One of the themes central to The Age of Innocence is the struggle between the individual and the group. Newland Archer has been raised into a world where manners and moral codes dictate how the individual will act, and in some cases, even think. At many points throughout the book, both Archer and Ellen Olenska are expected to sacrifice their desires and opinions in order not to upset the established order of things. In The Age of Innocence, this established order most often takes its most concrete form as the family. One of the individual's foremost duties is to promote and protect the solidarity of his tightly knit group of blood and marital relationships. In the second chapter of the book, Archer is expected, despite his initial unwillingness to associate with the scandal-garnering Countess Olenska, to enter the Mingott family's opera box in order to support their decision to bring the Countess out in public. Later in the novel, when Ellen wishes to reclaim her freedom by divorcing her philandering husband, she is discouraged from this action because the family fears unpleasant gossip. And of course, Ellen and Archer's decision not to consummate their love is based largely on their fear of hurting the family.
Ostensibly, this duty to the family and to society ensures that each individual will behave according to a strict code of morality. However, Wharton is quick to demonstrate how easy it is to find loopholes in this code. Another of her large themes is that appearances are seldom synonymous with realities. Hypocrisy runs rampant in Old New York. Larry Lefferts, who self-righteously proclaims himself to be a pillar of moral rectitude, is also one of the biggest philanderers in the novel. The upstanding families who so eagerly attend Julius Beaufort's balls, who depend on his lavish hospitality as the center of their social activities, are the same ones who continually disdain his "commonness" and who will mercilessly exile him following his business collapse. In an ironic twist of this theme, Old New York assumes that Ellen and Archer are in the midst of a torrid affair, when in reality, they decide to part rather than to hurt those they care about.
This profound sense of irony leads, inevitably, to the question of Wharton's choice of title. To what extent is the era of Old New York truly an "Age of Innocence"? As is typical with a gifted writer like Wharton, there is no single answer. Certainly her descriptions of the hypocrisy lead the reader to question this supposed innocence, for there is without a doubt decay lurking beneath the surface of this gilded age. Yet for the dishonesty of Larry Lefferts, there is the purity of May Welland, a character brought up to remain innocent (or at least to resolutely feign ignorance) of the corruption that surrounds her. Archer, too, for all his passion and his discontent, is naïvely innocent in believing that a love affair with Ellen could escape being branded by society as anything other than a common act of adultery. And on a larger level, Old New York itself is an innocent society, one so immersed in the minutiae of its social codes that it could not begin to imagine the chaos and destruction that would come with the twentieth century. In these ways, Wharton's title is neither purely earnest nor purely ironic.
A few stylistic notes must be mentioned regarding The Age of Innocence. The first of these is the complex nature of the narration. Wharton uses the character of Newland Archer as a lens of consciousness through which to see Old New York. As a result, much of the criticism of that society is comprised of his opinions. And in fact, the reader sees two central characters, May Welland and Ellen Olenska, primarily through Archer's eyes. Yet Wharton also employs an omniscient narration to describe many of the details of setting, as well as the personal histories and physical appearances of several characters. This more remote narrator often serves to undercut Archer's opinions. For example, although Archer's opinions of May lead us to believe that she is an innocent and hollow person, there are several indications that Archer does not realize his wife's depth. By reading Wharton's close-up descriptions of May's gestures, looks, and offhand comments, it is possible to construct a more complex portrait of her.
A close reading of Wharton's prose, then, is essential to a full understanding The Age of Innocence. Detailed descriptions are frequent and can include obscure references, yet each has a crucial significance. As far as behaviors and gestures are concerned, a raised eyebrow or a meaningful glance can communicate a tacit understanding, a carefully concealed passion, or a politely expressed disbelief. As for material objects like fashion and furniture, each object bears a significant relationship to its owner. In a society where personal wealth is gratuitously displayed, each object reflects the economic status of the owner. On a more sophisticated level, these objects indicate the personality of the owner: his or her tastes, interests, and values.
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