Part 2: Serial Reading Guide for The Age of Innocence, chs. 10-21.
1. How do you feel about Archer’s desire to “take the bandages” from May’s eyes (ch. 10) so that she can see true reality? Does Archer have an interest in helping Ellen “see” as well?
2. Key passages:
A) “Ruminating on these things as he approached her door, he was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself into conditions incredibly different from any that he knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty.” (ch 12)
B) “Yet he never saw her, or exchanged a word with her, without feeling that, after all, May’s ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination.” (ch. 13)
C) “Who’s ‘they’? Why don’t you all get together and be ‘they’ yourselves?” (ch. 14)
3. In chapter 14, how would you compare the character of Ned Winsett to Archer?
4. Key passage:
“What we’ve all contrived to make it,” he felt like answering. “If you’d all of you rather she should be Beaufort’s mistress than some decent fellow’s wife you’ve certainly gone the right way about it.”
He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said if he had uttered the words instead of merely thinking them. He could picture the sudden decomposure of her firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over trifles had given an air of factitious authority. Traces still lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter’s; and he asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience! (ch. 16, pgs. 102-103)
5. Watch for indications of May’s thoughts in the dialogue of chapter 16.
6. Note how the narrative carefully controls the passage and duration of time in chapter 19.
7. What has changed in Archer’s mind by the end of chapter 21?
8. Literary criticism: Elizabeth Ammons has suggested that The Age of Innocence “argues against the sentimentality of idealizing an ‘innocent’ American woman” and that “the price of innocence is diminished humanity for women.” In fact, characters such as Ellen Olenska “seek informed active adulthoods only to find that America insists on perpetual daughterhood, eternal innocence.”1