SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Page Count: 362
Genre: Classic literature, Love stories, Social commentary
Tone: Bittersweet, Moving, Nostalgic, Satirical
1. What do you make of Newland Archer? Is a hero, a victim, or something in between?
2. Were his motivations selfless or selfish?
3. Did Newland truly love either May or Ellen?
4. Why do you think Wharton made Newland the lead character in her novel? How might the story be different if told from the Countess Olenska’s point of view? Or from May’s?
5. For which character did you feel the strongest, either positively or negatively? Did your opinions evolve as the story progressed?
6. Would Newland have been happier with Ellen?
7. How might the story have been different if Newland and Ellen had embarked on a full affair, rather than a fairly conservative flirtation?
8. Would you have liked to know more about Newland and May’s courtship? What might those details have revealed about the characters, about their marriage?
9. What does Newland see in May at the beginning of the novel? What does he see in Ellen? What does each woman represent for him? What does each woman see in Newland?
10. Some critics have described May as one of the great villains of American literature. Does that characterization surprise you? Is it a fair assessment? In what ways might she be considered villainous?
11. Can you attach any symbolic significance to May’s skill with a bow and arrow? What does this side of her reveal about her character, about her relationship with Newland?
12. How does the novel portray marriage? How does it portray passion and sexuality? Are the ideas surrounding each applied differently to the male and female characters?
13. Is this a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, of love unrequited—or is it something else, something more? Is it a story of an affair or of a marriage?
14. Some critics have called this novel a story of identity. Would you agree? What do you think it has to say about identity? How might this be a story about belonging?
15. How much of our identity comes from the life we are born into versus the life we create for ourselves? How do you see this question working in the lives and identities of the characters in this novel?
16. What other characters made an impression on you? How significantly did the peripheral characters influence the lives of Newland, May, and Ellen?
17. Think about the title of this novel. Is it meant to be taken literally—was it truly an innocent time? Or is the title ironic? Who among these characters could be described as innocent?
18. Wharton often expressed her dislike of modernity, her unhappiness with the hustle and bustle and lack of courtesy in modern life. Is her novel a piece of nostalgia for the “good old days”? In what ways might it be considered satire?
19. Upon its publication, The Age of Innocence became an immediate sensation. Why do you think that is?
20. Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, but only after some controversy where the prize was taken from its original recipient—Sinclair Lewis for Main Street (a biting social satire of small-town America). The Board of Trustees said Wharton’s novel “presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Was their assessment correct?
21. It’s a novel about the very wealthy. Could a similar story be told about the very poor? What elements would be different? Which would be the same?
22. It is certainly a novel of its time and place. Would you also consider it a timeless story? Do its themes resonate today?
23. The novel ends with Newland deciding not to meet with Ellen later in life. Why do you think he made this decision? Did you want him to see her? What would you have done if you were him?
Reader’s Guide from the Big Read
The life and legacy of Edith Wharton
Painting believed to have inspired the title of Wharton’s novel
Edith Wharton/Sinclair Lewis Pulitzer Prize controversy
Roger Ebert’s review of Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film adaptation
If you liked The Age of Innocence, try…
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen