Where can irony be found in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton?

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Irony is the overall operating principle of Edith Wharton’s social commentaries. Her language is often mild, but the message behind it is fierce. Examples of irony in regard to particular characters and their situations are omnipresent in The Age of Innocence . Wharton succinctly states how all of New...

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Irony is the overall operating principle of Edith Wharton’s social commentaries. Her language is often mild, but the message behind it is fierce. Examples of irony in regard to particular characters and their situations are omnipresent in The Age of Innocence. Wharton succinctly states how all of New York society spoke in code:

They lived in 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.

Wharton masterfully wields this ironic touch with Newland Archer, who loves to believe himself a superior being but even in thinking that way, shows himself a product of his over-privileged, entitled upbringing. Newland believes he has uncovered his true self when he falls in love with Ellen. He remains an innocent, however, because he cannot understand that to run away with her would be a disaster for him as well as for her, although perhaps not permanently. The lack of a conventional wife would force society to shun him. The irony in regard to Newland’s understanding of his position is that he believes he is rejecting hypocrisy but he embodies it as fully as anyone in the novel.

On the other side of the equation, May is far from the naïve and unimaginative, even obtuse, creature Newland supposes her. He believes that he is cleverly fooling her when he goes off to see Ellen. Newland cannot believe that May is capable of deception—in fact, her innocence is part of her appeal to him in a wife, as he cannot fathom not being in the superior position. Instead, he finally learns, May had been fully aware of his emotional infidelities. The irony is that Newland’s pride in his self-understanding actually blocks him from comprehending the basic facts of his relationship with his own wife.

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Edith Wharton maintains a consistently ironic tone right throughout The Age of Innocence. The members of New York's social elite she portrays with such biting accuracy often give the impression that they occupy the center of the universe. As such, they have a tendency to overreact to events that most people outside their gilded bubble would simply brush off.

Irony is the chief method by which Wharton satirizes a society she finds repellant and fascinating in equal measure. The utterly ridiculous van der Luydens are very important characters in this regard. They see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of high society's moral rectitude and integrity. In their pomposity and self-importance, they genuinely believe that if they don't respond to Mrs. Archer's desperate SOS call, and fail to put in an appearance at the Opera, then the very foundations of elite society will come crashing down.

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Irony is a literary device used by Edith Wharton all over the novel "The Age of Innocence", beginning with the title of the story. There is no such thing as innocence in such a time in New York, where the aristocratic families determined the fate of the city, and where the powerful mixed with the powerful to preserve the division of classes. This is in no way the description of an innocent society.

Another irony is the character of Ellen, who represents everything society condemns: She is a woman whose character is passionate, who has left her husband, mingles with men, breaks every rule of engagement, and displays a passionate and flirtatious behavior.

May, on the other hand, is virginal, innocent, soft-spoken, and childlike. She, however, is praised for these superficial qualities while Ellen is condemned when she is in fact a much learned and deep character than May could ever be.

Meanwhile, Newland is completely taken by Ellen's presence while making himself believe that who he loves is May. He cannot abandon the ways of society and yet he mingles with Ellen for reasons he cannot even understand.

This is where the irony comes in: Society lives by ridiculous standards that are to be followed with no question, yet, where is the actual desire of our heart? Can that be quantified with money or sanctified by a family name? This is unimportant to the characters in the story, and is what makes their so-called culture and education so ironic altogether.

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