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Edith Wharton?s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Age of Innocence is a social satire, a bitter-sweet romance, bringing to life the grandeur and hypocrisy of the stuffy upper crust of 1870s New York. Rich, intriguing and beautifully written, the novel relates the mesmerizing story of a man caught between the opposite pulls of his conscience and his longing for freedom. Newland Archer is about to achieve every young man?s dream, as he is engaged to virginal socialite May Welland but soon finds himself utterly captivated by Ellen?s independence and her willingness to risk all, socially, by flouting convention. Faced with the harrowing choice?either to challenge or yield to social dictates that has ruled his entire life, Newland is in dilemma, should he marry the highly cultured May and repent in leisure and yearn ever after for the lost chance of love and fulfillment with Ellen.
A tale of thwarted love full of irony and surprise, struggle and acceptance, and filled with acute social observations and wonderful love scenes of terrible, inarticulate passion, this twentieth century classic gives enduring delight to the readers and remains unsurpassed in technical excellence.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born in New York in a wealthy elite family, and received private education from European governesses. In 1885 she married a Boston banker, older by twelve years. In spite of her successive nervous breakdowns she succeeded to write and eventually become an established writer. After her one great love affair, with the American journalist Morton Fullerton, in 1906-09, leading to her divorce from Wharton, Edith went over to France where she settled.
Among the author?s major works may be mentioned The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912). Edith Wharton?s stories depict wealthy New York society, but they emerge as books about human nature. Her recurring theme has been the conflict between social norms and individual longings. Her later novels?Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932)?offer a comparative study of the cultures of Europe and America.
Apart from this she wrote travelogues, poems, essays and an autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934).
The Age of Innocence (1920) is Edith Wharton?s Pulitzer-winning (in 1921) masterpiece, in which the author subverts the myth of so-called perfect marriage without any emotional bond. In this well-made novel, which is a portrait of the 1870s New York, Edith launches a sharp though indirect attack on the rigid conventionality of a section of New York society of her own times, which she knew intimately and well. Wharton makes a searching psychological study of the social behaviour of her characters. In this she shows the influence of Henry James who had been her literary mentor.
Newland Archer, an eligible handsome youth, and a rising attorney is engaged to the charming, sweet, innocent May Walland, and it is in the party that announces Archer?s engagement to May, that he meets Mary?s cousin Ellen, or Countess Ellen Olenska, the beautiful, artistic, unconventional and socially ostracized daughter of the Welland family who has returned home after going through the debacle of a marriage with a Polish aristocrat. Archer is immediately attracted towards Ellen, the would-be divorcee wife of a Count, an attraction that would soon develop into strong attachment. The wealthy scoundrel Julius too pays attention to Ellen. Archer, confused between the opposite pulls of social conventionality and personal longing, the assuring stability of May and the disorienting dangerous forbidden excitement of Ellen, hastily marries May only to realize his hopeless entrapment in a dull though stable marriage, and his painful longing for another relationship which can never be consummated. Archer fails to face the conflict between the social self and the private self, and thus comes to represent the essential schism of this kind of life.
The author probes here both the interior landscape of the characters? minds and the exterior world of their life. She exposes the hypocrisy of the real life lurking beneath the grandeur of perfect surfaces. The novel carries the sense of wasted life owing to one?s own fault. That Archer conforms to social conventions against the inclinations of his heart is because of his cowardice. He fails to act at the right moment, and as a result three lives are wasted.
The author superbly portrays the crippling comedy of clannish feelings and sentiments, as these lead to the frustration of individual longings through social taboos.
Wharton introduces a host of vivid and memorable characters, including the grand matriarch Mrs Manson Mingott, the womanizer Lawrence Lefferts, May?s delicate mother, Archer?s gossip-loving sister, et al., and places them in vivid scenes and locations. The novel finely captures the world of a rigidly conventional society in which money and manipulations mattered more than genuine human emotions, and thus people were trapped by the attraction of social respectability which they cannot ignore. After nearly a century it still remains fresh and relevant.