he heard a faint stifled crying like a child's. He started up and came to her side.

“Ellen! What madness! Why are you crying? Nothing's done that can't be undone. I'm still free, and you're going to be.” He had her in his arms, her face like a wet flower at his lips, and all their vain terrors shrivelling up like ghosts at sunrise.

Gioia: Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: The person who defeats him is his little wife; I think she's one of the most wicked people I have ever read about. She seems very sweet and proper; she obeys every single thing that she's supposed to do.

Ives: May Welland seems to be the one of the great villains of America literature.

Spencer: She seems to me the old New York version of a Southern belle. She is conniving, she is ruthless.

Ives: Her manipulation of him and her passive aggression.

Spencer: She will lie, she will maneuver.

Ives: It's an extraordinary portrait of the villainy of innocence.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: May is, in a certain way, more wise than Newland because she knows from the start that this is the world they move in; that there're certain laws that you must observe and continues to observe them with her own inner seismograph for detecting any kind of tectonic straying from the central rules of this club.

Gioia: P.J. O'Rourke.

O'Rourke: I think it takes at least two readings to understand the importance of May. On first reading, especially if you are concentrating on it as a story of frustrated love, May Welland is furniture; she is just the doll other. On closer reading, May Welland becomes a much more important figure, particularly at the end of the book when we understand how much she really did understand about her husband. It may have been a boring and conventional society, but there are worse things in the world than boring convention and May Welland was one of those people that worked to keep these boring conventions together.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: Oddly enough, whenever I re-read The Age of Innocence, I launch into the book thinking that it is a book about an affair and it is actually a book about a marriage. And it always surprises me how that is. In fact this time when I was reading it, I thought of something that Somerset Maugham once said that any marriage, no matter how successful is more interesting than any affair, no matter how passionate, and I think that that applies to this book too.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

Ahead of him, in the winter night, loomed a big unlit house. As he drew near he thought how often he had seen it blazing with lights, its steps awninged and carpeted, and carriages waiting in double line to draw up at the curbstone. It was in the conservatory that stretched its dead-black bulk down the side street that he had taken his first kiss from May; it was under the myriad candles of the ball-room that he had seen her appear, tall and silver-shining as a young Diana.

Now the house was as dark as the grave, except for a faint flare of gas in the basement, and a light in one upstairs room where the blind had not been lowered.

Gioia: Jay Cocks.

Cocks: Edith Wharton had a remarkably lucid, fluid style, as if you were reading intimate pages in her own diary. The style had a purity and an immediacy that seemed to come from someone writing about something that they just seen the day before.

Ives: One of the things that I love about Edith Wharton, and it is going to sound really strange, is I love her paragraphing. I think she is one of the best paragraphers in all of literature.

Gioia: David Ives.

Ives: In the opening chapters of this book, every paragraph is beautifully modeled and it's laid in like a piece brownstone masonry to build this beautiful structure and the minute that Newland Archer meets Ellen, the paragraphing changes and it goes from paragraphs that are rounded at the end with a kind of little last quip to paragraphs that don't end, that have slightly run-on feeling. A paragraph will end with “Ellen sat down next to him and turned to him to speak,” so that suddenly there is this feeling of movement.

I find such artistry in that because she knows when depicting society to make paragraphs that are like blocks of limestone and when she is talking about two people who are about to fall in love as creating a sense of movement in it.

Gioia: Edith Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. The first time the fiction prize was ever given to a woman. By then she lived in France where she spent the final 26 years of her life. In 1937, she died of complications following a stroke. Wharton was buried in Versailles, France.

Alfred Molina reads from The Age of Innocence...

Since then there had been no further communication between them, and he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and the Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from The Age Innocence were by Alfred Molina. Excerpts from The Age of Innocence film score by Elmer Bernstein, used courtesy of Columbia Pictures. Excerpts from Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Seymour Lipton, used with permission of Newport Classic.

Excerpts from Dvorák's Four Romantic Pieces and Beethoven's piano trios used with permission of Naxos.

Special thanks to Betsy Anderson, Larry Cramin, Pepper Smith, Erika Koss, Adam Kampe and to our contributors: Louis Auchincloss, Jay Cocks, Stephanie Copeland, David Ives, P.J. O'Rourke, Elizabeth Spencer, and Amy Tan. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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