A Plethora of Literary Voices in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Katie MacDonald

Abstract


Early critics of Edith Wharton’s most famous novel often lamented its alleged fascination with mere superficialities of taste, conduct, and culture. But just as protagonist Newland Archer radically misreads the apparently unknowing May Welland, so the novel’s early reception mistook representation for endorsement. In the essay that follows, Katie MacDonald goes a long way toward redressing the notion that Wharton’s many literary references and allusions evince a habit akin to her characters’ ceaseless name-dropping. Though Newland may believe that he “controls May’s access to literature,” that May chooses the work of Robert Browning over the Sonnets from the Portuguese, the latter tellingly penned by the poet’s future wife and recommended by May’s future husband, suggests an independence of thought Newland lacks; as the author argues, Newland may be a wide reader intrigued by new knowledge, but his views seem non-existent without the support of a John Addington Symonds, Walter Pater, or Countess Olenska. In this and other ways, Wharton’s “plethora of literary voices” challenges a reading too-long shaped by the woman behind the work, revealing instead an author more critical of than complicit in The Age of Innocence she represents.

Dr. Lyn Bennett


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