May 22 2011 3:00pm

Finding Romance in the Classics: Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence

The Age of InnocenceThey never knew what it meant to be tempted, but you did…

People always want to romanticize the past. We like to believe that love was different—more refined, more pure—before Bachelor-style fauxmances and Facebook relationship updates became de rigueur. But was it really?

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence explores these issues of love, desire, and betrayal against the backdrop of high society New York City in the 1870s. The novel centers on Newland Archer, a gentleman and a member of one of New York’s best families. When the story begins, Newland is engaged to May Welland, a pretty but dim young lady whose social status matches his own. But Newland’s respectable and well-planned marriage match is thrown into question with the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, a mysterious and beautiful woman who has fled from her abusive husband.

Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonThe Countess’ actions—her separation from her husband, her flouting of the upper class’ stifling codes of conduct—are scandalous to most of New York society, but Newland finds himself intrigued by her freedom of spirit. The two eventually fall into a secret love affair of hushed whispers and stolen moments (and yellow roses!). They long to be together, but the obligations of family and duty weight heavily upon them:

“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?”

Edith Wharton knew of what she wrote. Her own marriage was an unhappy one (one of her doctors even advised her to write fiction to relieve her nervous tension—good advice it seems); she eventually moved to France in 1908 and later obtained a divorce in 1913. She was BFFs with literary giants like Henry James and Sinclair Lewis and had various love affairs. Wharton was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale and in 1921 The Age of Innocence helped her become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Like the Countess Olenska, Wharton seems to have had no taste for arbitrary propriety, instead choosing to live her life as she saw fit.

Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess OlenskaThe 1993 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Martin Scorsese, stars Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska and a young Winona Ryder at May. Daniel Day Lewis (henceforth known as DDL because I cannot be expected to type his name over and over again) is young and dashing, if perhaps a smidge too serious. I didn’t imagine Newland Archer to be quite so emo when I was reading the novel, but his performance is generally very good. Pfeiffer and Ryder are both great as well; Pfeiffer has just the right blend of charisma and vulnerability, while Ryder effortlessly exudes May’s trusting naivety.

Scorsese, who might seem a strange choice for a period drama about rigid social rules and stifled passions, mostly gets it right with this adaptation. The movie takes itself very seriously (which is to be expected when you combine the Scors’ with DDL), but the Academy Award winning costumes are sumptuous and the art direction is gorgeous. There are montages of glittering jewels, lace handkerchiefs and crisp white gloves, and enough shots of fancy food to make you very, very hungry. The chemistry between DDL and Pfeiffer is as smokin’ hot as the shots of roaring fires that pop up over and over again throughout the film. Chaste hand holding and stolen kisses have never been so sexy—I actually had to fan myself when Newland pressed a kiss against the Countess’ bare wrist.

I could have done without the voiceover narration and many of the other directorial choices (quick inserts of written words, letter texts spoken directly to the camera, DDL superimposed over water in the final flashback montage), but the emotion of the film is pitch perfect. The stiff social rules of 1870’s New York are cruelly apparent and the heartbreak of Newland and Ellen’s thwarted love affair is palpable. As in the novel, May’s feelings largely remain a mystery to both Newland and the viewer until the final moments of the film, when the secret truth of the character comes to light.

The genius of Wharton’s Innocence (and of Scorsese’s adaptation) is that it cuts through the veneer of etiquette to reveal that Old New York society was plagued by the same desires and machinations, comprises and dashed hopes, as we are today. Their wealth, familial ties and manners do not shield any of the novel’s characters from heartbreak; rather, these things exacerbate that heartbreak, forcing people into preordained roles that, while proper, are ultimately hollow.

Despite our tendency to romanticize the past, reading and watching The Age of Innocence made me realize that our modern version of love might not be so bad after all. Sure, we’ve got fake celebrity romances and high divorce rates and sexting (the horror)…but at the end of the day we’re mostly allowed to love whoever we want, rich or poor, divorced or unmarried, Rockefeller or rock star. Things could definitely be worse – just ask Newland Archer.

Check out the trailer for The Age of Innocence below and lose yourself in the delicious angst of repressed passion (and DDL’s glorious mane):


Jill Slattery is an avid reader, writer and consumer of all things pop culture.  She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and a wonderful pooch named Albus Dumbledog. When she's not writing about romance she's busy writing about desserts over at the Dessert Patrol.

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Terri Brisbin
1. Terri Brisbin
Ohmigosh! I strive to write the sensuality in that scene too! When he peels back her glove and kisses her wrist, I can't breathe! It's so wonderful and scandalous and emotional...sigh...

Terri B
Terri Brisbin
2. Emily F
I LOVE this post, and I cannot believe that I haven't seen the adaptation yet! The quote you picked is fantastic. Even in an era of Many Crisp White Gloves, people are still dealing with the same old problems. Now that I think about it, Beaufort is definitely a 19th century Trump.

It's really too bad that the ending scene of the movie is that hilarious water-overlay flashback nonsense. I think this novel catapults from great to incredible in the last ten pages, and apparently the movie does not.

(And CHRIST, why did it take me that long to spell Scorsese??)
Carrie Strickler
3. DyslexicSquirrel
I have seen ths movie before (a couple of times, in fact) and I didn't know what it was called until now. Where would I be without my cable box telling me what's on and what it's called? lol
Terri Brisbin
4. BrooklynShoeBabe
Oh my goodness! Do you know how much I love The Age of Innocence, the book? I discovered it two years ago when I stumbled upon a U.K. coffee ad--Carte Noire (IIRC) where famous British actors read romantic scenes from classic and contemporary literature. Dominic West, of The Wire, read from The Age of Innocence. My heart melted. I devoured the book and then watched the movie. The movie was fine, and I just about died when Daniel Day Lewis kissed Michelle Pfieffer's shoe. *SIGH* I became an avid Edith Wharton fan from a coffee commercial. lol.
Lisa Cox
5. brontëgirl
Great post!

During the film . . . When the narrator says that Archer and May stayed at the Patroon House on their honeymoon, I could sense the rest of the audience remembering the earlier Patroon House scene and thinking, like me, "Oh no! Poor Archer!!!"

After the film . . .

Friend: That was a beautiful film.
Me: Yes it was.
Jill Slattery
6. JillSlattery
@Terri Brisbin...I know! It's incredible how sensual that scene is and refreshing to remember that sexiness doesn't always have to involve...well, sex!

@Emily F...Thank you! I love your comparison of Beaufort to Trump, which is definitely spot on. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the last scene of the film, which definitely jumped the shark for me.

@DyslexicSquirrel...Ha, I love that you have seen the movie a few times without ever realizing what it was? Did you enjoy it?

@BrooklynShoeBabe...I LOVE that story! That is so amazing that Wharton's words were powerful enough to jump out of the coffee commercial (LOL!) and grab you and make you read the novel! Great literature for the win!

@brontegirl...Thanks so much! That scene definitely made me cringe. OH tragic.
Terri Brisbin
7. kitkat28876
Agreed on all counts. Especially - voiceovers are the WORST!! If they are not ironic they are just sheer laziness. I know everyone loves Shawshank Redemption, but the endless voiceovers about how birds symbolize freedom or whatever make me want to do serious damage to myself.
Carrie Strickler
8. DyslexicSquirrel
@JillSlattery: I did! I kept meaning to look it up and never did. Now I don't have to.

I did the same thing with Legend, when I was younger. It use to come on ever President's Day. Why, I don't know, but I watched it every year and had no clue what it was for the longest time lol
Naz Keynejad
9. nazkey
So I promised I'd comment over here and look! Here I am!

I adore Edith Wharton. She's the 20th Century equivalent of Jane Austen for me. And like Austen, I think a lot of times, her books are dismissed as pure romance novels when in fact, they are often very astute social commentary, quietly poking fun at their respective worlds. Granted, Austen does this with a greater sense of humor than Wharton and her novels generally end on a happy note, but they both approach societal inequities, blatant hypocrisy and - gasp - feminism the same way.

It's interesting that you don't like the voiceovers. I actually do, because I feel it's a very clever way to show that there is a lot more to the story than just the romance. Newland's desperation is echoed through the voice overs. Granted DDL (I'm not gonna type his name either) is a superb actor and his portrayal in the movie is sublime, but there are certain aspects of the character that are just … richer? deeper? … when you hear it through the voiceover. My favorite voiceover sequence is this one about Newland resigning himself to the woman he married:

"There was no use trying to emancipate a wife who hadn't the dimmest notion that she was not free."

And many, many others like it that explain the strict rules of society ("It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get
up and walk awayfrom one gentleman in order to seek the company
of another. But the Countess did not observe this rule."), without which, I don't think the movie and/or Newland's predicament would have resonated as much.

I remember reading a critical review of the film where the critic said there was just so much furniture in all the rooms and the wardrobe was so constricting, etc., completely disregarding Scorsese's meticulous attention to all of those details. The critic joked that in the scene when DDL opens the window and takes deep breaths is because he's suffocating from all the clutter and I thought: EXACTLY. Except, it's not the clutter of "things," as much as the clutter of society that's suffocating him.

Thank you so much for writing this. I'm THRILLED that I now have someone to talk to about one of my favorite authors!
Jill Slattery
10. JillSlattery
@nazkey While there are definitely romance elements to Wharton's "Age of Innocence" she is clearly doing SO much more than just telling a love story. Her social commentary is so sharp and so perfectly drawn that people do the novel a serious injustice if they dismiss it for its romantic elements. But I'm obviously preaching to the choir. ;-) As for the voiceovers, I totally see your point and I think that's exactly why they were used. But I just felt like they were jarring because a.)they weren't established as a device in the first minute of the film and b.) the voiceover voice was female. While the POV of the novel isn't exactly Newland's, I think maybe the movie POVs would have worked better if the voice had been male. I also just dislike voiceover narration in general. I think that there are always elements and details that you will miss out on if you haven't read the book but I don't think voiceover solves the problem. But like I said, I totally get why they were used and why people would like them. I just felt like they were awkward sauce.
Terri Brisbin
11. Wharton Fan
I ADORE Age of Innocence and the movie turned me on the to book. I still haven't gotten around to finishing it or House of Mirth, but I love the way Wharton writes. The passion between DDL and Pfeiffer is so palpable. And the moments where they touch ie he kisses her shoe (swoon), unbuttons her glove and necks with her wrist (gasp) and buries his face in her lap while embracing her (faint) is so. . .so magical. So sensual without gratuity. This is the romance of the past. While I agree that people today are generally free to love, it's this tortured desire that I love.
Terri Brisbin
12. Aquaria
The thing with the voiceover in this particular film is that there are some subtleties that most moviegoers would not pick up on that needed to be explained. It helps to know that the Beauforts are so disgustingly rich that they have a huge room they use only once a year. It drops us right into a world that most of us can't fathom. It helps to know that women didn't cross rooms to talk with men, that Ellen is being quite shocking in her behavior when she does it. We'd never know that unless you had people in the background raising their eyebrows and making a scene about her making a scene. And that wouldn't have fit in with the movie's theme of the hieroglyphics that these people used, never saying or doing things directly, but only in code.

And how else is a director to get in that quote about Americans wanting to leave their entertainments even more than they want to get to them? That's a gem of a line, so piercing in its insight that it takes the breath away.
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