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The Age of Innocence is a novel by Edith Wharton. Originally published in 1920, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

The story follows an upper class couple living in New York in the 1870's. Newland Archer is a lawyer who is engaged to May Welland. While he does love her, Newland ends up doubting his choice when he meets her cousin Countess Ellen Olenska. Though she has been living abroad in Europe, it is rumored that Ellen has returned to New York after leaving a bad marriage. The worldly Ellen is the exact opposite of the well-bred May. Newland soon becomes infatuated with her and begins questioning whether he should get married to May.

In 1993, the book was adapted into a film. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder. Scorcese calls the film his most violent film. From a Certain Point of View, it certainly is.

Needs More Love.


The Age of Innocence provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the movie, Ellen Olenska is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. However at several points in the book, she is described as unattractive, although the perception of her looks seems dependent on Newland Archer's feelings towards her--she is described as beautiful just as often.
  • Adaptation Dye Job: In the book, the "perfect" May is repeatedly described as blonde and blue-eyed, but in the movie, she is played by the dark-haired Winona Ryder. Similarly, the family outcast Ellen is dark-haired, but played by the blonde Michelle Pfeiffer.
  • Anti-Hero: Newland Archer is arguably a Type One.
  • At the Opera Tonight: The film's opening scenes, where Ellen returns to New York society and she and Archer, happily engaged to May, meet. Later in the film, they meet at a play whose plot mirrors their situation. And towards the end, the now-married May and Newland attend. This is the most significant scene for several reasons--several years later, the situation is now completely reversed--Newland is suffering in his loveless marriage to May and longing for Ellen. Meanwhile, the heretofore clueless May is showing hints of her scheming--she's wearing her wedding dress, something she hasn't done since her wedding day, despite the fact that it's a tradition in New York society--a not-so subtle attempt at reminding Archer of his marriage vows (though of course, she never says so outright).
  • Batman Gambit: The way May gets rid of Ellen.
  • Betty and Veronica: The love triangle between May (The Betty), Newland Archer, and Ellen (The Veronica). He loves Ellen, but May gets him.
  • Christmas Cake: Arthur's sister Janey, said to be nearing the age where "grey poplin and no attendants would be more appropriate" for her wedding, rather than the white gown and elaborate ceremonies meant for younger brides.
  • Color Coded for Your Convenience: In the book, the "perfect" May is blonde, while "bad girl" Ellen is brunette.
  • Domestic Abuse: It's strongly hinted that Ellen's husband, Count Olenski, was abusive and unfaithful to her.
  • Double Standard: Played with. New York's high society shuns Ellen for leaving her husband, even as they condemn his behavior that led to this. Also, at least two characters who are unfaithful to their wives condemn another character for his infidelity, because his mistress isn't of the proper social class.
  • The Ghost: Ellen's husband, Count Olenski, who is frequently referred to but never seen. A few other characters as well--Annie Ring, etc.
    • Ellen herself, at the end, who is never seen again after the final dinner at Newland and May's, though she's often alluded to.
    • May also, aside from a few brief flashes in the montage covering the subsequent 20-something years afterwards. In fact, she's a literal example of this trope, as The Narrator informs us that she died at some point during this time.
  • Hidden Depths: May, who has quite a crafty nature hidden under her vapid exterior. And touchingly, was apparently the only one to have compassion for Newland as he spent years pining away for Ellen.
  • The Narrator: Never shuts up.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: May comes across as vapid, clueless, and superficial, but as the story progresses, it's hinted that she's known all along about Newland's feelings for Ellen, and finally confirmed with the stunt she pulls to get rid of Ellen once and for all.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: May suspects Newland has feelings for someone else (though she doesn't know it's Ellen) and offers to release him from their engagement. Ellen gets a familial version when she cuts all ties to Newland and returns to Europe, after May tells her she's pregnant.
  • What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: The book is teeming with examples. The "perfect" May is blonde and blue-eyed, the "bad girl" Ellen is dark-haired, and is often described as wearing pink or red--but is later seen in dull colors as she and Archer separate. Most notably, on the night before Archer intends to consummate his affair with Ellen, he and May attend the opera--and May wears her wedding dress. The symbolism is cranked Up to Eleven when the train of the dress is caught in the carriage wheel and left torn and muddy. Meanwhile, the film opens with multiple shots of blooming flowers concealed behind a black piece of lace.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The heart of the story is Ellen and Archer's emotional affair. The irony is that everyone in New York society, including his wife, believes the relationship is physical as well, the one things they have either refrained from or been unable to achieve. And earlier in the story, we learn Ellen left her husband because he was unfaithful to her (it's implied his lovers included men as well as women) and that she herself fled into the arms of another man. And several characters are revealed to have mistresses.
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