This article describes some of the major themes found in Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. A better understanding of these themes will lead to a better appreciation of the characters, as well as the ideas the author was trying to convey in her work.
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Power/Influence of Society on the Individual
In Wharton’s novel, society exerts an enormous power on the characters. The individuals who belong to the upper level of New York society must obey a set of unwritten rules. Everything they do is scrutinized to see if they are correctly following these mandates. An example of this is found in the first scene of the book where everyone is paying more attention to what people are wearing and who is sitting with whom rather than the opera that is being presented. When the rules of the society needed to be clarified, people like the van der Luydens would step in and make sure everyone fell back in line.
For most of his life, Newland Archer has followed, and even admired, these rules. However, as he prepares to marry May Welland, he finds himself wanting to move outside of the structures of society because he has fallen in love with May’s cousin, Ellen. With this new love, he finds societal rules to be stifling. Yet, he is unable to break away from them. He wants to declare his love for Ellen, but in the end, he succumbs to the influence of society and family and stays with May. Both he and Ellen must give up what they want in order to maintain the status quo.
By the conclusion of the novel, the next generation has broken free of much of society’s influence and is able to do things that seemed impossible in Newland, May, and Ellen’s time, such as Newland’s son marrying Julius and Fanny Beaufort’s daughter.
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The Importance of Appearance
The novel takes place during the Gilded Age. This refers to the time period in American history during the late 19th century when the country was experiencing a major population growth. Also during this time, the upper classes were displaying their wealth in a way that had not been done before. The word gilded means something that is coated in gold but has something else underneath, often something of lesser value. This idea represents the theme in The Age of Innocence that things that are beautiful and perfect seeming on the outside often have something else at the core.
The characters in the novel are willing to put up with bad behavior as long as appearances are maintained. For example, they do not censure Beaufort for his affairs as long as he is discreet about them. They only turn on him once it becomes public knowledge that he has squandered their money. This is a good indicator of where the real values of the society lie. Also, they would like Ellen to return to her husband, even though she finds living with him intolerable, because divorce is something that is not acceptable. It does not look good to have a divorced member of the family.
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Role of Women
Throughout the book, May is the model of a perfect wife of that period. She is the one who always wants to keep up appearances, even as she comes to realize that her husband has feelings for her cousin. She is a representative of the culture of “old money" where the society acted as a tribe that was ruled by strict regulations, and anyone who stepped outside the boundaries of those regulations was ostracized. May acts and reacts like a cog in the social machinery of the New York upper crust.
Ellen is a new and different type of woman than May, and she represents where the roles of women were headed at that time. She is much more individualistic than May. She has been in Europe, and her experiences have been outside of the strictures of the type of society that has formed May. However, Ellen still falls victim to the rules of this society when she tries to reenter it. Upon her return from Europe, everything about her is scrutinized and criticized, from her clothing to where she chooses to live. The criticism deepens as it becomes clear that she would like to divorce her husband and that she may have had an affair during her marriage. This last criticism is particularly ironic given the conduct of Julius Beaufort and Larry Lefferts.
Through her characterization of these two very different women, Wharton illustrates the gender conflict that was taking place in American as the 19th century ended as the old and accepted roles of women began to fall away, and a new, more independent type of woman began to emerge.