By the time Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence, she had seen World War I destroy much of the world as she knew it. She looked back on her early years in New York as a time of social continuity, and felt that the passing of values from parent to child had a civilizing influence. However, she also saw the hypocrisy and cruelty practiced by individuals who wore the veneer of respectability. Both of these ideas are seen throughout The Age of Innocence, making it a timeless novel of both the Gilded Age and of social change.
Wharton was often critical of the rigidity of the social code, but she saw its purpose of handing down values and replicating culture. Order, loyalty, tradition, and duty are all values upheld and also criticized in her novel. Order is epitomized by the repetition of certain rituals. Newland Archer's wife must be sexually innocent and pretend not to know about affairs or passions. When we first meet May Welland we see her in white with white lilies of the valley, oblivious to the sexual innuendoes of the play she is watching. Later, the reader discovers that she knew all along of Newland's passion for Ellen, but she followed the accepted code of ignorance. Order is maintained by these understood practices. The wedding at Grace Church is a perfect replication of the order in which things must be done; even Newland has a list of socially mandated duties to perform. This is the way civilization continues.
Loyalty is also a virtue, not only among families and marriages, but also among men. Newland must go to the Mingott box to show his family loyalty when the notorious Ellen arrives. Ellen's "last supper" is presided over by the family showing its loyalty to May and ousting the interloper. At that same dinner, Lawrence Lefferts asks Newland to "cover" for him and lie to give him an alibi so that he can carry on an affair. Newland will lie and tell no one. Loyalty must be maintained.
Tradition also is a way of passing on values. The ritual of the wedding calls, the annual Beaufort ball, the season, the gowns that are bought but put away for two years, and the details of Newland's wedding are all examples of attitudes or events that are handed down from parent to child. This maintains desired order.
Duty is the idea that one soldiers on with a smile even in the face of adversity. Newland's commitment to May after she tells him she is pregnant is a duty understood. His acceptance that he will stay with her in a boring marriage even in the face of frustration is, in the end, what makes civilization work. At every turn of his passion, Newland sees the door closed by May and duty.
Enforcing the Code
Wharton's New York society rigidly enforces the social code. Until the van der Luydens come to her rescue, society refuses to welcome Ellen because she is a woman who has left her husband. If, however, the van der Luydens extend a dinner invitation to socially accept Ellen, then New Yorkers have a clear signal of what is expected. Mrs. Archer clearly explains this understood social code when she says that men are expected to have affairs as in "boys will be boys," but women are expected to be faithful to the end. If a person considers breaking the code, the eyes of society are everywhere. When Newland is out for a walk and sees Ellen, he worries about the eyes of Lefferts and Chivers who happen to see them. Because Newland has been in on many of the cigar-smoking gatherings of his fellow men, he knows the judgments that will arise about his meeting with Ellen. Despite that knowledge, Newland does not realize that the family has been plotting behind his back to keep him faithful. Ignoring the code does not work: This is evident because Ellen (having lived in a more open society) pays a price, even among her family, for doing so.
Because the social code enforces such rules as are good for society, personal freedom is sacrificed. Newland cannot follow his passion; he must do his duty. Ellen realizes that they cannot have an affair — no matter how much they might love each other — and maintain social integrity. To be married to a despicable husband who has numerous affairs and treats his wife badly is condoned by the social code, to divorce that husband is not.
Loopholes can be found in this code and those who find them might often be despised, but they are still tolerated in this society. Lawrence Lefferts is the prime example of hypocrisy, having numerous affairs but extolling Christian virtues and snubbing Ellen for leaving her husband. Newland realizes that if he leaves May for Ellen, society's sympathy will be with May, even though he could have a quiet affair and get away with it. May must pretend that she does not know Newland is in love with her cousin, but from her deathbed confession the reader sees that she lived with this knowledge most of her life. In the age of alleged innocence, hypocrisy abounds.
Appearances and Reality
True to the Gilded Age, Wharton's society knows that appearance is everything. Ellen realizes the hypocrisy of New Yorkers from her first glimpse of them. She tells Newland on many occasions that they do not want to hear the truth; they would rather pretend. May gives a lavish going-away dinner for Ellen. It is a huge success, but under the surface it is a "civilized" triumph because of May's position as "wife." Similarly, all of New York turns out for the annual Beaufort Ball, but under the surface they know he is scandalous and uncomfortably not one of theirs. His adultery and that of Lefferts are acceptable as long as they are discreet.
Men and Women
In Wharton's world, women are sexually innocent, not expected to have affairs, acknowledge those of their husbands, or ever divorce. The only power they have is the power that May uses: duty, loyalty, and (most of all) pregnancy. Victorian women are beautiful trophies but innocent brides. Single, they are ornaments like May with her exciting and radiant glow, and married, they are mothers who keep the home and provide continuity. Ellen's sin is that she refuses to accept these restrictions and will not lie about loving Newland. Men too have restrictions, one of which is their jobs. The only acceptable vocation for Newland is the law, however boring. He must not dirty his hands in business or "trade."