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The Age of 






The Age of 



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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. 

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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 
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professional development. 

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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 

Published by 

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Works Cited 

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 

Photo Credits 

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 

Introduction 1 

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!" 

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 
fiction genre. 

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. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment foe the \na the big reat ■ I 

ested Teac 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

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. 

Day Two 

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). 


Day Three 

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). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss the characters of May 
Welland, Julius Beaufort, and Ellen Olenska. 

Homework: Chapters 14-17 (pp. 91-122). 


Day Five 

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. 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Analyze the symbolism of flowers 
and archery. 

Homework: Chapters 22-25 (pp. 163-190). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Re-examine the characters 
of Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and 
Julius Beaufort. 

Homework: Chapters 26-30 (pp. 190-225). 


Day Eight 

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). 

Day Nine 

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. 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great' 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 

Homework: Work on essays. 

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Lesson One 



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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Writing Exercise 

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 
novel's ending. 

[J] Homework 


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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Culture and 

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 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

Q Homework 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 10-13 (pp. 60-90). 


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Lesson Four 



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 
group's character. 

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 
this protection? 

n Homework 

Rend Chapters 14-17 (pp. 91-122). Ask students to write down three 
characteristics of Wharton's writing style. 

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Lesson Five 





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) . 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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. 

EJ Homework 

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 


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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. 

Discussion Activities 


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' 

H Homework 

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 ; 

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Lesson Seven 



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 
Julius Beaufort. 

Discussion Activities 

Newland Archer 

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.) 

Ellen Olenska 

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.) 

Julius Beaufort 

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? 

EJJ Homework 

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 Plot 

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 
rejects her. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

23 Homework 

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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Lesson Nine 


Themes of 
the Novel 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Excercises 

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. 

EJ Homework: 

Students should read Chapter 34 (pp. 256-270) and Handout Three. Outlines for 
essays are due at the next class. 

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Lesson Ten 


What Makes 
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]. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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 

23 Homework 

Continue working on essays. Students will turn in rough drafts of their essays at 
the next class. 

National Endowment tor the \rt>. 


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 
of art. 

Search the collections of the Metropolitan 
Museum of Art on its Web site 
( 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 



New York 


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 , 
of Innocence. 

National I ndowment tor tin 



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 

Printed Resources 

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 
Griffin, 1995. 

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. 

Web sites 

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 
contemporary works. 

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 
communicate knowledge. 

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 


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 ., 

v.*.. Museum.ndLibrary 

'-•*.•• SERVICES