Age of innocence introductory lecture
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Age of Innocence Introductory Lecture. Historical Background. 1870’s: Setting of the novel/1920’s: Publication of the novel 1873: Panic of 1873 1876: End of Reconstruction; invention of the telephone 1879: Invention of the lightbulb 1893: Panic of 1893

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Age of Innocence Introductory Lecture

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Age of innocence introductory lecture

Age of Innocence Introductory Lecture


Historical background

Historical Background

  • 1870’s: Setting of the novel/1920’s: Publication of the novel

    • 1873: Panic of 1873

    • 1876: End of Reconstruction; invention of the telephone

    • 1879: Invention of the lightbulb

    • 1893: Panic of 1893

    • 1897: Wharton publishes The Decoration of Houses

    • 1898: Spanish-American War

    • 1899: Philippine-American War

    • 1901: Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency begins

    • 1903: Ford Motor Company is founded

    • 1913: Federal Reserve Act centralizes US banking

    • 1918: WWI ends

    • 1920: First radio broadcast; Prohibition begins


The novel of manners

The Novel of Manners

  • For Abrams, the novel of manners is a kind of realistic novel. Consider the following definitions:

    • Realistic novel: “the fictional attempt to give the effect of realism, by representing complex characters with mixed motives who are rooted in a social class, operate in a developed social structure, interact with other characters, and undergo plausible, everyday modes of experience.”

    • Novel of manners: “a realistic novel focused on the customs, conversation, and ways of thinking and valuing of a certain class.”

    • Prose romance: “has as precursors the chivalric romance of the Middle Ages and the Gothic novel of the later eighteenth century. It usually deploys characters who are sharply discriminated heroes or villains, masters or victims; its protagonist is often solitary, and relatively isolated from a social context; it tends to be set in the historical past, and its atmosphere is such as to suspend the reader’s expectations based on everyday experience.”


Age of innocence realism or romance

Age of Innocence: Realism or Romance?

  • Be alert for ways in which this realist novel of manners plays on certain aspects of the romantic mode:

    • chivalry: the young man in the club box, as well as Archer, take up Madame Olenska as a kind of damsel in distress; Archer sees himself “pledged” to her

    • focus on the past: the double-timeframe of the novel casts on the earlier portion a kind of romantic distance

    • The social conventions with which Archer is so deeply mentally engaged are strangely present and not present; they contain elements of the fantastical and elements of the insistently real

    • Archer as another version of Catherine Morland, “reading” the present through a set of expectations sometimes mediated through literature and art, sometimes through the social pressure of tradition.


Previous instantiations of the idea of t he past s influence on the present

Previous instantiations of the idea of the past’s influence on the present:

  • House of the Seven Gables: property and lineage as a kind of curse that enforces compulsive repetition of behaviors and character types; time, love, and youth as a source of exorcism and change that makes reparation unnecessary and/or impossible

  • Age of Innocence: Property enforces manners, attitudes, behaviors. To break from accepted conventions – especially regarding marriage and sex – is to threaten the legible, predictable transfer of property through time. Social norms militate against this kind of instability.


Age of innocence introductory lecture

  • As you read, note the ways in which architecture, manners, and language all enforce “normal” and possible behavior. Remember Holgrave’s diatribe about edifices as well as institutions: note the ways in which both literally embody the past in Archer’s present and ask for certain kinds of behaviors and values.

  • Note points of resistance: sometimes by quibbling with a single (often heavily freighted) word, Archer and Olenska seek to create wiggle-room in the patterns of behavior that seem set for them.


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