Part 1: Serial Reading Guide for The Age of Innocence, chs. 1-9.
1. As you begin the book, pause after the third paragraph (ending with “they want to get to it.”) and take stock of the novel’s setup. What kinds of conflicts and issues are suggested by the images of these opening passages? How does the description of the setting (the narrator’s choice of details) indicate the cultural dynamic we are about to enter?
2. Pause after chapter two and take stock. What conflicts, key issues, and character traits have been established so far?
3. Note how often it seems that Newland Archer observes and thinks (rather like Selden in The House of Mirth), and how much of the story is delivered from his perspective, his knowledge, and his experience of others’ opinions. On the other hand, what do we know—directly—of the internal lives of May or Ellen?
4. Note the dialogue between Archer and Ellen in chapter nine, which allows us to actually hear Ellen speak, rather than rely on Archer’s impressions. Does this make any difference in our assessment of her character?
5. Newland Archer appears as a “product of the system.” How is he similar to and different from Lily in the The House of Mirth? Can you compare other characters in this novel to characters in Mirth? Note also the almost scientific and anthropological attention to the “tribal rituals of Old New York.” How does this examination compare to Mirth?
6. Key passages and lines to examine closely and use as catalysts for interpretation, discussion:
A) “Oh, well—” said Archer with happy indifference. Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more than her resolute determination to carry to its utmost limit that ritual of ignoring the “unpleasant” in which they had both been brought up. (ch. 3)
B) Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which, being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family council; and the engagement ring, a large thick sapphire set in invisible claws, met with her unqualified admiration.
“It’s the new setting: of course it shows the stone beautifully, but it looks a little bare to old-fashioned eyes,” Mrs. Welland had explained, with a conciliatory side-glance at her future son-in-law. (ch. 4)
C) He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences. (ch. 5). [Also, notice how chapter six picks up on the this idea of “freedom” and develops it.]
D) She always, indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death. (ch. 7)
E) It was for just such distinctions that the young man cherished his old New York even while he smiled at it. (ch. 8)
F) The young man felt that his fate was sealed: for the rest of his life he would go up every evening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibule into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow wood. But beyond that his imagination could not travel. (ch. 9).
© Steven J. Venturino 2017