National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
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)

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. Study Goethe's Faust Part 1 or Gounod's Faust. In these works, Faust is a male character. Rewrite the play or part of the opera, changing Faust into a female character. Perform parts of the revised play for an audience. Hold a panel discussion on what aesthetic choices the students made when revising the story. Discuss whether any of Wharton's female characters have Faustian qualities and whether Wharton hints at such a revision.
  2. Collect a list of all the artistic works referenced in the novel. Have students find copies or recordings of these works. Create a classroom exhibit including these works, with a short description of where each work is cited in the novel, how it relates to the story, and why Wharton chose to draw on it. Have students give oral presentations on each piece of art.
  3. Search the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its website (www.metmuseum.org). Have students pull together a collection of images that Newland and Ellen might have viewed. Imagine they are aspiring artists who visit the museum. Include descriptive text panels detailing the images. Create a gallery show of the work and invite other classes to view your exhibit.
  4. Decorate a room for Ellen, who prefers a style according to European tastes rather than New York or American trends. Pay close attention to such elements as furniture, colors, artwork, and décor, using clippings from various magazines and catalogs, original sketches, paint swatches, and samples of art. You may also wish to juxtapose the décor of this room with one that would reflect May's more conventional style.
  5. By the 1930s, Paris had become the home of many expatriate American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. cummings, and Gertrude Stein. Like Edith Wharton, Ellen Olenska leaves America for France. Imagine you are an expatriate living in France. Write letters home to a family member or friend describing your new environment. Alternately, create a journal with daily entries logging your activities. Exhibit your letters and journals at a local bookstore.
  6. The Age of Innocence was published in 1920-not long after World War I ended, and the same year women obtained the right to vote. Conduct research on the time period and, using this information, create a timeline of the period. You may want to partner with other students and each focus on a different topic: historical, artistic, or political events.
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