Newland Archer is proud of his beautiful, accomplished fiancée—at least until he meets the notorious and exciting Countess Ellen Olenska. After he convinces her not to divorce her husband for propriety’s sake, Newland and Ellen fall deeply in love with each other. As they contemplate an affair, they struggle to reconcile their feelings with the expectations of the deeply conservative society of New York during the Gilded Age.
The Age of Innocence is a novel about the conflict between love and duty—and what we lose when we have to choose. Her realistic portrayal of upper class life during the 1870s won author Edith Wharton the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a woman. And that same realistic portrayal teaches us valuable lessons about what it is to be a wife in any age.
Be who you are—not who you think your husband wants you to be.
Newland is proud of May. She is beautiful, athletic, and perfectly behaved. But the same things that make him proud of May as a hostess for his home—as a possession he later says—make her less desirable to him as a lover. Throughout the novel, he says she looks, “Diana-like.” Diana is the most militant of the virgin goddesses, turning a hunter who accidentally sees her in the nude into a stag to be torn apart by his own hounds.
Newland wants the woman in his life to be virtuous, but that doesn’t mean he desires someone simple-minded or naïve. Yet May never stops hiding her intelligence and feeling from her husband. She has swallowed the lie than men aren’t interested in a woman’s true self.
You should never be afraid to share yourself—your hopes and dreams, desires and disappointments, insights and curiosities—with your husband. Great conversations are an important way to help him get to know you better. Never forget that he married you for who you are!
Focus on what you have, instead of fantasizing about what you don’t.
Newland tires of the woman May pretends to be and looks elsewhere for love and excitement. When the promise of extramarital love fails him, he settles down to a dull but contented life of “duty.”
Newland thinks he has somehow missed “the flower of life.” But the real tragedy of The Age of Innocence is that he realizes only after her death that May is the insightful wife he has always desired. Within the limits of what society deemed appropriate, May had been communicating her needs and desires with Newland for years and he never noticed. He is so caught up in the one that got away that he never realizes the joy he is missing in his own marriage.
No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to say we have found the one, most perfect spouse. But a shared commitment to each other and each other’s happiness is the best way to get the most out of our lives together. Focus on today instead of pining for yesterdays or imagining tomorrows.
Be grateful when your family and friends look out for you.
For months, Newland labors to keep the secret that he loves Ellen Olenska. When he discovers that all of New York suspects him of the affair, he is indignant. How could his friends and family, rife with similar secrets of their own, have conspired to keep him from the thing he wants most in the world?
The society of The Age of Innocence doesn’t discuss such matters as love affairs. But that doesn’t mean they don’t notice. Without ever acknowledging his need to one another, Newland’s friends and family quietly make his affair inconvenient. They occupy evenings he would like to spend with Ellen. They invite Ellen to visit them outside of the city. And they eventually help Ellen move overseas and out of temptation’s reach. Although Newland never acknowledges the service they have done him, their assistance at this turning point in his life leads directly to the happy family he enjoys for the rest of his life.
Sometimes our friends and family know us better than we know ourselves. Their quiet—or not so quiet—intervention can help us through our darkest hours or prevent us from making our greatest mistakes. As difficult as it is, we should learn to be grateful when our community acts in our best interest.
The Age of Innocence made Experimental Wifery’s List of 100 Books Every Woman Should Read. What books have taught you lessons in wifery?