The novel is about how individuals tackle the status-quo of New York society in the late ninetenth century. The reader is presented with a series of characters, which when placed against eachother create such a paradox it is impossible to miss. For a woman to question her "place" in society was unthinkable during the ninetenth century. This does not mean it did not happen. Wharton is brillant in her creation of Newland, May Welland his intended, and the Countess Olenska. It is through these characters that Wharton questions the social status-quo between men and women. There are several minor characters that she uses to give the story more depth, but more so to add to her commentary. Ultimately the novel asks the bold question without actually asking it...if something is so important to you do you "rock the boat" or do you conform to what is expected of you. We must remember in answering this question the cost is going to be high, no matter what the outcome. Wharton's novel pushes the reader to confront a difficult topic, and in doing so allows the reader to assess their own truth.
The Age of Innocence, set in late nineteenth-century New York society, is Edith Wharton's story of the struggle between the individual and the community. Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland and perfectly happy until he meets the beautiful and free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska. She represents to him something wonderfully forbidden and desirable; a woman of superior strength and desire who is not bound by society's opinions of her. Of course, he begins to fall for her because she is everything that May is not, but at the same time he is bound by his own feelings of propriety and rushes to marry May instead of seeking out a relationship with Ellen. The Age of Innocence is looks at the hazards and freedoms of change when one moves from what is familiar in ones culture toward a more liberal lifestyle with greater freedom. For a very detailed summary of the novel, check out the link below. Brenda