National Endowment for the Arts
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The Age of
FOR THE ARTS
The Age of
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
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The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. 1934. New York: Library of America, 1990.
— . The Age of Innocence. 1920. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
— . The Writing of Fiction. 1925. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writers: Erika Koss and Sarah Bainter Cunningham for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a
preface by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book Cover, courtesy of Modern Library, a
division of Random House, Inc., New York; New York City, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs
Division. Page 1: Dana Gioia, image by Vance Jacobs. Inside back cover: Yale Collection of American
Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, reprinted by permission of the estate of Edith
Wharton and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Biography 4
Lesson Two: Culture and History 5
Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: Characters 7
Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8
Lesson Six: Symbols c )
Lesson Seven: Character Development 10
Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 1 1
Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13
Essay Topics 14
Capstone Projects IS
1 landout One: ( )kl New York 16
\ landout I wo: Faust a\k\ I r hc Agt of Iwwcnhr 17
Handout 1 hree: Newlaiul Aichers Imagined World 18
reaching Resources N
NCI 1 Standards
"Does no one want to know the truth
here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is
living among all these kind people who
only ask one to pretend!"
— ELLEN OLENSKA
in The Age of Innocence
Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
Edith Wharton's classic novel, The Age of Innocence. Each lesson has
four sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, The Big Read CD presents
first-hand accounts of why Wharton's novel remains so compelling eight
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make Big Read
CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of a great American author.
From the NEA. we wish you an exciting and productive school year.
Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts
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Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Have
students write an essay describing how the
novel might end.
Homework: Chapters 1-5 (pp. 3-32). *
Read Handout One.
FOCUS: Culture and History
Activities: Read Handout Two. Have students
choose a work of art (book, play, or painting)
and create a dramatic opening scene for
a memoir by relating his or her life to this
Homework: Chapters 6-9 (pp. 32-60).
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Analyze a passage with a close
reading. Have students write about an
example of Newland's flawed perception,
and about something they think he may get
wrong in the future.
Homework: Chapters 10-13 (pp. 60-90).
Activities: Discuss the characters of May
Welland, Julius Beaufort, and Ellen Olenska.
Homework: Chapters 14-17 (pp. 91-122).
FOCUS: Wharton's Writing Style
Activities: Consider the ways Wharton's
ideas from The Writing of Fiction are applied in
The Age of Innocence.
Homework: Chapters 18-21 (pp. 122-162).
Page numbers refer to the 1999 Modern Library edition of The Age of Innocence.
2 • THE BIG READ
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Activities: Analyze the symbolism of flowers
Homework: Chapters 22-25 (pp. 163-190).
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Re-examine the characters
of Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and
Homework: Chapters 26-30 (pp. 190-225).
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Discuss the major turning points
in the novel. Student will write about two
instances when Wharton uses flashbacks or
foreshadowing to propel the plot.
Homework: Chapters 31-33 (pp. 225-256).
FOCUS: Themes of the Novel
Activities: Discuss the theme of innocence.
Ask students to propose other important
themes in the novel.
Homework: Chapter 34 (pp. 256-270)
and Handout Three. Students should
begin working on essays.
FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great'
Activities: Explore the qualities of a great
Homework: Work on essays.
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Examining an author's life can inform and expand the readers
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson,
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully.
The Age of Innocence (1920) analyzes the tightly structured society of New
York in the years after the Civil War, during Edith Wharton's childhood.
In her 1934 memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton reflected that after the
devastation of World War I, she "found a momentary escape in going back
to [her] childish memories of a long-vanished America" while writing her
Pulitzer-prize winning novel.
In many ways, Edith Wharton had a difficult childhood. She had two
principal motivations: to learn and to look pretty. She viewed herself as the
ugliest member of the family. Her two older brothers teased her for her red
hair and large hands. She received the ordinary education for girls of her
class — French, German, music, and drawing — but she longed for a tutor
or a first-rate teacher. Most of her reading was done on her own, in her
father's well-stocked library. At nine, she nearly died from typhoid fever, an
experience that led to chronic fears. When she looked back as an adult, she
said her father's copy of Washington Irving's Alhambra (1832) fueled her
desire to tell stories.
Listen to The Big Read CD. Have students take notes as they listen. Ask them to
present the three most important points they learned from the CD.
Copy the following essays from the Reader's Guide: "Edith Wharton," "Divorce
in The Age of Innocence" "Wharton and Her Other Works," as well as Handout
One from this Teacher's Guide. Divide the class into groups, and assign one essay
to each group. After reading and discussing the essays, each group will present
what it learned.
Read the novel's opening three paragraphs aloud to your students. Wharton's
memoir reveals a clue to her fiction: "My last page is always latent in my first; but
the intervening windings of the way become clear only as I write." Based on this
knowledge and the first page, ask your students to imagine and then write the
4 • THE BIG READ
Read Chapters 1-5 (pp. 3-32). In The Age of Innocence, a social code is often
not communicated verbally. "Arbitrary signs" are given, usually through a look,
a gesture, or even silence. Ask students to look for three examples of this in
Chapters 1-5. They should list social customs that exist in their world of dating
and friendship and identify any similarities.
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Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the
The Age of Innocence is rife with literary and artistic references, including
novels, poetry, plays, opera, music, and paintings. Writers often refer
to other works of art as a way to add a deeper layer that highlights or
explains some of the events, emotions, or characters within the work.
Edith Wharton's writing style is especially rich in these moments, because
she deliberately draws parallels between these allusions and her characters'
actions. Ask your students to pay attention to these artistic references as
they read the novel. (A worthwhile activirv may be for students to pair up
and research one such allusion's relevance to the novels plot or character
Allusions to opera are among the most important in the novel. I he novel
opens and resolves at the opera. The Faust story and Gounod's Faust
(1859) provide a key to understanding it. If you wish to provide a more
in-depth introduction to opera for your students, you may find the National
Endowment for the Arts' educational resources for "Great American Voices"
helpful. Materials may be downloaded here:
httpillwwu \ nea.goi '/national/GA V/index. html
Have students read Handout Two. Charles Francois Gounod's Faust premiered
on March 19, 1859. Find a CD or DVD of Gounod's Faust and play the "Mama"'
aria for your students. If this is difficult to find, you may want to play the opening
scenes of Martin Scorsese's 1993 film, The Age of Innocence, so they can hear a few
parts of the song.
^ Writing Exercise
Ask students to create a dramatic opening scene for their memoir by relating
their life to a work of art — a painting, song, movie, sculpture, book, or dance.
Have them mimic Wharton's opening opera scene by using specific details to help
readers visualize the scene.
Read Chapters 6-9 (pp. 32-60). The novel is told from the point of view of
Newland Archer. Have students find three passages that describe Newland's
thoughts about his upcoming wedding to May Welland. with at least one from the
beginning of Chapter 6. What does he think his marriage will be like'
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and Point of
The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters,
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited,
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told.
The Age of Innocence is told by an omniscient, subjective narrator, who tells
the story entirely from the point of view of Newland Archer. In order to
understand The Age of Innocence, students must understand Newland's
personality and motivations. Although he is a sympathetic character, he is
repeatedly fallible and has a flawed view of himself.
Divide the class into groups, and give each one of the following passages to analyze
as a close reading. Ask students to answer the following questions: What does
the passage reveal about Newland's view of himself? What does it tell us about his
view of his society? What does it state or imply about his view of May and Ellen?
He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking
over a pleasure to come often gave him a subder satisfaction than its realization.
This was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate one (p. 4).
In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distincdy the
superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility; he had probably
read more, thought more, and even seen a good deal more of the world, than any
other man of the number (p. 7).
Few things seemed to Newland Archer more awful than an offense against Taste,'
that far-off divinity of whom 'Form' was the mere visible representative and
vicegerent (p. 1 2).
He returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were
only an artificial product Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent, it
was full of the twists and defenses of an instinctive guile (p. 34).
Wj Writing Exercise
Building on the close reading, provide one example of Newland's flawed
perception, and one example of something you suspect he may get wrong in the
Read Chapters 10-13 (pp. 60-90).
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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist.
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist lacking
these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or purposeful,
the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The protagonist s
journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold differing
beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast with the
protagonists and highlight important features of the main characters
personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success.
Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise
Aside from Newland Archer, there are three main characters in The Age of
Innocence: May Welland, Ellen Olenska, and Julius Beaufort. Divide your class into
groups, giving each group one character to write about and discuss. At the end
of class have one member from each group "teach" the whole class about its
May Welland: the fiancee of Newland Archer
May Welland seems to be a naive, wealthy New Yorker who is passively excited
about her upcoming marriage to Newland. As the novel progresses. May
becomes increasingly more complex.
• Why is May reluctant to move up her engagement to Newland?
• At the end of Book One. Chapter 13. May writes Newland a letter, asking
him to spend time with Ellen. Why might she do this?
Julius Beaufort: the mysterious, rich banker
Despite the appearance of "insider" status, Julius Beaufort remains an outsider
to fashionable New York. His marriage to the lovely Regina gives him access
to a society otherwise closed to him.
• Why do you think Julius and Ellen become friends so quickly? Why does their
relationship evoke so much controversy among the family?
• Why does Newland hate Julius Beaufort so much?
Ellen Olenska: the cousin of May Welland
The Countess Ellen Olenska was born Ellen Mmgott. Ellen eventually marries
the Polish Count Olenski. a bad match according to fashionable New York
• How does Ellen's childhood, described in Chapter 8. inform your perspective
of her as an adult 7
• Why does Newland want to protect Ellen from Beaufort' Does she desire
Rend Chapters 14-17 (pp. 91-122). Ask students to write down three
characteristics of Wharton's writing style.
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Edith Wharton's writing style may be difficult for some students to
decipher, but a little background information may help them see a deeper
layer to her fiction. Wharton's first published book as an adult was The
Decoration of Houses (1897) co-written with Ogden Codman, Jr. Since this
work prompted a serious reconsideration of interior design, it comes as no
surprise that houses, rooms, furniture, and fabrics are described in great
detail in her fiction.
In her 1925 collection of essays, The Writing of Fiction, Wharton articulates
several principles for future writers and students of literature:
The impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house should always, to the
novelist, be an event in the history of a soul, and the use of the 'descriptive passage,'
and its style should be determined by the fact that it must depict only what the
intelligence concerned would have noticed, and always in terms within the register
of that intelligence (from "Constructing a Novel", Part IV in The Writing of Fiction) .
Divide your class into groups, looking for memorable examples of the citation
above. Discuss a descriptive passage that may reflect "an event in the history of
a soul." Here are two examples:
• Chapter I — The novel's opening scene communicates more about its
characters than we may notice. Although the narrator does not directly tell us
about each character's attributes, what do we learn through the descriptions?
• Chapter 9 — The "shadowy charm" of Ellen's home brings Newland a "sense
of adventure" (pp. 52-53). Ask your students to pay attention to the furniture,
colors, artwork, and decor. Ellen does not decorate her home based on the
fashions of New York, but according to her own tastes. How is Ellen's home a
reflection of herself?
In Chapter 13 Newland compares his relationship with Ellen to a scene from the
play The Shaughraun. The narrator asks: "Wherein, then, lay the resemblance that
made the young man's heart beat with a kind of retrospective excitement?"
(p. 86). Ask students to write a short essay discussing how the theater might
reflect Newland's emotional state.
Chapters 18-21 (pp. 122-162). Ask students to consider, based on today's lesson,
how the details of Newland and May's wedding reflect the "history" of Newland's
8 • THE BIG READ
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Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently,
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can
reveal new interpretations of the novel.
Use this class period to analyze three major symbols in The Age of
Innocence: flowers, eyes, and archery.
During his engagement, Newland sends lilies-of-the-valley to May. The only day
he forgets is the day of his first visit to Ellen's home. Lilies-of-the-valley symbolize
purity, modesty, and the return of happiness. Yellow roses, more complex, can
represent jealousy, infidelity, friendship, or waning love. Do students agree with
Newland that the yellow roses are "too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty'* for
May (p. 60)? Note references to flowers during the play in Chapter 13 and during
the wedding in Chapter 19.
Ask students the following questions: Why does Wharton compare May to
Diana (p. 49), the beautiful virgin goddess of hunting and childbirth? In Chapter
21, how does May's success in the archery tournament relate to her becoming an
Archer through marriage? How is Julius Beaufort right when he says, "that's the
only kind of target she'll ever hit" (p. 157)? How is he wrong?
J^ Writing Exercise
Ask students to write a brief essay to explain how symbols of sight, insight,
and blindness function within the novel. Why does Newland compare May to
a Kentucky cave-fish, a newly discovered creature at the time, who "ceased
to develop eyes" (p. 62)? In Chapter 16. Newland notes May's "eyes of such
despairing clearness" when she gives him the chance to break their engagement
(p. 1 10). Does the narrator consider Newland's judgments to be the last word'
Read Chapters 22-25 (pp. 163-190) Ask students to consider whether
Newland. Ellen, and Julius change and develop throughout the story Have these
characters learned something about themselves and adjusted then actions ;
National Endowment fix the \na the big read • 9
Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices.
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves,
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension
between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing
about what might happen next and the protagonist's eventual success or
Since the symbols discussed in Lesson 6 deal so deeply with May's
character, use this lesson to focus on Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and
Revisit the quotes about Newland from Lesson Three. Now that students have
finished more than half of the novel, do they think Newland or his motivations
have changed? Has marriage to May had a positive or negative effect on him?
Ask students to identify some examples of Newland's impetuous actions, as
well as his failure to act. One important example of the latter occurs in Chapter
21, when Newland fails to "fetch" Ellen as she gazes at the boats near her
Grandmother's dock. (This scene foreshadows the novel's final chapter.)
By Chapter 25, rumors continue to circulate about Ellen's marriage, desire to
divorce, and her flight from Europe. Is it possible for the reader to determine the
truth from the rumors? The family objects to the divorce. However, Newland
hears Ellen's point of view right before his wedding in Chapter 18. What
motivates her to stay married, yet not return to Europe? According to Ellen (in
Chapter 23), why did she go down to the dock that day at her Grandmother's?
(Her response also foreshadows the novel's final chapters.)
Thus far, Beaufort may seem to function merely as a foil to Newland Archer.
Both men are drawn to Ellen yet despise each other. In tonight's reading,
Beaufort will become even more important to the novel's plot, as he experiences
a financial fall that will affect the entire Mingott clan. To prepare for these events,
consider the way the narrator has portrayed Beaufort through Chapter 25.
What are his motivations? Has he developed into a three-dimensional character,
or does he remain a two-dimensional foil?
Read Chapters 26-30 (pages 190-225). Students should pay attention to how M.
Riviere's conversation with Newland in Chapter 25 informs the novel's plot.
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The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense,
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the
peak of the story s conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented.
The structure of The Age of Innocence divides sharply between Book One
and Book Two. Book One often focuses on the future, especially Newland s
misgivings about his upcoming wedding to May. In Book Two, we see
how Newland s choice to follow through with the wedding effects Ellen's
decision not to divorce Count Olenski and how her family ultimately
Have the class map the novel's major turning points, plots, and subplots. Students
should trace the arc of the story, including rising action, climax, resolution, and
the following significant events:
• Chapter 26 — Beaufort's economic fall affects Ellen's fate because she is living
with her aunt (Medora Manson), whose money is tied to Beaufort. Why has
Ellen fallen out of "the good graces of her family" (p. 194)?
• Chapter 27 — "New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business
irregularities" — a viewpoint that changes Julius and Regina Beaufort's place
in society (p. 200). Regina attends the opera in order to dispel some of the
rumors surrounding her husband. Why else might she attend the opera?
• Chapter 30 — Ultimately, Beaufort's unscrupulous financial decisions disgrace
his wife, Regina. Discuss the importance of Ellen's decision to call on Regina in
her grandmother's carriage (p. 225).
fl Writing Exercise
Using the discussion activity, ask students to write a brief essay on two instances
when Wharton uses flashbacks or foreshadowing to propel the plot. How does
this contribute to the pacing of the story and the reader's experience?
Read Chapters 31-33 (pp. 225-256). The drama of the whole novel has been
building toward the dinner party in Chapter 33. when the entire Mingott clan
essentially kicks Ellen Olenska out of New York. Ask students to consider why
Wharton places this event at Newland and May's home, during their first hosted
party. Do the events of this chapter change the reader's understanding of May
Archer's "innocence " ;
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Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures,
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts
or from new points of view.
Students should propose themes they believe to be most important to the novel.
The class might examine social customs, marriage, money, justice, love, or gender.
Historical context or references may also support or contradict a thematic
interpretation. Explore the theme of "innocence" to begin your discussion.
Students can research how writers, artists, and intellectuals might have defined
this theme in 1875. Students can also examine whether this theme is defined
differently in America and Europe circa 1875.
Ask your students to discuss the complex ways innocence is defined, discussed,
and defied in the novel. Innocence is related to purity, ignorance, religion, morality,
social mores, and often draws out its opposites: guilt, knowledge, cynicism, and
unorthodox, bohemian ways. Consider Chapter 16, when Newland reflects: "He
did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the
mind against imagination and the heart against experience!" (p. 109).
Has Ellen lost all innocence? Is she doomed to guilt as long as she remains
separated from her husband? Is Newland chosen to represent Ellen legally
because of his innocence and a desire to maintain the family's moral integrity?
What do we learn about May's "innocence" and adherence to social mores by the
end of the novel? How does each character's development relate to whether and
how they might be innocent or have lost innocence? Finally, why has Wharton
titled the novel The Age of Innocence? By writing the novel, does she mean to imply
that this age has come to a close?
Students should identify a theme other than innocence, writing a brief essay on
the way this theme develops throughout the novel. Have them select specific
quotes or sections of the text that address this theme and explain how these
sections may be linked to develop an interpretation of the novel.
Students should read Chapter 34 (pp. 256-270) and Handout Three. Outlines for
essays are due at the next class.
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a Book Great?
Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the
larger context of the human struggle. I he writers voice, style, and use of
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and
breaks new ground.
In The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton articulates one of her definitions
of what makes a great book:
A good subject, then, must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our
moral experience. If it is incapable of this expansion, this vital radiation, it remains,
however showy a surface it presents, a mere irrelevant happening, a meaningless
scrap of fact torn out of its context [from "In General," Part IV].
Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these
on the board. In small groups, ask students to discuss specific books that include
some of these characteristics. Do any of these books remind them of The Age of
Innocence 7 .
A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does
Wharton create through The Age of Innocence 7 . What does this novel tell us about
the concerns and motivations of old-fashioned New York? Are these attributes
consistent with twenty-first- century America? Why or why not?
Using Handout Three, discuss one way a literary argument can be articulated,
supported, and developed. Can students find other examples of Newland's
imagined reality? What other moments in Chapters 1-33 foreshadow the novel's
conclusion in Chapter 34?
Ask students to write a persuasive letter to a friend, perhaps one who does not
like to read, explaining why The Age of Innocence is a good book. Do students
feel The Age of Innocence succeeds according to the quote cited above (from The
Writing of Fiction) 7 Why or why not? Develop an argument that explains why the
novel has meaning for many people, not just a particular group.
Have students work on essays in class. Be available to assist with each essay's
main argument. Have students partner to edit outlines and /or rough drafts
Provide students with the characteristics of a well-written essay
Continue working on essays. Students will turn in rough drafts of their essays at
the next class.
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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis — that is, an assertion — about the
novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The
thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.
1. The narrator is an omniscient, unnamed
narrator, who is not always objective. Often
the narrator's ironic comments about New
York are so subtly woven within the story that
it may be easy to miss them. Find examples
in the opening chapters where this narrator
comments on New York society. Explain
how the narrator contributes, by using these
examples, to the construction of the story.
2. In Chapter 9, Newland considers sending May
yellow roses instead of the lilies. He then sends
roses to Ellen because "they did not look like
[May] — there was something too rich, too
strong, in their fiery beauty" (p. 60). By the
novel's end, is there any sense that Newland
has sent the wrong flowers to both May and
Ellen? In other words, does an inaccurate view
of the flowers parallel his inaccurate view of
both women, especially his wife?
3. Explain the following statement in light of
what happens in the novel: "Our ideas about
marriage and divorce are particularly old-
fashioned. Our legislation favors divorce — our
social customs don't" (p. 83).
4. Newland tells Ellen that he wants to take her
to a world "where we shall be simply two
human beings who love each other, who are
the whole life to each other; and nothing else
on earth will matter" (p. 216). Does such
a place exist? Do you agree with Wharton
scholar Louis Auchincloss, who claims, in the
introduction to the Modern Library edition of
The Age of Innocence, "The only way that Ellen
and Archer can convert their love into a thing
of beauty is by renunciation" (p. xxii)?
14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly,
or a bookstore.
Study Goethe's Faust Part I or Gounod's Faust.
In these works, Faust is a male character.
Rewrite the play or part of the opera, changing
Faust into a female character. Perform parts
of the revised play for an audience. Hold a
panel discussion on what aesthetic choices the
students made when revising the story. Discuss
whether any of Wharton's female characters
have Faustian qualities and whether Wharton
hints at such a revision.
Collect a list of all the artistic works
referenced in the novel. Have students find
copies or recordings of these works. Create a
classroom exhibit including these works, with
a short description of where each work is
cited in the novel, how it relates to the story,
and why Wharton chose to draw on it. Have
students give oral presentations on each piece
Search the collections of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art on its Web site
(www.metmuseum.org). Have students pull
together a collection of images that Newland
and Ellen might have viewed. Imagine they are
aspiring artists who visit the museum. Include
descriptive text panels detailing the images.
Create a gallery show of the work and invite
other classes to view your exhibit.
4. Decorate a room for Ellen, who prefers a
style according to European tastes rather
than New York or American trends. Pay
close attention to such elements as furniture.
colors, artwork, and decor, using clippings
from various magazines and catalogs, original
sketches, paint swatches, and samples of art.
You may also wish to juxtapose the decor of
this room with one that would reflect May's
more conventional style.
5. By the 1930s, Paris had become the home of
many expatriate American writers, including
Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, e. e.
cummings, and Gertrude Stein. Like Edith
Wharton, Ellen Olenska leaves America for
France. Imagine you are an expatriate living
in France. Write letters home to a family
member or friend describing your new
environment. Alternately, create a journal with
daily entries logging your activities. Exhibit your
letters and journals at a local bookstore.
6. The Age of Innocence was published in 1920 —
not long after World War I ended, and the
same year women obtained the right to vote.
Conduct research on the time period and.
using this information, create a timeline of the
period. You may want to partner with other
students and each focus on a different topic:
historical, artistic, or political events
National Endowment tor tin- \rts
THE BIG READ • 15
The Age of Innocence transports the reader to New
York during the 1870s — a period often called "the
Gilded Age." While this world may feel foreign, a
little understanding of its social customs may reveal
some similarities to twenty-first-century American
life, especially during a high school's homecoming
or prom. The opera of Chapter One and the ball
of Chapter Three provide several examples of the
"hieroglyphics" that Ellen Olenska must decipher
when she returns from Europe to Old New York.
How to Get Invited
During the Gilded Age, social classes in New
York City became increasingly stratified. In the
1890s, social adviser Samuel Ward McAllister
(1827-1895) and society matron Caroline Astor
(1830-1908) devised "the Four Hundred," a list
comprised of a carefully selected group of upper-
class families. (This number was supposedly
based on how many people could fit into Mrs.
Astor's ballroom.) Money mattered, but the way
a family made its fortune — and how long they
had possessed it — counted most of all. In Chapter
Three, Regina Beaufort's annual ball is a direct
reference to Mrs. Astor's annual ball — considered
the opening event of the social season. Although
the family invites Ellen Olenska to the opera, they
will not go so far as to bring her to this elite party
since her compromised reputation would reflect
poorly upon them.
What to Drive
In Chapter One, three types of four-wheeled
carriages are specifically mentioned. The
brougham was a closed, private carriage that could
seat up to four. The landau was a more spacious
private carriage, and the back half of the top could
be thrown back. (Compare this to a contemporary
soft-top jeep or sports car.) The coupe was a more
convenient but "humbler" mode, designed for
two people, with elevated seating outside for the
driver. As with contemporary vehicles, the type of
carriage indicated the owner's position and wealth.
Toward the end of the novel, Ellen's compassion
and courage is revealed when she drives her
grandmother's carriage to the home of a disgraced
What to Wear
A strict dress code applied to both men and
women for evening engagements. Gentlemen had
to change from a suit into a tuxedo in order to be
"dressed" for dinner. The dress code for women
applied even to the colors and textures of their
dresses, so Ellen Olenska's clothes and accessories
reflect her European taste. At the opera, she
unconventionally wears a diamond headdress and
a dark blue velvet gown with a clasp under her
bosom. This "Josephine look" or Empire waist —
modeled after the empress of France — marked a
sharp contrast to the plunging necklines covered
by lace that American women wore.
When to Arrive
Newland Archer has no reason to be late to the
opera in Chapter One, but since "in metropolises
it was 'not the thing' to arrive early at the Opera,"
he lingers over his cigar. When Regina leaves the
opera early in Chapter Three, everyone knows her
ball will begin thirty minutes later. However, the
rules for a dinner party are different, and because
Ellen is unfamiliar with these social rites, her
consistent tardiness provides one more excuse for
her family's disapproval.
1 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Faust and The Age of Innocence
In Old New York during the Gilded Age,
opera was bigger than Hollywood and pro
sports put together. Opera was a highly popular
entertainment that also had great social prestige.
No opera rivaled Charles Gounod's Faust (1859).
When Edith Wharton set the beginning and end
of The Age of Innocence at this opera, she knew this
choice was as natural and familiar to her readers as
starting a movie with a scene at a basketball game
might be today. But just as a writer-director might
use a cross-town game to foreshadow a story about
a clash of cultures, Wharton uses Doctor Faust's
bargain with the devil to set up the major themes
of her novel.
In most versions Faust is a great and elderly scholar,
frustrated by his inability to attain some distant
goal — whether knowledge, love, or youth. He
negotiates with the devil, promising his soul in
return for the objects of his desire. In (act, the
whole idea or selling one's soul, or simply selling
out, derives from the Faust mvth — and even before
that — from Eve's temptation of Adam with the
fruit of forbidden knowledge in the ( iardcn of
In 1808, the German writer Johann Wolfgang
von Goethe (pronounced "Gerta ) created the first
part of his theatrical version of the I aust legend.
Goethe's Faust begins with a bet between ( rod
and the devil, here called Mephistopheles. ( kxl
believes that the virtuous Faust will refuse the
devils temptation, but Faust takes an innocent
young woman's virginity instead. ( iounod s opera
draws directly from ( loethe's Faust Part /. \s 1 anst
begins to Seduce the objeci oi his desire, the devil
recognizes that "her virtue protects her and heaven
itself defends her." She succumbs to the seduction
but appeals to the heavens to save her. She is
redeemed, and the opera closes with Faust calling
out to her to flee with him.
From its less than successful premiere in Paris in
1859, through its triumphal revival three wars
later and subsequent inescapability in opera houses
around the world, Gounod's Faust indisputably
became the most popular theatrical work of the
nineteenth century. At a time when families might
attend their opera boxes seven nights a week, and
seats in the orchestra — today considered the best in
the house — were for the common folk, every opera
season in New York began with Faust. (What The
Nutcracker is to ballet today, C iounod s Faust was to
the opera — only all year round.)
In Gounod s Faust, a respected man m search oi
power, knowledge, and vouth sells his soul to the
devil — yet is somewhat redeemed through the
love a good woman. In The Age "t Innocence, an
equally respected man resists temptation but ends
up in an unsatisfying marriage. I Itimatelv. all the
enticement, passion, And regret in the Faust storv
helps prepare readers tot those same themes m ,
National I ndowment tor tin
THE BIG READ * 17
Newland Archer's Imagined World
The ending of The Age of Innocence may surprise
a first-time reader. However, once we understand
Newland Archer's character and the way Wharton
foreshadows her conclusion at every turn, her acute
psychological insight becomes unmistakable. In her
memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton reveals a
clue to her fiction: "My last page is always latent in
my first; but the intervening windings of the way
become clear only as I write."
By the time a reader finishes The Age of Innocence,
he or she may have forgotten an essential character
trait of Newland Archer described in Chapter
One: "He was at heart a dilettante, and thinking
over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler
satisfaction than its realization." Here is the key to
Newland s character — he is a man of imagination
rather than action.
Especially after his marriage to May Welland,
Newland s imaginative world becomes more vital
than his real one. Before his wedding, he suspects
that May's "frankness and innocence were only an
artificial product." Ellen Olenska's unconventional
tastes encourage Newland to see his world more
accurately — and what he sets is its hypocrisy. But
marriage to May quenches Newland's desire to
question the rules of fashionable New York. Over
time, his marriage leads him to be "absent from
everything most densely real," and he compares
himself to a dead man.
May cannot completely extinguish Newland's love
for fiction and drama, and he often compares his
life to a book he has read or a play he has seen.
One example of this comes in Chapter 21, when
May's grandmother tells Newland to fetch Ellen
from the pier. Newland finds her standing with
her back to him, far away at the pier's end. At
this moment he remembers a popular play that
he had once seen on the same evening as Ellen
(Chapter 13) — particularly the scene where a man
says goodbye to his beloved without her knowing
it. Newland gives Ellen a peculiar test: "If she
doesn't turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock
light, I'll go back." Ellen doesn't turn around, and
Newland returns to the house, and his life, without
Several scenes in the novel parallel the novel's
conclusion, but perhaps this scene by the pier is
the clearest example. In this "hieroglyphic world
where the real thing was never said or done or even
thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary
signs," the plot is usually filtered through Newland
Archer's internal, psychological reflections.
Since the reader only sees Old New York from
Newland's point of view, those "arbitrary signs"
are even more subjective, since he is often fallible,
blind, or biased. His justifiable sense of superiority
"in matters intellectual and artistic" doesn't extend
to his view of women, least of all May and Ellen.
In a way, reading the novel becomes an exercise
in rereading, since, like Newland, we constantly
reexamine his situation based on our growing
suspicion that he has failed to grasp the truth.
18 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Works of Edith Wharton
Auchincloss, Louis, ed. Edith Wharton: Selected Poems.
New York: Library of America, 2005.
Wharton, Edith. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton,
New York: Scribner's, 1973.
— . Edith Wharton: The Collected Stories. 2 volumes.
New York: Library of America, 2001.
Wright, Sarah Bird, ed. Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected
Travel Writings, 1888-1920. New York: St. Martin's
Works about Wharton
Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith
Wharton. New York: Scribner's, 1994.
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Knopf, 2007.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York:
Harper & Row, 1975.
Lewis, R. W. B. and Nancy Lewis, eds. The Letters of Edith
Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
Waid, Candace, ed. The Age of Innocence: Norton Critical
Edition. New York: Norton, 2002.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of
Edith Wharton. 1977 New York: Perseus Books. 1994.
The Web site for The Mount, Edith Wharton's home.
This collection at Yale University includes manuscripts
and photographs reflecting the life and literary career
of Edith Wharton.
National Endowment for the \na the big read • 19
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards"
1 . Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g.,
sound-letter correspondence, sentence
structure, context, graphics).
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that
suit their purpose and audience.
8. Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
9. Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literary communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and
develop your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
FOR THE ARTS
In reality they all lived in a
kind of hieroglyphic world,
where the real thing was
never said or done or even
thought, but only represented
by a set of arbitrary signs."
from The Age of Innocence
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
A great nation deserves great art.
'•VIS ..INSTITUTE of .,