The Age of Innocence is a 1920 novel by American author Edith Wharton. It was her twelfth novel, and was initially serialized in 1920 in four parts, in the magazine Pictorial Review. Later that year, it was released as a book by D. Appleton & Company. It won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Wharton the first woman to win the prize. Though the committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, the judges, in rejecting his book on political grounds, "established Wharton as the American 'First Lady of Letters'".The story is set in the 1870s, in upper-class, "Gilded-Age" New York City. Wharton wrote the book in her 50s, after she had established herself as a strong author, with publishers clamoring for her work.
Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and designer. Wharton drew upon her insider's knowledge of the upper class New York "aristocracy" to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1996.
The Novelist who is faced with a simple problem of personal renunciation conceived as the theme of a tale has several anxious choices to make. But of these there are only two which seriously matter. They consist in the alternatives of intensive and expansive treatment. To separate the dominant issue from external circumstances and so to heighten it by this elimination of all that might come between the essential and the reader is one alternative; to build around the problem a fabric which shall give it a definite place in time and society is the other. Mrs Wharton has tried both methods. In Ethan Frome she presented a poignant theme in the most poignant manner possible to her. In The Age of Innocence she has essayed to give us two things, the personal problem and a picture of the New York social life of the seventies.
Her characters live in and are a part of this social life, and the determining factor in the book is less personal loyalty than the control exercised by that sense in the protagonists of the aggregate of individuals who go to make up their superficial life. Her hero is engaged to a lovely but unimaginative girl when he meets a woman, already married, who represents for him all that is beautiful and absorbing. Offered his freedom, he does not accept it. Married, and desperate with desire for the woman whom he loves and who loves him, he is on the point of sacrificing her to his love when the woman to whom he is married discovers herself to be enceinte. The planned dishonour is abandoned, and the tale is finished. Convention rather than humanity has conquered impulse.
Mrs. Wharton tries her best to make the story moving, but she is dealing with dead stuff and dead people. They lived in New York in the seventies, and nothing she can do will make them come alive again. They interest us as old letters, old newspapers interest us. Had the theme been treated intensively we cannot know what might have been the effect. We only know that in great novels we have no pervading sense of time, but only of the reality of the emotions about which we are reading. And when one of Mrs. Wharton's characters says to his father "You date" we know that he is only speaking the truth, and a more damning truth than he has any idea of. Because if characters date in a bad sense it means that they have been dead characters; and that is precisely what Newland Archer and his wife and his mistress have been.
The book is careful, studied, temperate, but it is dull with detail which does not create illusion. There is no illusion. The picture does not compose, and these three hearts do not stir us because they do not beat. They are puppets set in a period.
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