Between the late summer of 1919 and March of 1920 when Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence,
she was in her late 50s and highly sought after by publishers. Having lived through World War I in Europe and seen its tremendous destruction, Wharton turned readers' thoughts back to the time following the Civil War, when America's expansion, increased industrialism, and wealth from the railroads produced a group of robber barons and financiers, such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, and other newly rich families, who built huge mansions in New York City and began summering in Newport with the Old Rich. At first New York society rejected these "upstarts," but eventually the nouveau riches
(New Rich) bent their talents toward social reform and philanthropy, which moved them up in the social order. They also began to marry their way into the Old Rich's circle, creating the interrelated families described later in Wharton's novel. The Age of Innocence
shows the conflict brought about by this transition, with a main theme being the "right people" following the "correct rules" and marrying into the "acceptable families." Her characters, interiors, clothing, manners, settings, and attitudes reflect the world of her childhood and young-adult life among the Old Rich.
Over the years the interpretation and critical reception of The Age of Innocence has changed, keeping step with the attitudes of the times. When the novel first came out, the reading public supported Newland's decision to go through with his marriage to May. May's lie about her pregnancy to Ellen — so that she could save her marriage — was either overlooked or considered the appropriate thing to do. Ellen, "the other woman," was afforded no sympathy. In 1921, when The Age of Innocence was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, beating out Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, the committee declared that The Age of Innocence "best present[ed] the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." Even Wharton was taken aback when reviewers failed to see the irony of the title and her social criticism of 1870s New York society.
Currently, Wharton's book is admired as a "modern" novel. More sympathy is extended to Ellen as an independent woman, and more criticism is leveled at May's manipulative ways. Feminists cheer Ellen's independence and values, but also criticize Wharton's role as a member of the group she is criticizing. The varying interpretations but consistent approval of the love-story triangle have made The Age of Innocence a timeless classic. The Scorsese film of the novel in the early 1990s only heightened its popularity.
Despite these interpretations of the characters' motives, Wharton had great difficulty in deciding what to do with her unhappy lovers. At one point she decided to have Newland and Ellen run away together, but have Newland eventually go home because he could not give up his leisure-class values. Another option had Newland and Ellen spending a short time in Florida; Newland becoming unhappy with living a lie and Ellen eventually returning to Europe. Wharton also considered Newland and Ellen marrying, but Ellen later forsaking him for Europe with its less narrow-minded attitudes. In the end Wharton decided to keep them apart and use their love to show how individuals must sacrifice happiness for duty and the greater good of the social order. The patient, time-honored values of the old century have given way to the expediencies of the new one, and the reader closes the book judging the gains and the losses.