The Age of Innocence is filled with irony about innocence — true innocence, feigned innocence, ironic innocence, and unhappy innocence. Wharton's life, the Gilded Age of the novel, and the characters all contribute to the irony of the novel's title.
By the time she wrote this book, Edith Wharton had survived an unhappy 25-year marriage, ignoring her husband's affairs and business improprieties. She had divorced and moved to a more congenial atmosphere for divorcees: Paris. Looking back at her childhood, she was critical of a society that kept girls innocent, sheltered, and away from obstacles they might have to solve.
May Welland is the perfect embodiment of that child-raising principle. Kept innocent and naïve, she has never known passion — nor is she supposed to know it until her husband introduces her to it. She has been taught to remain innocent and avoid life's difficulties; throughout her marriage she pretends not to know about Newland's passion for Ellen. Even on her honeymoon, her attitude toward all things European is to ignore, be critical, or avoid them. "Her incapacity to recognize change made her children conceal their views from her . . . a kind of innocent family hypocrisy." Her photo on Newland's desk following her death reflects the carefully groomed ignorance criticized by Wharton: "And she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own."
Newland, while seemingly in charge of his world as well as the narrative, is actually one of the more naïve characters in the story. He never realizes until the end that his wife has known about his sacrifice all along; even after her death he has cultivated the viewpoint that she was ignorant of real life from beginning to end. Until Ellen's farewell dinner, he does not even know that his entire family has plotted and planned without him, leaving him intentionally ignorant of their machinations. Despite his supposedly cosmopolitan attitudes, he believes that a love affair with Ellen would be tolerated, an attitude showing his lack of realism. By the end of the novel, everyone has outflanked him, especially the women in his life who have used his innocence well.
Ellen begins the novel naïvely, thinking that New Yorkers will welcome her and seeing them as the harmless, innocent youngsters of her childhood. Quickly, because she has lived in a less dissembling culture, she learns that beneath the surface are cruelty, judgment, and hypocrisy. Not having been taught the rules of the game, she stretches the tolerance of New Yorkers, eventually forcing her exit. Of all the characters in the novel, she is perhaps the least naïve, forcing the reader to wonder how much of her knowledge is based on Wharton's life as an adult living in Paris.
Even New York City in the 1870s is a society of innocence. It worries about its social code — wedding details, the season, rituals, and rules — passing its time in total ignorance of what is to come. The supreme example of this is the farewell dinner for the Countess, a dinner that seems innocently gracious and honorable on the surface but which hides rigid assertiveness in enforcing the social order. This is an age of innocence for a society — existing in its own niggling concerns — that cannot conceive of the devastating war that will change all life and history, and sweep away this innocence forever.