The Age of Innocence: Chapters 1-13

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The Age of Innocence: Chapters 1-13

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1Donna828
Modificato: Ott 14, 2011, 1:09pm

From Wikipedia...The Age of Innocence is a novel by Edith Wharton published in 1920, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize— the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. ...The Age of Innocence centers on an upper-class couple's impending marriage, and the introduction of a woman plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness...

"On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York."

And we're off! Please keep in mind that this is a spoiler thread. Read at your own risk!

***The thread for discussion of Chapters 14 - 24 can be found here.***

2Citizenjoyce
Ott 10, 2011, 4:42pm

First of all, I was very annoyed at all the talking during the opera. I guess the elite came to be seen, not to experience culture. That must be a foreshadowing of Wharton's later comments about the devaluation of art and intellect and the valuation only of pedigree in New York society of that time.
I thought I was so clever to see this as an anthropological study of the New York tribe It probably wasn't until at least the second mention of anthropology that I realized the idea was not my own but had been perfectly planted by Wharton and continued through to the end of the book.

3Donna828
Ott 12, 2011, 1:37pm

I love your astute observations, Joyce. The opera wasn't about the music or presentation of a play...it was about seeing others and being seen by them.

I found this information online and thought it was interesting enough to post. I especially liked the comparison of vehicles to modern days...

The social importance of opera-going plays an especially significant role in The Age of Innocence. Wharton notes that New York City's Metropolitan Opera House was intended to "compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals." The type of carriage waiting outside signified the owner's wealth and social position. Traveling in a private brougham, a landau, or a Brown coupé can be compared to driving a luxury sportscar, a minivan, or a jeep—the mode of transport indicating economic status and family size as well as personal taste.

During the Gilded Age, social classes in New York City became increasingly stratified. Money mattered, but the way a family made its fortune—and how long they had possessed it—counted most of all.

A strict dress code applied to both men and women for evening engagements. For women, even the colors and textures of their dresses were coded. Ellen Olenska's clothes and accessories reflect her unconventional European taste. At the opera, she wears a diamond headdress and a dark blue velvet gown with a clasp under her bosom. This "Josephine look" or Empire waist contrasted with the plunging necklines covered by lace that most fashionable American women wore.


I hope this isn't too much information!

4Citizenjoyce
Ott 12, 2011, 4:37pm

Good addition, Donna. Didn't Wharton say something about how convenient those coupe were, that one could just hop into any old one and save time and inconvenience? As to the strict dress code, how many times was Ellen Olenska's black coming out dress mentioned with dismay? Twelve years later they were still scandalized by that dress. Again this shows how an anthropological study of this New York tribe could be as amazing as one done of any quaint Amazonian or South Sea island tribe.

5brenzi
Ott 12, 2011, 7:08pm

>4 Citizenjoyce: Didn't Wharton say something about how convenient those coupe were, that one could just hop into any old one and save time and inconvenience?

Yes she does Joyce, on the novel's first page: "To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy."

What struck me from the very first page was how easily (and well) Wharton established time and place. I felt very much as if I knew these people and this era right from the beginning. And yes Donna, I think Ellen's dress make her stand out immediately to the rest of the opera goers. You just didn't wear that kind of thing in NYC in 1870. At least not if you were part of the upper crust. It's interesting how Wharton deftly skewers the class and people she grew up as a part of.

6cushlareads
Ott 13, 2011, 3:50am

Hi Bonnie, Joyce and Donna - I've just downloaded the book after I saw Bonnie's 5 star review (I've been meaning to read it for aaaaages). Is there a rough timetable for the group read? I'll try to catch up.

7LauraBrook
Ott 13, 2011, 11:23am

Donna, thanks for the link over here. Hello to all! This is one of my favorite books, and I'll try to catch up to join in with you. I've got a couple of books about this book/time period, so I'll try to read those, or at the very least flip through for pertinent information. Also, I'll try to locate my college notes if for no other reason than my own curiosity.

8Donna828
Ott 13, 2011, 7:20pm

>6 cushlareads:: Cushla, the only timetable is to read it in October; however, my hope is that those that don't get to it this month will still post on the three threads I've set up. In my mind, there is no time limit on group reads!

>7 LauraBrook:: Hi Laura, I'm glad the link worked. Let us know if you find your notes. It would be fun to see what you thought of it then compared to now.

9AnneDC
Ott 14, 2011, 11:57am


>2 Citizenjoyce: Ha ha Joyce, I love that the opera talking annoys you even though you aren't there. That's truly entering the world of the novel.

I agree the role of the opera is just another example of how the arts are a way to establish status and not valued for their own sake. (maybe a little like the way some people nowadays buy "the right" books with no intention of ever reading them. Not LTers, of course, we intend to read them all.) Later on Wharton describes how the people who are socially daring enough to consort with writers and artists, like Catherine Mingott and Julius Beaufort, are iliterate and uninterested in the arts, whereas the Archers value art and literature but are afraid of mixing with actual artists and writers.

This sentence about the opera cracked me up.

She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me, since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions around which his life was moulded..."

I have now finished the first 13 chapters and am enjoying it immensely. This is a reread for me--I read it for the first time back in early 90s either just before or just after seeing the film version. At the time it was the only Edith Wharton I had ever read.

10cushlareads
Ott 14, 2011, 12:00pm

Thanks Donna - I'll get cracking now!

11Donna828
Ott 14, 2011, 1:08pm

Anne, I am always surprised about the humor that Wharton incorporates in much of her writing, although I found little to smile about in Ethan Frome.

Cushla, the chapters are short. You'll be caught up in no time.

Please note: I've posted a thread to the continued discussion for chapters 14 -24 in message #1 to make it easier to find.

12billiejean
Ott 14, 2011, 4:02pm

#9> That quote totally cracked me up! There is a lot of humor in this book, and I am enjoying it. I do think that Archer is paying attention to the Opera as he has a particular scene that he likes here at the 13th chapter.

I have been meaning to read this book for a long, long time. Thanks, Donna, for setting this up! :)

13Nancy618
Ott 14, 2011, 4:25pm

#9 and #12> I wholeheartedly agree with both of you -- that sentence is hilarious! I meant to write that down before I took the book back, but of course I forgot! So thanks for posting it, Anne. :-) I think that was my favorite sentence in the whole book! And I'm writing it down now.....

14Soupdragon
Ott 15, 2011, 3:24am

Thanks for pointing me to this thread, Donna and for the final push towards reading Edith Wharton. Now I've started Age of Innocence, I can't think what took me so long. I've just finished chapter three and am loving all that Austenesque attention to social detail!

15Citizenjoyce
Ott 15, 2011, 1:08pm

I too loved the sentence, Anne. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions around which his life was moulded..." I guess this was the first clue that this was to be an anthropological study. Of course, most members of a tribe would find their conventions natural, it's only we onlookers who see them as the random constructs that they are.

And yes, I guess it does show my total immersion that I was so annoyed by the talking. It's very easy to be immersed in this Wharton.

16cushlareads
Ott 17, 2011, 2:24pm

I'm in Chapter 9, and loving it - and highlighting quite a few sentences on the ipad Kindle. I'll be back when I'm not at risk of spoilers on this thread...

17elkiedee
Ott 19, 2011, 8:16pm

I was amused and displayed by the mention ih Chapter 12 of the drawing room as somewhere where books are supposed to be out of place - Ellen has them scattered around - and her belief that her family dislike the literary associations of the area of the city where she is living (in fact they just don't like the fact that it's not rich enough).

18Cait86
Ott 20, 2011, 7:23pm

I'm about 8 chapters in now, and loving this book! I read Ethan Frome several years ago, and this is certainly a different reading experience.

>14 Soupdragon: - I'm finding The Age of Innocence to be very similar to Austen as well - different time and country, obviously, but that same critique of customs and class, and the same sarcastic sense of humour.

19ronincats
Modificato: Ott 21, 2011, 12:18am

I've just finished Chapter 13 and have two comments so far. One is a crystalline sentence that leapt out at me--"The bare vaulting of the trees along the Mall was ceiled with lapis lazuli, and arched above snow that shone like splintered crystals." Chapter 10

And the other is the irony that in all the discussion of NY society's indifference, if you will, to artists, that that is what Wharton became and did with her life, so her discussion of it here is certainly double-edged.

I will also add that I am reading the New Riverside Edition which suffers from a surfeit of footnotes. While I appreciate information about artists and writers mentioned, to footnote such words as "cameo" and "satin" seems a little extreme and not a little injurious to the smooth proceeding of the story.

20gennyt
Modificato: Ott 21, 2011, 3:18am

#19 My copy is a Virago Modern Classics edition, with no footnotes. I'm sure there are things that I missed as a result, but - perhaps because of the way Wharton presents this as a kind of anthropological study, and comments on the conventions and customs objectively - I didn't feel the need for any annotation while reading it (certainly not to have words like 'satin' explained!). It is clever using the character of Ellen, a 'foreigner' to the New York society mores, as a catalyst requiring those customs to be spelled out for her benefit and reflected on by Archer, and thus made clear to the reader who is even more a 'foreigner' to those ways and times than Ellen was.

21Donna828
Ott 21, 2011, 6:27pm

Welcome newest readers and posters... BJ, Nancy, Dee, Luci, Cait, Roni, and Genny. I'm loving the quotes that have been quoted and the comments that have been made. Hearing everyone's take on the book makes it a richer experience for all.

I'm getting back into The Age of Innocence after reading Summer for my class. It is a very different type of read which I also recommend... more on the order of Ethan Frome with a clueless female protagonist.

I'll be posting on the next thread after finishing Chapter 24.

22souloftherose
Ott 23, 2011, 12:48pm

#9 That's a brilliant sentence :-)

I'm still at the beginning of the book (although at least I have finally started reading now!) and I was a bit confused by the second sentence:

"Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy."

I had to read this through several times - what does the phrase "above the Forties" mean? I've googled it, but it just brings up the above sentence. Sorry if I'm being dim.

Anyway, back to the book.

23souloftherose
Ott 23, 2011, 12:59pm

And another sentence which caught my eye in Chapter 4:

"The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned out foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon."

What a visual image that is! Poor woman.

24Soupdragon
Ott 23, 2011, 1:43pm

I wondered what the phrase "above the forties" meant too. Maybe someone with an edition with footnotes will be able to help.

Wharton can certainly come up with a great turn of phrase. I liked the description of Twenty Third street as an area of "small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and people who wrote".

25elkiedee
Modificato: Ott 23, 2011, 1:55pm

NYC streets are numbered, and it means above (and north of ) Forty-Ninth Street. The thirties are the old meatpacking district and areas which were probably quite industrial and/or working class at the time - they're now some of the more budget hotels but very handy for Grand Central Station - we were getting trains to and from Canada when we stayed there - and Macy's. I think above the forties must have been where people of the social class featured in TAoI even considered living at the time.

26Donna828
Modificato: Ott 23, 2011, 2:17pm

>22 souloftherose:: Heather, that's not a "dim" question at all. Perhaps Roni, with her footnotes, can answer it better than me. "Above the Forties" I believe refers to the uptown (?) location of the new Opera House in New York City. Location was extremely important to social structure in that time. I found this in my lovely 'new' reference book by Hermione Lee (Pg. 56 in Edith Wharton.):

"The battles for social dominance also took place in the cultural realm. The Age of Innocence, set in the early 1870's, anticipates the supplanting of the old Academy of Music, founded in 1854, with its eighteen carefully guarded boxes for the "aristocracy," by the new Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street, with its three tiers of thirty-six boxes each, funded by the powerful new rich. Two years after the Metropolitan opened in 1883, the Academy closed its doors."


>23 souloftherose:: Poor woman indeed. I love EW's intricate way of saying that the family matriarch had gotten fat in her old age!

Here is what Sparknotes had to say about Catherine (Singer) Mingott:

"Chapter 4 opens with one of the most humorous character sketches in the novel. The immensely large Mrs. Manson Mingott is an intriguing character to Archer because of her slightly unorthodox living arrangement and her candid way of speaking. Because of her impeccable moral character and high societal status, her free style of conversation does not scandalize others or disrupt the given social standards. As such, she can easily get away with making some perceptive and occasionally critical insights into the society of Old New York."


ETA: I knew someone would come to the rescue while I was checking my sources. Thank you Dee and Luci.

27ronincats
Ott 23, 2011, 2:28pm

My footnote is not about "above the Forties" which does refer to street numbers as others have said, but to the "new Opera House".

Resentful of the small number of boxes at the Academy of Music, newly moneyed New Yorkers built the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. Its opening dealt a serious blow to the Academy of Music. No longer able to compete, the latter closed its doors in 1886, the manager lamenting his inability "to fight Wall Street." By mentioning both opera houses, Wharton suggests the extraordinary transformation of New York in the 1870s. Society changed from a closely knit and modestly wealthy group of New Yorkers who could trace their ancestry to the first Dutch settlers of Manhattan to the "new people," such as the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans and Rockefellers, who were made fabulously rich by industry, commerce, and finance.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, apropos the Wall Street quote, right?

28Soupdragon
Modificato: Ott 24, 2011, 3:07am

Ah, of course! Thank you, Luci, Donna and ronicats. Interesting about the Metropolitan Opera House and the power of Wall Street!

29souloftherose
Ott 23, 2011, 4:38pm

#25 Thank you Luci! I wondered if it might refer to streets but I don't know New York at all.

#26 & 27 And thank you Donna and Roni for the extracts from the biography, Sparknotes and footnotes.

I'm caught up to the end of chapter 13 now. I feel for Newland and Ellen, both seemingly trapped by society in different ways.

30AnneDC
Ott 23, 2011, 4:42pm

>27 ronincats: The more things change, the more they stay the same, apropos the Wall Street quote, right? Yes, and I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that those Wall Street parallels with the present day seem to continue right through the book.