The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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

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Blaze Bergstrom eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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....

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