In this series of posts, we would like to encourage you to take extensive reading seriously and take a novel into class. We will look at how you can prepare your students for the text and expand it beyond the frame of the story. It is important to prepare the students so they are aware of what they are doing. Some of them may feel intimidated by the idea of reading a book in English, others may not see the benefits. These fears and preconceptions can be easily addressed and thereby make the reading process much more beneficial and all-importantly FUN for the students. It is always a good idea for students to keep a WORD BOOK where they can jot down new words and expressions. We also recommend getting your students to read slightly below level (‘I’ minus 1) so they are at ease with the language and consolidating language while learning new words in context. We also encourage you to offer projects for students individually or in groups so that they can connect with the novel through many pathways. These projects place the story in a wider cultural, historical and scientific context.
Our next story is The Age of Innocence, written by Edith Wharton and published in 1920. The following year Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel. You can read a short description of the Helbling Reader edition here.
Our aims are to:
- raise interest in the story,
- become familiar with the reader,
- find pathways into the story through projects,
- expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
- explore the scientific topics in the story,
- make personal links,
- have fun.
- History: The Gilded Age
- History: New York Society
- Social issues: Marriages and arranged marriages
- Social issues: Personal freedom
- Communication: Flowers
- Geography: American Cities
- Culture: Social events
1 Talk about the title and read the blurb.
“Newland Archer does everything that is expected of him in the New York high society of the 1870s. He is a respected lawyer, he socialises with all of the most elegant families and he is engaged to May Welland: a beautiful, innocent and wealthy young woman. It is a perfect match. But then Newland meets May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has arrived in New York with a bad reputation. Soon the couple fall in love. But what about May? And more importantly: how can they avoid a scandal?”
- Who are the three people on the cover?
- Which one is May and which one is Ellen? (Explain your choice.)
- What can “innocence” mean?
2 Look at the cover and the characters. Simply ask your students what the characters in the novel are like based on these images. You can also show a picture (from the Helbling reader, a film adaptation or another illustrated book) to give some help if needed.
When you have become familiar with the book, offer a series of projects for your students to explore on their own or in pairs/groups. We recommend that your students choose their topic whenever they feel best prepared to do so (before, during or after reading). Some students might not be comfortable reflecting on the story from a personal point of view and they might not have the linguistic toolkit to analyze it critically. Projects can provide friendly pathways into the stories and they can also provide the basis for cross-curricular projects.
1 History: The Gilded Age
The setting of this novel influences both the plot and character development in all sorts of ways. The historical, economical and social changes that happened after the American Civil War (1861-1865) are present in every detail of Wharton’s text. This period is called the Gilded Age. Introduce the topic by asking the students what is meant by the word “gilded”. What do students associate the word with? What kind of quality is it? How can an ‘Age’ be gilded?
Then read the dossier ‘The Gilded Age’ on pages 10 and 11 of the reader. Ask the students to find out more about one of the topics discussed in the dossier.
2 History: New York society
In the novel, New York society of the 1870s is described as a pyramid and a labyrinth. Both the hierarchical structure and the complex relations between pepole are reflected in these metaphors. There were a few important families who possessed most of the economical and social power, and the other families were organized around them.
Students learn more about this topic from the Fact File on pages 8 and 9 in the reader. Encourage them to find out more about the famous “400” and the families that belonged to them: the Astors, the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers. Which other families were significant? Are these families still important?
3 Social issues: Marriages and arranged marriages
The theme of weddings and marriage is important in this novel. One of the main characters, Countess Olenska mentions that it is fascinating that in America people marry for love, and marriages are not arranged like in Europe. The novel is set in the 1870s, and of course since then these customs have changed in Europe, too. What are the most common wedding traditions in your country? How are they different from the proposal, engagement and wedding traditions described in the novel?
Students can research the topic of weddings and compare a typical wedding in the 1870s in the United States and at the present time in your own country.
4 Social issues: Personal freedom
The question of personal freedom is central to the novel. The expectations of the characters’ families and social circles have a great impact on their decisions. As the students are reading the novel,ask them to collect examples of things which may influence the characters. For example, where they live, what they wear, who theytalk to at a social event… How much has this aspect of life changed since the time of the novel?
On pages 94-95 and 100, you will also find a Life Skills and an After Reading project dedicated to the topic.
5 Communication: Flowers
There are several ways the characters in the novel use to communicate with each other other than speech. The most traditional ways are telegrams and letters. As time passes, the telephone also appears. However, one of the most fascinating ways of sending messages was through flowers. Newland Archer, the main character sends lilies-of-the-valley and yellow roses to the women in his life. What messages can different flowers send?
In this project students research the language of flowers and show examples of social occasions when flowers have important meanings.
6 Geography: American cities
The novel is set in New York, and we can read a lot about the different districts of the city and how they developed over the years. The characters also travel to Newport, Boston and St. Augustine in Florida. Why are these places significant? Other places, like Skuytercliff and Rhineback are also important.
Students can find these places on a map and explain what they are famous for today. Zooming in on New York, ask students to follow the characters’ steps through the city as they are reading the novel. Various quarters and avenues are described and they are associated with different groups of people. What are these places like today? After checking them on a map, students can also find pictures of these areas today.
We recommend this fascinating research project by Meredith Goldsmith, a university professor and the editor of the Edith Wharton Review. She has followed the steps of the characters in The Age of Innocence: she collected large dataset with locations and then built an interactive map, which you can explore on her website.
- Meredith Goldsmith: Mapping Literary Visions: The Age of Innocence
- Click on this link: QGIS map to character movements (zoom in on New York!)
7 Culture: Social events
Opera nights, the annual balls, engagement and dinner parties and archery competitions are some of the most important social events that take place in the novel. In this project students can describe these events in detail. When and where did they happen? What did people wear to them? What customs were connected to them?
8 Edith Wharton, the author
Students can read about the life of Edith Wharton and find out how the plot of the novel is related to her own life.
Film adaptation: The Age of Innocence, 1993
This excellent film adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder renders the atmosphere of the novel perfectly. The creators of the film paid attention to the language, the movements and the clothing of the characters. Not only the costumes, but the decorations and the buildings are accurately represented to take us back to the time of the novel.
Watch the trailer of the film to become familiar with the era:
DOWNLOAD our The Age of Innocence Project Planner (PDF) to use for keeping notes and organizing your ideas.