Edith Wharton's novel focuses on the social conventions of the late nineteenth century America and how these impact on the characters' lives. The fact that New York society at the turn of the century is so concerned with respectability and appearances makes the characters trapped in the era's social conventions. Newland Archer repeatedly claims to be unconventional and a free thinker. Yet, he has grown up internalizing the very conventions that he says to despise. May, the woman destined to become his wife, is the product of those very conventions and, although he feels she is intellectually limited and limiting for him, he cannot bring himself to leave her for the more unconventional Ellen. Ellen is herself trapped in the era's cult of respectability as, even in New York, she is constantly challenged by the rumors about her first disastrous marriage in Europe and talks of an improper affair with his husband's secretary. Because of these rumors she cannot really rebuild a new life for her in America and will eventually return to Europe, though not to her first husband.
Wharton describes his characters as trapped in time as their society requires a strict compliance with its rules of behavior and does not tolerate well deviations from the norm.