Edith Wharton was one of the best thinkers of her time. Not only did she criticize the society in which she grew up, but she did so in such a way that made it classy and more acceptable. The Age of Innocence is one of my favorite pieces of literature because Edith Wharton uses setting combined with complex characters to develop her personal theme of the conflict between nature and culture.
Wharton's use of setting allows the reader to delve more deeply into the novel and use the history and background of the Old New York society as a base for understanding the plot. She uses contrast a great deal to describe the culture and society she writes about. New York is seen in the early 1870's, during Mrs. Wharton's own childhood, and is bathed in the bright, but accurate colors of her vivid nostalgia. This society of old brownstone and new wealth is arbitrary, capricious and very inconsistent. Old New York didn't hesitate to abolish their own standards while most loudly proclaiming them. The Age of Innocence gives a deep sense of politics and hierarchy, but contradicts itself by also implementing feelings of freedom and wildness with unique characters such as Ellen Olenska. The society of Old New York tries to expunge these free spirits by imposing
strict social codes. Newland Archer, the protagonist, realizes this stratification and exclaims,
Original! We're all as like each other as those dolls cut out of the same folded paper. We're like patterns stenciled on a wall. Can't you and I strike out for our selves May? (Wharton).
This society tells us that a woman should not leave a man's side and walk across room unescorted to join the company of another man. The morality too, is quite odd and is
entirely dependent upon what those in power dictate. The sexual morality at this time is also a double standard. Percy Lubbock, author of Wharton's biography, states " the lament which sounds from Wharton's fiction is not that women must inhabit a man's world, but that because of man's unperceptiveness, each sex is consigned to a different world." Newland Archer is more or less expected to sow his wild oats before getting married; other men in his society by no means stop doing so after marriage. The key is that it is permissible on the part of the man only if it does not too violently 'rock the boat' of their society. Ellen, on the other hand, has sown no wild oats whatsoever, but her love violently 'rocked the boat.' Therefore, she is thrown overboard. This custom is often used to help to preserve the male domination over the female. Wharton's use of setting helps us to contrast the old and new of Old New York and explains many social codes, background and conflicts that we use to better understand the story.
Wharton's use of many complex characters helps her to diversify the story line and give the reader someone with whom they can relate. The styles of her principal characters complement each other and mesh together around the framework of The Age of...