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Do we know what we really want, or what we are willing to pay for it? Edith Wharton examines these questions in her two greatest works, The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920). These novels combine vivid evocations of New York high society in the Gilded Age with searching examinations of the inner lives of characters entangled in its intricacies. Wharton’s ability to reveal the anguish and uncertainty that lie beneath the polished manners of Old New York is rivaled only by that of her friend Henry James.
In The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, Wharton created a startlingly modern protagonist who is forced to reconsider her very identity after failing to meet her social circle’s expectation to marry well. When she finds that most of her set consider a single women past marriageable age not worth knowing, she struggles not only to survive, but to learn who she is and what actions she is capable of choosing. Wharton centres The Age of Innocence on Newland Archer, who begins the novel sure that he wants to marry the eminently suitable May Welland. But when he meets May’s beautiful, married cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, Newland is compelled to question everything he has believed about love and the importance of social approval.
We will explore these novels with an eye to the questions they raise about how we can know ourselves, others, and the society in which we live. What are the responsibilities that come with knowledge, and how can we transform knowledge into wisdom?
“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”
– Edith Wharton