By the time the bloody chaos of the First World War finally came to an end on November 11, 1918, the American novelist Edith Wharton had already been living as an expatriate in Paris for five years. During that time, she had essentially ceased to write fiction and had turned her energies instead to the Allied effort by providing war relief for soldiers and refugees. Her devotion and enthusiasm for her work was, in fact, enough to win her the French Legion of Honor. By the end of the war, however, Wharton found herself disturbed by what she saw as the profound social disruptions that had been brought on by the war. In the months after the armistice, she again picked up her pen to write what many critics consider to be her war novel.
One would be hard pressed, however, to find any elements within The Age of Innocence that even remotely address the disruption and the bloodshed of the First World War. Set in 1870's New York, Wharton's novel depicts a society that is in many ways the antithesis of war-devastated Europe. Old New York, Wharton's term to describe this wealthy and elite class at the top of the developing city's social hierarchy, was a society utterly intent on maintaining its own rigid stability. To Wharton, Old New York imposed on its members set rules and expectations for practically everything: manners, fashions, behaviors, and even conversations. Those who breached the social code were punished, with exquisite politeness, by the other members.
The differences between the fractured society following the First World War and the Old New York of The Age of Innocence are without a doubt dramatic. However, there is more of a connection between them than may first appear. Edith Wharton herself was born into the claustrophobic world of Old New York. When she began, at the age of fifty-seven, to write what would become her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, she had already witnessed an astounding amount of social change. Both horrified and fascinated by the chaos and the freedom of the new century as it headed towards modernism and war, Wharton was prompted to compare this new age with that of her own past. The Age of Innocence, then, stands as both a personal recollection of the culture of Wharton's youth and an historical study of an old-fashioned world on the brink of profound and permanent change.
It is believed that the expression "keeping up with the Joneses" once specifically referred to Edith Jones Wharton's parents, who were known throughout New York for their lavish social gatherings. Born into such an atmosphere of opulence, Wharton had access to all the privileges of an upper- class upbringing: education, travel, and the assurance of a good marriage. Yet for all the luxury of her youth, Wharton felt her individuality continually stifled by the rigid expectations and narrow perspectives of her class. Not surprisingly, these sentiments become central themes in The Age of Innocence. Unhappily married at an early age to a man thirteen years her senior, Wharton faced, like Ellen Olenska, the temptations of adultery and the censure of divorce. As a writer, too, Wharton faced the criticisms of her class, who disdained and feared what they called the bohemian life of artists and writers.
Post-war Paris was a far cry from this stifling environment, and Wharton was interested in tracing the differences between her past and present not only on a personal level, but also a historico-anthropological level. By the end of the War, rigid Old New York appeared as a lost world, a defunct civilization that bore little similarity to the present era. Like many authors of her time, Wharton was interested in evolutionary theories and the newly developing field of anthropology. To a great extent, it is this interest in the sociology of Old New York that gives the novel its keen sense of detached irony. While post-Civil War New York saw itself as the pinnacle of civilization, Wharton undercuts this picture by comparing its unbending societal customs to those of the most primitive tribes.