These important quotes from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence will help your understanding of the themes found in the novel.
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Important Quotes from The Age of Innocence
Quote: “. . . in metropolises it was 'not the thing' to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not 'the thing' played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago." (Book One, Chapter 1)
Analysis: This quote explains very early in the text the important role that society and its rules will play in the novel. The lives of those who are a part of the upper crust of New York society are governed by a set of conventions, which dictate everything from what one wears to where one goes to how early one arrives at the opera. Everyone knows the rules, and everyone is watching to make certain they are adhered to. This is a system that has been around for generations, and there is much in that system that Newland find comforting. Eventually Newland will come to question these rules, but he is never able to walk away from them entirely. He and his generation will remain caught up in these arbitrary restrictions. However, the next generation will finally toss them aside as being unimportant.
Quote: "The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would have done." (Book 1, Chapter 2)
Analysis: One of the things that attracts Newland to May Welland is the fact that they came from the same background. They were raised in the same social circle and understand its mores. He feels that common background draws them together. It is also part of what makes Newland feel that May is the perfect woman to become his wife. While this common bond is an attraction to Newland, during the course of the book, he starts to feel he needs more. His infatuation with Ellen brings him into contact with a woman very different from May, one who was raised outside of their social circle. This causes her to be more independent than May, both emotionally and intellectually. In the end, however, May is able to use the common bond of society and its expectations to keep Newland in the marriage.
Quote: "In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs . . . . " (Book One, Chapter 6)
Analysis: This is one of the more often cited lines from the book. The line explains what it is like to live in the New York culture of which May and Newland were members. It was like a secret society where only the members knew the rules, which were unwritten and unspoken. That is what made it so difficult for someone like Ellen to be accepted in this world. She was an outsider who did not know or understand the rules and so was constantly breaking them. Also, this made it easy for her to be pushed out of the society when she was perceived as a threat.
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Quote: "He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?" (Book One, Chapter 10)
Analysis: Newland has always dreamed of being able to open May’s eyes to the world. He had wanted a wife he could mold, intellectually and emotionally. He had wanted to introduce her to things that were important to him, such as art, travel, and literature. However, it is occurring to him that May might not be as pliable as he thinks and as open to becoming a different type of woman. Newland is suddenly confronted with the idea that May is not as capable of change as he has imagined her to be, and he starts to believe that she may turn into a carbon copy of her mother, who plays beautifully the role of the perfect society wife. Of course, he has been foolish to fall in love with a girl in the hopes of changing her, but he has held onto a type of male arrogance that has led him to believe it is his duty to “form" his wife into his preferred image.
Quote: "There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe." (Book 2, Chapter 33)
Analysis: Here the power and unity of the New York society is illustrated as the people come together to say goodbye to Ellen as she returns to Europe. May has used the societal rules with which she has been raised in order to protect her marriage and keep Newland. She knows he will not leave her once he realizes she is pregnant, and that Ellen would not let him even consider doing such a thing. She is able to rally the other members of their society around her and push out Ellen, as Newland sees during the farewell dinner party that May insists on hosting for her cousin. At this same time, Newland realizes that everyone believes he has been having an affair with Ellen, and they are eager to get rid of her in order to restore social normalcy. Ironically, it is not the fact that he was unfaithful to May that would have been a problem. It is the fact that he was considering leaving her for the other woman.