Professional Organization of English Majors (well, not really), I am somewhat abashed to admit that this was my first reading of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. (As a member of POEM, I can't count the movie [although it was very good].) Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize-winning (this is fascinating, if for no other reason than the description of the book as "wholesome") novel skewers the manners and mores of high society New York in the seventies (the 1870s) from the distance of 1920 through the story of Newland Archer, a member of that society. Newland thinks he is different from his friends and social equals because he likes architecture and unpopular literature and that he thinks "women ought to be free -- as free as we are." But Newland can't see that he isn't free and so endures a life of restriction and proper behavior that stultifies him as much as it does the women in his life.
At the beginning of the novel, Newland plans to announce his engagement to May Welland, a young woman who he is hopeful of molding into someone who enjoys art and literature the way he does. A cousin of May's has returned to their social circle, the Countess Olenska, disrupting Newland's careful plans. The Countess, Ellen, is fleeing an abusive husband and -- after growing up in Europe -- has returned to her grandmother (also May's grandmother) in the hopes of attaining a divorce that will offer her some financial independence. Divorce and the slightly risque Countess are not quite acceptable in New York society, so May and Newland move up their betrothal announcement to demonstrate their support for her. However, Ellen's allure and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle attract Newland, who encourages a reluctant May to move up the date of their marriage in the hopes of reducing the attraction. Alas, when he realizes that his love for the Countess is reciprocated, May is delighted to say that her family has agreed to immediate nuptials.
And this triangle consumes the remainder of the novel. From Wharton's perspective (as a happily divorced woman), this unconsummated love is a tragedy, from ours perhaps a farce, but what saves this novel is its characters. No one is who they appear, all are operating to serve their own needs. The true innocent is Newland (which makes his dilemma utterly poignant to me rather than farcical), who can see the emptiness of his life and his society, but seems helpless to alter it. Or is he helpless? Perhaps he's lazy. That's the beauty of Wharton's work.
Wharton's descriptions of her characters are delicious and her language reveals so much about them (and how she feels about their selfish and unexamined existence). Revel in this description of May and Ellen's grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, from Chapter IV: "