The Pulitzer Project: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921)

the pulitzer project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! I’ve just recently finished reading The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, the recipient of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.

This award was quite controversial, because the Pulitzer Jury did not actually recommend this book as the winner. The Jury discussed Sinclair Lewis’ book Main Street, but the chairman deemed it to be too vicious and vengeful. Instead, he proposed giving “no award” because he said “All the novels I have read recently are lacking in style, workmanship. I cannot vote a prize to any of them.” However, the Board disagreed and decided by a split vote to award The Age of Innocence, which was had been very intentionally passed over by the Jury. Although the public was outraged at the time, I think The Age of Innocence has stood the test of time, and I found it a worthy recipient of the Prize.


A Brief Summary*: This book follows Newland Archer, a young man in New York’s high society. Newland is to be engaged to May Welland when May’s cousin, Ellen Ollenska, arrives in New York followed by scandal and gossip. Newland becomes intrigued by Ellen, “who flouts New York society’s fastidious rules. As Newland’s admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.”

Fun Fact: It is thought that the title of the book was inspired by Sir Joshua Reynold’s 1785 painting, The Age of Innocence.

The Age of Innocence ?1788 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

Setting: New York City

Time Period: 1870s – 1900s

Review: I found this book much more enjoyable than my first attempt at reading Edith Wharton earlier this year (I read Ethan Frome). The characters were much more human and fully developed than in Ethan Frome. Also, unlike the previous two winners of the Pulitzer, I didn’t think this book was too didactic or over-the-top pushing any type of agenda. Instead, I found The Age of Innocence a smart social commentary that examines the constraints of society in the 1870s. It’s a lovely time period, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the outings, opera, and houses.

I especially liked Ellen, who is a tragic but powerful figure; she rebukes the rules of society and has to live with the consequences.(It seems like Ta-Nehisi Coates really liked her too!) I think she is one of the original bad-ass feminists. I have even been thinking a little about whether she helped lay the foundation for the stream of “manic-pixie-dream” girls that have flooded literature and movies today. I don’t know a lot about this trope, but I think Ellen is more human and fully realized than a stereotype. I have a hunch that I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.

NYTimes Book Review: Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Maybe Ellen Olenska from “The Age of Innocence,” who so understands the tragic limitations of the world, who understands that there is gravity in human relations. “Oh, my dear,” she tells Newland Archer after he proposes flight to another life. “Where is that country?”

I wrestled with whether or not I liked the epilogue for the past week, but I think it works, even if it is not ideal. Without giving away any spoilers, the epilogue flashes forward about twenty-five years and shifts from a very narrow third-person POV to a much wider one. While it threw me off, I think it tied everything together and gave me a lot to think about after I closed the book. However, I don’t think I would call myself an Edith Wharton fan, and I am looking forward to getting through this decade of the Pulitzer winners (is that a terribly harsh thing to say?)

I’d recommend this book to people who liked Anna Karenina but wished there was just a slightly less tragic ending, who like reading books that take place in New York City, and who are always looking for books that realistically portray relationships and the constraints of society.


Additional Resources:

13 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921)

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