During the 1870’s, Old timey New York modeled a much different atmosphere than Europe, which was 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, good company, and any other detail regarding one’s appearance to others. However, because of social determinism, Americans were not as “free” as they believed. The Age of Innocence presents a representation of the constant social trap that forced people to mask their true feelings because of the ever-imposing desire to always seem at their best.
One of the main subjects of the story is the lack of morality in Old New York. The city is renown for its “rigidities about form, family, and financial problems” and is the “epitome of rectitude” (Kozloff, 273). However, Wharton exposes the city as actually being very hypocritical and being victims of falling into the social trap of masking one’s true identity. For example, the books main male character, Newland Archer, finds out that all of his close family and friends are actually acting “as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy” (Kozloff, 273). It is sad really that there is no honesty about one’s self in this society and everyone wears a mask of “well-being” to cover up their secrets.
The three central characters in the story include, first, Newland Archer, a wealthy lawyer who is engaged to the beautiful May Welland; second, May a young debutante who models the stereotypical woman of Old New York society, “…(a) young girl in New York so handsome and intelligent” (Wharton, 41); and third, one Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin who captures the heart of Archer with her free spirit and embodiment of the antithesis of May’s character. Wharton interweaves these characters together with the underlying theme of the constant pressure to adhere to their societal expectations. There is an essence about New York in which “its rituals merge past, present, and future, creating a cultural refuge built on habit memory” (Kilmasmith, 562-563). This concept of “saving face” and always appearing moral has been around for so long and therefore, people continue to practice it. The basis of the storyline is the scandalous relationship Archer possesses with Ellen while committed to May, which causes him to question this “habit memory” of his surroundings. Through his relations with Ellen, the young lawyer is exposed also to a personality very different than what typical high society New York has to offer.
The Countess is very different than most of the other upper class women in Old New York. Wharton compares and contrasts Ellen, a woman who does not desire to mask her true identity, and May, a woman who is shaped by society to mask her identity. As Newland gets to know Ellen and enters into an...