Edith Wharton, in her novel The Age of Innocence, addresses the relationships between self, others, and society in Old New York. In order to fully understand the purpose of this novel, one must contextualize these fictional relations to real-life conditions. As Edith Wharton said herself, "no novel worth anything can be anything but a novel ‘with a purpose,’ and if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself." Thus, the goal of this essay is to examine the larger implications of the societal relations present in the novel.
It is necessary for one to realize Edith Wharton's motives for composing the novel and to consider the historical context under which it was written. The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, precisely two years after the First World War ended. The novel itself, however, is set in the 1870's in Old New York, That organized society contrasted drastically from American society during the post-war era. Another experience that could have influenced Wharton's prose was her childhood. Her parents raised her in a society strikingly similar to the aristocratic culture featured in the novel. Wharton witnessed dramatic social change, especially with the tragic and perspective-transforming experience of World War I. Wharton also dealt with marriage and commitment issues in her adulterous and unfaithful husband who was older than her by 13 years. Not only did her life experiences compel the themes in the story (personal freedom, past vs. present, appearance vs. reality), but more importantly, they shaped the moral instruction embedded in the literature.
The three most prominent characters in the novel are Newland Archer, May Welland, and Ellen Olenska. Newland and May, products of New York society, are an engaged couple. Both come from high-status families. Ellen is May's cousin who lived in Europe before traveling to the United States to escape from her adulterous husband. Most of the story is framed through Newland's perspective. As a result, much of the personal conflict presented in the novel is within Newland. His internal conflicts come largely from his relationship with Ellen. Newland is captivated by her charisma and demeanor, so unlike that of the rest of the population of New York society. He ends up falling in love with Ellen, a feeling he perceives as clandestine but that is actually quite the opposite. Throughout the novel, Newland attempts, to no avail, to break free from the grasp and duties of his society. He is bound by the societal expectations around him, evident in the way he abides by social norms such as performing all the conventional duties before marrying May or fulfilling the role of a gentleman. He also feels the need, as he is trained to do, to confess to May everything he has done. A good example is the time he is compelled instinctively to send yellow roses to Ellen: he confesses to May his actions. Most importantly, Newland is unable to break the bonds of conventionality even later in his life. Unable to push himself to approach Ellen at Newport, he instead convinces himself to go back "if she doesn't turn before that sail crosses the Lime Rock" (217). Yet, even after all of these "setbacks," Newland still becomes "what people were beginning to call 'a good citizen'" (346). He reflects back on his life and finds that:
[His] long years together [with May] had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways. (347) It is clear that fidelity to these duties is admirable with potentially beneficial social consequences.
Wharton uses Newland Archer to edify her readers on a deeper meaning in human nature. Immanuel Kant, an 18th and 19th century philosopher, came up with ideas of self comparable to what Wharton is trying to imply. Kant lays out several significant ideas. First is the ethical theory of Deontology, and of course along with it, the Categorical Imperative. Deontology deals not with the consequences of an action but primarily with the action itself and a set of absolute moral duties that one must abide by in order to be ethical. The categorical imperative states that a duty must be universal without producing any internal contradictions, must treat humans as ends in themselves rather than means to an end, and must operate from a place of absolute moral authority. This may all seem besides the point but if we examine these points closely, we can see a correlation. The categorical imperative, if it were to be obeyed and implemented, dictates that there should be an absolute set of moral codes to be complied with by everyone, similar to the strict codes by which Newland Archer's culture abides. The second substantial interpretation that Kant, Berkeley, and many other philosophers proposed was the idea of empiricism and transcendental idealism. These two philosophies essentially state that the world can only exist as a perception. In fact, the latter of these philosophies separates the world into two entities, phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the experiences that humans can grasp and categorize through their senses. Noumena are "things" that humans cannot really understand. Kant emphasizes that humans should not waste time trying to uncategorize the phenomena and reveal the noumenal world since it is extremely difficult if not impossible to do so. Basically the idea is don't worry about ideas, objects, events, etc. outside of your experience. Bring the idea of transcendental idealism into the context of the phenomenal world itself, the noumena can be seen as the outside world that Newland and his society cannot perceive. These two philosophical ideas do not correlate strongly with Wharton's explicit message but have important ramifications for her underlying implications. Kant's idea of self promotes individualism but in a strict moral context.
Edith Wharton was disturbed by the transformation of the society she personally experienced. A prominent theme of the novel is the juxtaposition of the past, the present, and the end of New York society as Newland and the rest of the characters know it. Newland had been aware of these societal expectations and values "ever since he could remember, and accepted them as part of the structure of his universe" (102). Yet, even in Newland's youth, the society is dying off. The elderly couple of the Van der Luydens are the last of their kind. The title The Age of Innocence is not ironic in this sense. Even though the society is full of hypocrisy and hidden meanings, it is still an age of innocence because after all, as George Berkeley said, "to be is to be perceived." Furthermore, Edith Wharton shows through Newland Archer that a product of this type of society can still become a moral compass or role model for others.
The Age of Innocence is a novel in that demonstrates the progression of a character through an innocent society -- or at least one with the veneer of innocence. The deep moral real-life implications of what Wharton communicates can be theoretically represented by and related to Immanuel Kant's philosophical ideals. Through the use of relationships between self and society in the characters of the story, primarily Newland Archer, Edith Wharton mourns and perhaps even warns against, the societal changes she experiences throughout her life and the societal changes that could come in the future.