As with Wharton’s other novels, The Age of Innocence involves a love triangle, apparently her favorite way to show her characters’ indecision. She gives them two choices, neither of which seems possible to tolerate. Ellen is torn between Europe and New York. Newland is torn between Ellen and May. May is simply torn. The central theme is the struggle for passion within the constraints of an ordered society. Individuals who are truly alive must find a balance between order and passion.
The novel is told primarily from Newland’s point of view, thus heightening the irony of the innocence motif. At first, Newland believes May to be terribly innocent, and he later believes that Ellen is in love with him. The reader is led to share these beliefs. As the story progresses, however, Newland’s point of view seems increasingly dubious. He appears to be the most innocent character of all; everyone else has a better idea of the actual situation, while Newland maintains romantic ideals. His misreading of situations is conveyed through sight imagery. He consistently misinterprets what he sees and is often described as “unseeing” or “blind.”
Wharton has a wonderful, dry sense of humor. She pokes fun at the rituals of the society but never goes too far. At the heart of the novel, there seems to be a powerful ambivalence; Wharton mocks the society’s traditions and ludicrous characters, but she can never completely dismiss them. Despite the hypocrisy and the devotion to appearances, the society maintains an order that Wharton and her characters seem unwilling to lose. Newland says that he is willing to give it up, but ultimately he does not. He sacrifices his passion to remain a responsible husband and contributing member of society.
(The entire section is 734 words.)