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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)

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis—that is, an assertion—about the novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. The narrator is an omniscient, unnamed narrator, who is not always objective. Often the narrator’s ironic comments about New York are so subtly woven within the story that it may be easy to miss them. Find examples in the opening chapters where this narrator comments on New York society. Explain how the narrator contributes, by using these examples, to the construction of the story.
  2. In Chapter 9, Newland considers sending May yellow roses instead of the lilies. He then sends roses to Ellen because “they did not look like [May]—there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.” By the novel’s end, is there any sense that Newland has sent the wrong flowers to both May and Ellen? In other words, does an inaccurate view of the flowers parallel his inaccurate view of both women, especially his wife?
  3. Explain the following statement in light of what happens in the novel: “Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favors divorce—our social customs don’t” (Chapter 12)
  4. In Chapter 29, Newland tells Ellen that he wants to take her to a world “where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.” Does such a “country” exist? Do you agree with Wharton scholar Louis Auchincloss, who claims, in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Age of Innocence, “The only way that Ellen and Archer can convert their love into a thing of beauty is by renunciation”?
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