Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is probably one of her most successful books because it offers an inside look at a subject the author knew very well, that is, New York society during the 1870’s. That was her milieu, and her pen captures the atmosphere of aristocratic New York as its inhabitants move about in their world of subtleties, innuendoes, and strict adherence to the dictates of fashionable society. Wharton describes those years for herself as “safe, guarded, and monotonous.” Her only deviations as a young adult were the frequent journeys abroad and summers in Newport. Her marriage to Edward Wharton, a prominent Bostonian, assumed the same character as her own early life until it became apparent that he suffered from mental illness and would have to be hospitalized. During World War I, Wharton worked for the Allies and received the French Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work with the Red Cross in Paris. Most critics agree that her best years as a novelist were from 1911 to 1921, during which time she produced Ethan Frome (1911), a grim New England study, and The Age of Innocence, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Wharton’s most successful theme (like that of her friend Henry James) was the plight of the young and innocent in a world that was more complicated than that for which they were prepared. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska found the society of New York intricate and demanding and, as such, to be an impediment to their personal searches for happiness and some degree of freedom. The Age of Innocence is a careful blending of a nostalgia for the 1870’s with a subtle, but nevertheless inescapable, criticism of its genteel hypocrisies and clever evasions.
With respect to Wharton’s style, it can be generalized that she is not a particularly daring writer nor an experimenter in form. Rather, she writes in a comfortable, fixed, formal style that is closely layered. In some instances, her narrative becomes heavy, and the intricate play and counterplay of the characters’ motives can lose all but the most diligent reader. The author’s presence is never forgotten, and the reader feels her control throughout the story, as the narrative view is quickly established from the beginning. Wharton’s characters are portrayed through their actions. Since The Age of Innocence so carefully fits a historical niche, its scope is limited and its direction narrow. That is not to say that the drama is limited or lacking. On the contrary, in detailing such a small world, the drama is intense, even if it is found beneath a sophisticated, polished surface.
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