Study Guide

The Age of Innocence

by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence Themes

Themes Overview

In the Newland Archer plot, Wharton presents one of her favorite themes, the sacrifice of artistic, romantic impulses for family duty and societal respectability. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York's best families, thinks he is in love with the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska and even entertains the thought of leaving his wife for her, but when he learns that his wife May is pregnant, he abandons all hope of love and happiness and decides to stay with May.

The difficulty of genuine human communication in the upper strata of society is an important theme in the Archer plot. Newland Archer lives in what Wharton calls "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." Most of the important personal communications between Archer and his wife are left unsaid. Many times Archer imagines what she is saying to him (or more complicated yet what she thinks he is saying to her), but of course Archer may be reading the hieroglyphics wrong. Because so little that is felt is actually expressed, Archer at times appears to be having an internal dialogue with himself.

In the Julius Beaufort subplot, the morality of money and sex is an important theme. On the surface, the society appears to be almost Puritanical in its response to divorce and unconventional European living arrangements, but as Wharton makes clear, even in the New York of the 1870s, people chose to...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

The Age of Innocence Themes

Propriety and Decorum
The Age of Innocence is a detailed portrayal of social conventions and respectability in late nineteenth-century high society. Newland has grown up in this environment and has internalized all the manners that dictate behavior in old New York. Even intimate matters are subject to rules of etiquette, as when May lets Newland guess that she cares for him, which is the only declaration of love allowed a young unmarried woman. Gossiping is completely acceptable, yet members of society strive to uphold, above all things, their own reputations. Sillerton Jackson and Lawrence Lefferts are held up as experts on New York's family trees, proper form, and good taste.

Every event in old New York is subject to ritual. When May and Newland are engaged, they must make a series of social calls. On his wedding day, Newland wonders what flaws Lawrence Lefferts will find in the event. As Ellen prepares to leave for Paris, May hosts a formal dinner in her honor. As May and Newland's first occasion for entertaining on such a scale, the dinner is a milestone for them. At the same time, it serves an important social function, as Wharton writes in chapter 33:

"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."

The novel's conclusion shows Newland refusing to see Ellen, even though they are both free to be together at last. Some critics argue that Newland's sense of decorum is so deeply ingrained that he cannot bring himself to realize the fantasy he carried around for so many years.

James W. Tuttleton, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume Twelve: American Realists and Naturalists, states that Newland forgoes the chance to have a romantic relationship with Ellen "out of respect for the memory of his marriage." Even as a widower, and even as the strict rules of conduct are passing out of style, Newland cannot bring himself to make decisions outside the parameters of propriety that have governed his life. It seems that things are as they were in chapter 1, where the narrator remarks that "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."

The Role of Women
The contrast between Ellen and May is sharp. May is the pure and beautiful product of old New York and all of its elements. After she and Newland are married, he often observes how she is quickly becoming a younger version of her mother. May represents traditional womanhood in the New York social system. On the other hand, Ellen has been absent from New York for quite some time, and her time in Europe has changed her. She relies on Newland to help her navigate the treacherous social waters in which she finds herself upon her scandal-ridden return. She is mysterious and exotic, yet accessible. Unlike the other...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)