Edith Wharton’s Use of Irony in the Age of Innocence
Irony, in which meaning is inverted to suggest the opposite of what is written, is used throughout “The Age of Innocence” to highlight and gently mock the superficiality of the New York elite. The very title of Wharton’s novel establishes a profound sense of irony in its nostalgic yet satirical tone. It is unclear whether Wharton sees New York’s 19th century “innocence” as an endearing feature of a society still free from modernism, or as a sign of its naivety and ignorance. The characters’ innocence is reflected in their belief that their society is immortal but “The Age of Innocence” is written with the benefit of hindsight making the reader wise to the immaturity of such a conviction. Whether Wharton laments the loss of this ostensibly innocent society or rejoices in its inevitable demise remains ambiguous.
The setting of the opening chapter of the novel, an elitist New York opera house, immediately reveals Wharton’s criticisms of 19th century society. The very foundations of opera are kept alive by conventions, mirroring the almost ritualistic orthodoxy of Newland and his contemporaries. Indeed, in keeping with the “unalterable and unquestioned” tradition of Opera, the performance has been “translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English speaking audiences,” highlighting the ironic nature of this austere setting in that none of the audience can understand the singers they have paid vast sums to see. Wharton also emphasizes that the music is translated from the “German” lyrics of “French” operas sung by “Swedish” artists, demonstrating through this list of different nationalities the imported and absurd nature of the operatic tradition. The Opera House itself aims to “compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals,” implying that its American audience, whom the “press had already learned to describe as ‘exceptionally brilliant’” is in competition to be...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document