During the 1870’s, Old timey New York modeled a much different atmosphere than Europe who is still recovering from war. The way that author Edith Wharton viewed the society around her was one of expectations. There were expectations for men and for women. For the most part, these expectancies were unspoken rules on manners, dress attire, with whom one is seen with, and any other detail regarding one’s appearance to others. The irony of this era is the American ideal of individualism and freedom. However, because of social determinism, Americans were not as “free” as they believed. The Age of Innocence is an excellent representation of the constant social trap that forced people to sacrifice themselves to the ever-imposing desire to always seem at their best.
Wharton actually writes this novel in the 1920’s as a reflection back into Old New York. She herself comes from a family of great wealth. She was raised in the upper class with every amenity afforded her: education, the latest in fashion, and the promise of a good marriage. Wharton was fifty-seven years old when she wrote this work. This provided her with a great deal of knowledge and the ability to reflect on what she had witnessed and personally experienced in a positive manner. Wharton also personifies some of her life experiences through her writings. For example, she married a man that was thirteen years older than her when she was still pretty young.
Wharton was not fond of the marriage and therefore probably encountered the desire for adultery and possibly divorce from the union. She personified these struggles through the character of Ellen Olenska. She also exemplified her views on the stifling of individuality through social determination throughout the entire narrative of the novel. In order to possess prime social standing in the New York of this time, three key attributes were needed: family, form, and fortune. Through each character Wharton demonstrates different ways they are each affected by the imposing social standards.
As Wharton develops her story, the theme of inequality between men and women is evident. Ironically, it is especially evident in the upper class set of women. Females of the lower and working class had to actually work in order to survive. Therefore, it is harder to tell a woman who works and provides for her family what she can do in contrast to an upper class female who does nothing but dress fancy, mind her manners, and attend social gatherings. The underlying concept is that...