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“The Age of Innocence” the Novel by Edith Wharton


The novel The Age of Innocence written by Edith Wharton presents a critical or even satirical description of the social norms and values adopted in the upper-class society of New York at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, the author focuses on such a concept as innocence, but this word does not have traditional meanings. At first, the author interprets this notion primarily as the unquestioning compliance with existing conventions that are deemed to be acceptable.

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Moreover, the word innocence can be understood as the unwillingness to discuss the issues that can highlight the flaws of people or the community, in general. Therefore, this alleged innocence can be compared to turning a blind eye to problems that cannot be easily resolved. Moreover, this novel shows that people, who deviate from these rules, can be marginalized. In many cases, they can be treated simply as outcasts.

Thus, in the context of this novel, the word innocence should not be viewed as the absence of guilt; more likely, it can be regarded as self-deception, complacency, and ignorance; the author illustrates this issue by focusing on the experiences of such characters as Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, May Welland and some supporting characters who prefer to say that many urgent problems are virtually non-existent. As a result, many of them are eventually doomed to suffering and eventual destruction. This is the main thesis that should be elaborated in greater detail.

The age of imposed innocence

Overall, the faked innocence depicted by the writer can take several forms. For instance, this term can be described as the unwillingness to speak about one’s unhappiness or discontent with family life. This expression of discontent can run against the social expectations which existed in the society depicted by Edith Wharton. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about Newland Archer. Overall, the author uses the conflict between individual desires and rigid norms.

This character understands that he is deeply in love with Countess Ellen Olenska. Nevertheless, these people are not allowed to pursue their feelings. Archer is betrothed to May Welland, and he tries to remain faithful to her, even though this character knows that he does not love her. Moreover, he does not think about his future life in May. Therefore, societal norms limit people’s capacity to determine their fate and follow their desires.

In an escapist move, Archer calls May and suggests that they should get married as soon as possible. The fact that Archer does not love May as much he loves Ellen is inconsequential, and he would rather languish in a loveless union and please society, instead of following his heart. Ellen faces criticism for her behavior because she deviates from the existing pattern by trying to obtain a divorce, and in the eyes of society, she is a woman who disgraced herself. Archer persuades Ellen to shelve their feelings for each other for the sake of society. To a great extent, the so-called innocence is synonymous with cowardice.

Moreover, it can be described as the desire to please other people almost at any cost. The author makes the following claim, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” (Wharton 75). This is one of the aspects that can be distinguished because it permeates every aspect of human life. The writer wants to show that this alleged innocence leads to unhappiness. Moreover, these characters cannot blame anyone else for their emotional suffering.

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Furthermore, one should mention that the word innocence can be described as the unwillingness to recognize problems. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about May Welland. This woman understands that her bridegroom may not necessarily love her. However, May fakes ignorance and brushes off the fact that she knows of Ellen and Archer’s affair. May announces that she is expecting his child; therefore, she strengthens the formal bond of their marriage.

Nevertheless, it does not occur to her that their marriage may not be happy. She prefers to turn a blind eye to this problem. It is possible to say that this novel highlights the way in which the upper class of New York created an age of innocence. The main problem is that this false innocence only prevented them from improving their lives. The author displays some compassion for these characters, but she also highlights that their ethical principles are flawed. This is one of the messages conveyed by the writer.

The author uses such a character, Ellen Olenska, to show how a person can be easily marginalized by society if he/he does not fake innocence. When Ellen arrives in New York from Europe where she has survived many years of an abusive and loveless marriage, she becomes the talk of the town. The main reason is that she prefers to be more open. Additionally, her dressing code is too revealing to fit in the rigid Old New York. In addition, she announces her plans to divorce her womanizing husband. It should be kept in mind that divorce ran completely against the norms adopted in the American upper classes at the end of the nineteenth century.

In turn, Newland Archer, whose behavior is completely shaped by the social norms, persuades Ellen not to divorce her husband. In other words, Ellen is expected to fake innocence and pretend that her marriage is fully functional. The upper class of New York cannot live with the notion that one of its members cannot keep a healthy marriage or at least tolerate an abusive one. Such an action can completely disrupt the established routine.

Overall, it is possible to contrast two women May and Ellen. In particular, May can be regarded as the symbol of false innocence that is supposed to be emulated by other people. In contrast, Ellen is radical and she cannot tolerate the system’s phoniness. Archer can see society through the eyes of both May and Ellen, and thus he can assess the situation from the two perspectives. Moreover, he can assess the strengths and weaknesses of their positions.

Additionally, his mother makes the following statement, “I’ve always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived in aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our social distinctions, instead of ignoring them” (168). This woman does want to place herself in Ellen’s position. It seems that Newland Archer eventually accepts this viewpoint. In his opinion, compliance with the conventional view is much more advantageous because this behavior can help a person remain a part of the majority. This is the main attribute of this character.

Ellen fails to show up at the ball during which Archer intends to declare his engagement to May. She does not want to witness this hypocrisy. Furthermore, she knows that Newland Archer does not love his future spouse. In turn, May fully understands the motives that underlie Ellen’s behavior. However, May lies that Ellen could not find a suitable dinner dress, and she had to miss the event. In turn, Newland understands that May does not speak about everything she knows.

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However, Archer simply admires his fiancée’s wittiness or secrecy, and he decides not to bring up the issue to avoid potential conflict. It should be kept in mind that Wharton uses Ellen to tell the story of the difficulties that she encountered due to the existing conventions (Benstock 198). Overall, this character is supposed to evoke the compassion of the audience. The author lays stress on the idea that people who run against the existing norms can be treated as outcasts. However, the opinions of these individuals should not be disregarded because they can warn people about possible dangers or internal problems of society.

The societal principles depicted in the novel require individuals to sacrifice their personal pursuits and feelings for the portrayal of innocence. Ellen and Archer pay the ultimate price of denying their burning love for each other. Eventually, they are doomed to living miserable lives just for the sake of upholding social norms. In turn, people, who are truly innocent, should exercise their free will and determine their fate. However, people faking innocence have to pay the greatest price.

May, Ellen, and Archer have to live as victims of a suppressing system, which only seeks to paint a misguiding appearance. The main problem is that this community can eventually become dysfunctional. Moreover, it can eventually collapse. It is possible to argue that the writer uses irony to criticize the Old New York; moreover, she may prompt people to change their viewpoint. Therefore, this novel is partly aimed at changing people’s lifestyles. In particular, the readers are supposed to re-evaluate their main ethical principles. Moreover, they should see that false innocence is not the solution to the existing problems; more likely, it is the main barrier that prevents society from developing.

Wharton talks about superficial innocence, which is riddled with ignorance, hypocrisy, and even cowardice. This form of behavior is accepted because it does not change the established routine. In particular, the upper-class residents of Old New York know that some people can violate the law. For instance, Beaufort engages in illegal business deals. However, they prefer not to discuss this issue in greater detail because the discussion of these questions can undermine the stability of their society. Mr. Jackson is aware of the flaws affecting this problem, but he remains silent.

In order to understand the behavior of this character, one can discuss the following quote, “Not only did his keen sense of honor forbid his repeating anything privately imparted, but he is fully aware that his reputation for discretion increases his opportunities of finding out what he wants to know” (Wharton 6). Therefore, Mr. Jackson refrains from revealing Beaufort’s crimes as well as other secrets for the sake of painting a perfect society from the outside. To a great extent, this behavior was totally unacceptable to the author. In turn, Lefferts encourages people to observe moral behaviors, but he cannot uphold the same principles that he preaches so often.

He had become the “high-priest of form, he had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness, saying that Lawrence was so frightfully strict” (Wharton 28). Thus, the writer shows that the ethical and logical inconsistencies of the society that prefers to be oblivious of its flaws. Additionally, Lefferts’ wife is a product of this rigid society that sees no evil amongst its residents. She knows that her husband is a philanderer, but she lets people know that he is a strict moralist who cannot condone wickedness.

Overall, this behavior can be described as the refusal to recognize reality. In turn, people, who violate these norms, are eventually banned by the community. In order to illustrate the experiences of various charters, one can look examine the following quote, “In reality, they all 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 45).

This degree of pretense is virtually overwhelming and Edith Wharton attempts to highlight its flaws because only in this way, one can bring improvements into the life of the community. This is one of the central arguments that this novel advances. On the whole, the society depicted by the writer bans the discussion of certain topics. It is possible to identify such issues as divorce, extra-marital affairs, corruption, and illegal activities. Thus, such a notion as innocence is very similar to blindness. Such people as Ellen Olenska destroy this innocence by speaking openly about these problems. However, as a rule, they represent the small minority.

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They do not want to seem innocent, and this openness is not welcomed by other people. Apart from that these characters challenge the conventional stereotypes about women who were supposed to accept the norms of the patriarchic society (Griffin 15). This is one of the main details that can be singled out because it is critical for understanding the ideas that the writer tries to express.

It is possible to say that the underlying goal of this novel is to ridicule the fake innocence that the upper-class dwellers of the Old New York endeavored to portray. In many ways, they prefer to remain ignorant of the inherent flaws that existed in the system. Many of these people assume that their mode of life will stand the test of time, defy all odds. Furthermore, it is supposed to be followed by everyone. To a great extent, this behavior is based on the premise that even if the adults have failed to maintain morality, children can learn to live righteously.

The main problem is that this alleged ignorance prevents people from taking the best moral choices. It is important to remember that the characters depicted by the author are perfectly aware of different moral flaws. However, they prefer to preserve silence. This is one of the points that should be made.


It is important to mention that Edith Wharton’s novel reflects the issues that she could directly observe. Wharton’s family belonged to the opulent class, and thus such families had to pay much attention to their reputation. Therefore, people were expected to behave, dress, and even converse in a certain manner in order to reach standards that befitted the representative of the social class. Consequently, the common social issues that could compromise the reputation of these people were declared to be non-existent.

Thus, it is important to keep in mind that Edith Wharton’s novels are partly motivated by her own experiences. It should be mentioned the author faced the problem which Edith Wharton had to encounter (Lee 81). Overall, the works of this author enable the readers to get insights into the ethical and social norms accepted by the upper classes of American society (Lewis 7). Edith Wharton should not be viewed as only the critic of American society, but she is genuinely concerned about the factors that undermine its development (Ammons 10). In turn, this hypocritical innocence is one of such problems. These are some of the details that should be taken into account.


On the whole, this discussion indicates that Edith Wharton is able to demonstrate that the alleged innocence of the characters can be primarily explained by their unwillingness to discuss reality and speak about problems affecting the lives of individuals.

The author explores this issue by describing the experiences of such characters as Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland. These characters doom themselves to unhappiness because they prefer to preserve their alleged innocence. Overall, Edith Wharton manages to highlight the destructive nature of such behavior. In many cases, this pretense deprives a person of his/her right to genuine enjoyment. Furthermore, in the long term, the development of society is impaired. These are the main details that can be distinguished.

Works Cited

Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Print.

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. Print.

Griffin, Cynthia. A Feast of Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton, London: Chatto & Windus, 2007. Print.

Lewis, Richard. Edith Wharton: A Biography, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1975. Print.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence, New York: Dover Thrift Publications, 1997. Print.

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