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The Age of Innocence is a novel written by Edith Wharton

Character

  • Newland Archer - The novel's protagonist. Archer is a wealthy young lawyer married to the beautiful debutante May Welland. He is in love, however, with May's cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who represents to him the freedom missig from the suffocating environment of the New York aristocracy. Archer is torn between his duty to May and to his family, and his passion for Ellen. In the end, he remains faithful to his wife and comes to be known in society as a philanthropist and civic figure.
  • Countess Ellen Olenska - May's cousin and Mrs. Manson Mingott's granddaughter. Ellen was educated and raised in Europe. There, she married a Polish count, who cheated on her and prompted her to leave him. Upon her return to New York family, she hopes to be reintegrated to American life, but she finds only judgmentality and stifling mores. Her behavior is deemed too unorthodox for her to fit in to Old New York. To Archer, however, she is free and truly alive, her own person.
  • May Welland - The dewy-eyed and artless young thing who marries Archer. May appears to be unassailably innocent. Over time, Archer comes to see her as the living embodiment of New York society: incapable of thinking on her own, conditioned to act as she is expected. Despite her apparent innocence, May is not as naïve as Newland thinks. However, she remains a loyal wife even after she suspects that Newland is having an affair with Countess Olenska.
  • Mrs. Manson Mingott - Grandmother to May and Ellen, Mrs. Mingott is a fat and fiery old aristocratic lady who wields great influence over the New York clan. While her moral standards are irreproachable, she has some unorthodox social views. She insists on family solidarity and remains confident in Ellen, supporting her financially when she leaves New York to return to Europe.
  • Henry and Louisa van der Luyden - The descendants of pre-Revolutionary Dutch aristocracy, this elderly couple is the last word in social authority. They are last in a long line of powerful social leaders. Very quiet and non-adventurous people, they are rarely seen in public and only rarely invite guests to their solemn Madison Avenue mansion.
  • Julius Beaufort - Little is known about this British banker's past, but it is widely rumored that he left Europe after some shady business deals. With his elaborate annual balls, Beaufort is one of the most important and lavish hosts of New York entertainment. Following a scandalous business failure, he is swiftly exiled from good society.
  • Mrs. Archer and Janey Archer - Mother and sister of Archer, these two women act almost like sisters. Somewhat socially timid, they love to gossip, grow ferns, and make lace. While they are devoted to Archer, they are nonetheless frequently shocked by his social views.
  • Lawrence Lefferts - Widely considered to be the arbiter of good taste and moral values, Lefferts is also a huge gossip and an unfaithful husband. There are suspicions that he courted Countess Olenska soon after her arrival and was soundly rejected.
  • Sillerton Jackson - An elderly gentleman and good friend of the Archer family. Jackson is the unofficial archivist of all New York gossip and family history.
  • Medora Manson - The eccentric old aunt of Ellen's, Medora raised her after the deaths of Ellen's parents. A penniless itinerant, she is repeatedly widowed, and is tolerated by society only because of her family connections.
  • Ned Winsett - The bohemian journalist friend of Archer. Ned Winsett is one of the few people with whom Archer can really converse. He sees him as both an emblem of social freedom and its immense costs.
  • Mrs. Lemuel Struthers - Although as heir to a shoe polish fortune Mrs. Struthers is considered common, she becomes a popular hostess known for her artistic gatherings.

Plot

Newland Archer couldn't be more pleased with his recent engagement to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However, his world is thrown upside down by the sensational arrival of May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Recently returned to America after separating from her husband, a philandering Polish count, Countess Olenska shocks the staid New York aristocracy with her revealing clothes, carefree manners, and rumors of adultery. Because the Countess's family, headed by the powerful Mrs. Manson Mingott, have chosen to reintroduce her into good society, Archer and May feel it necessary to befriend her. As Archer comes to better know the Countess, he begins to appreciate her unconventional views on New York society. Meanwhile, Archer becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fianceé, May. He begins to see her as the manufactured product of her class: polite, innocent, and utterly devoid of personal opinion and sense of self. The Countess Olenska soon announces her intention of divorcing her husband. While Archer supports her desire for freedom, he feels compelled to act on behalf of the Mingott family and persuade Ellen to remain married. At a friend's cottage near Hudson, Archer realizes that he is in love with Ellen. He abruptly leaves the next day for Florida, where he is reunited with May and her parents, who are there on vacation. There, he presses May to shorten their engagement. May becomes suspicious and asks him if his hurry to get married is prompted by the fear that he is marrying the wrong person. Archer reassures May that he is in love with her. Back in New York, Archer calls on Ellen, and Archer admits that he is in love with her. Just then, a telegram arrives from May, announcing that her parents have pushed forward the wedding date. After their wedding and honeymoon in Europe, Archer and May settle down to married life in New York. Over time, Archer's memory of Ellen fades to a wistful image. But on vacation in Newport, he is reunited with her, and Ellen promises not to return to Europe as long as she and Newland do not act upon their love for each other. Back in New York, Archer learns that Count Olenski wants his wife to return to him and that Ellen has refused. After the stroke of her grandmother, Ellen returns to New York to care for her. She and Archer agree to consummate their affair. But suddenly, Ellen announces her intention to return to Europe. May throws a farewell party for Ellen, and after the guests leave, May announces to Archer that she is pregnant and that she told Ellen her news two weeks earlier. Twenty-six years pass. In that time, the Archers have had three children and May has died from pneumonia. Now Archer's son convinces him to travel to France. There, his son arranges to visit the Countess Olenska at her Paris apartment. However, at the last minute Archer sends his son alone to visit her, content instead to live with his memories of the past.

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