Age of Innocence Themes

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A diatribe on the vicious yet serene society of her childhood, Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence proffers an attack against the boa constrictor ways of late 1800s New York City0. May's ability to keep things as they are 1, Newland's desire to escape2, and Ellen's escape3 exhibit three different effects of this patronizing society and three different interpretations of the role of action in their society, a theme that can also be seen within Shakespeare's Hamlet and Greene's The Power and the Glory4.

Wharton's Age of Innocence is set in what is known as "the gilded age," an era where everything is shiny and gold on the outside but wrought with flaws and problems on the inside. For example, the top authority on taste and values, Larry Lefferts, has multiple affairs. "I say, old chap: do you mind just letting it be understood that I'm dining with you at the club tomorrow night? Thanks so much, you old brick! (Age of Innocence, page 277)" Lefferts is the prime model of how hypocritical this society is. Everyone knows that he has numerous affairs and yet they still look to him for rulings on taste and morals. His character also allows this society's obsession with remaining pleasant and not saying anything about anything to be understood because no one talks about his affairs openly, they remain silently known by all. The hypocrisy of New York is also seen in the people's feelings toward the Beauforts. The Beauforts are known as common but are accepted in high society solely because they have a ballroom in their home and host a grand party once a year. Age of Innocence also characterizes a society that Wharton refers to as tribal, prehistoric, and unwavering multiple times. New York is so firm in its ancient, in-stone ways that an insane hierarchy of power has emerged, where the completely unsocial van der Luyden family reigns. They are looked to for the final decision on all things simply because they have always been looked to for the final decision on all things....
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