Near the beginning of the novel, while reflecting on the type of relationship he wants to have with May once they are married, Archer notes the situational irony inherent in the expectations of husbands and wives in their society:
What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a “decent” fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? […] He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposedly happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess.
Here Archer is reflecting on the irony that what makes women like May “marriageable” (namely innocence and “hav[ing] no past to conceal”) is the very thing that makes it impossible for men like him to have happy and successful marriages with them (as men do have pasts and life experience and want partners with whom they can share such things).
The final line in the passage captures the irony well—the happy marriage that Archer envisions for himself and May “presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess.” In other words, she cannot be the type of partner he actually wants because she was trained to be the type of partner their society incorrectly assumes that he wants.
Near the beginning of the novel, as May and Archer’s families try to help Ellen integrate into New York society, they connect her with the van der Luydens, a couple with a lot of power and influence in their social circle. In an example of situational irony, Archer’s family believes that Ellen has offended the van der Luydens by attending a party hosted by Mrs. Struthers (as she is not a respected member of their society), when, really, they have no problem with it.
The irony comes across in the following passage, as Mr. van der Luyden stops by Mrs. Archer’s home and the entire Archer family is shocked and relieved to find that all he wants to say about Ellen is a compliment:
“Ah—a charming woman. I have just been to see her,” said Mr. van der Luyden, complacency restored to his brow […] “She has a real gift for arranging flowers. I had sent her a few carnations from Skuytercliff, and I was astonished.”
A dead silence greeted this unusual flow of words from Mr. van der Luyden. Mrs. Archer drew her embroidery out of the basket into which she had nervously tumbled it, and Newland, leaning against the chimney-place and twisting a humming-bird-feather screen in his hand, saw Janey’s gaping countenance lit up by the coming of the second lamp.
It’s clear from the language in this passage that the Archers were expecting Mr. van der Luyden to condemn and reject Ellen rather than comment on her flower arrangement skills—there is a “dead silence” following his words, Mrs. Archer retrieves her embroidery that had “nervously tumbled” away from her, and Janey’s face reveals a “gaping countenance.” Through this ironic twist, the Archers learn that the rules of elite New York society aren’t always as rigid as they believe them to be.
Over the course of the novel, Archer teaches Ellen how to assimilate into upper-class New York society after many years living in Europe, sharing specifics with her about how to conform. This is an example of situational irony because what Archer ends up loving about Ellen the most is the ways that she challenges the restrictive and arbitrary rules of society, while Ellen comes to appreciate Archer for the ways that he respects and honors the rules.
The irony of their mismatched appreciation for each other comes across in the following speech Ellen gives to Archer about why they cannot be together:
“I felt there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and—unnecessary. The very good people didn’t convince me; I felt they’d never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands—and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference […] I can’t go back now to that other way of thinking. I can’t love you unless I give you up.”
Here Ellen thanks Archer for helping her to understand why she had to follow rules that “at first seemed so hard and—unnecessary.” She explains that the reason she was so compelled by his particular guidance is because she saw how he didn’t just follow the rules blindly, but decided to do so rather than give into “disloyalty and cruelty and indifference.” Ironically, she cannot say yes to having an affair with him because he has taught her to reject this type of “disloyalty” (as she puts it, “I can’t love you unless I give you up”). In other words, Archer has done too good a job educating Ellen on how to behave and now must pay the price for it, as she stays committed to the rules of fidelity that he seeks to break.
In an example of situational irony, Archer seeks to speed up his wedding with May while simultaneously falling in love with Ellen (and therefore wanting to end things with May). While at first he wanted to get married more quickly to avoid a year’s worth of pointless anticipation, by the time May successfully convinces her family to move the wedding up, Archer is doubting whether he wants to get married to her at all.
The irony comes across in Archer’s reaction to receiving a letter from May announcing her victory in convincing her family to speed up their nuptials:
[W]hen Archer unlocked his own front-door, he found a similar envelope on the hall-table on top of his pile of notes and letters. The message inside the envelope was also from May Welland, and ran as follows: “Parents consent wedding Tuesday after Easter at twelve Grace Church eight bridesmaids please see Rector so happy love May.”
Archer crumpled up the yellow sheet as if the gesture could annihilate the news it contained.
The irony here is palpable—May signed her letter “so happy love May” while Archer “crumpled up” the letter as if to “annihilate the news it contained.” He knows that he has no one to blame but himself in this moment—as the force behind the speedy scheduling—and thus feels even more anger and frustration. It is too late to go back on his word and, thus, he goes through with wedding, all the while continuing to desire Ellen instead of May.
On the night of May and Archer’s wedding, Mr. van der Luyden offers that they stay at Skuytercliff since there’s a leak at the house where they were supposed to be staying. In an example of both situational and dramatic irony, May is delighted at this news (since Skuytercliff is known to be a very beautiful estate) while Archer is distraught by it because, as he and readers know, this is the very house where he and Ellen revealed their feelings for each other not long ago.
The irony comes across in Archer’s reaction to learning about this offer from a member of Mr. van der Luyden’s staff:
Archer stared at the speaker so blankly that he repeated in still more apologetic accents: “It’ll be exactly the same, sir, I do assure you—” and May’s eager voice broke out, covering the embarrassed silence: “The same as Rhinebeck? The Patroon’s house? But it will be a hundred thousand times better—won’t it, Newland? It’s too dear and kind of Mr. van der Luyden to have thought of it.”
That Archer “stared at the speaker so blankly” shows the situational irony in this moment. He is shocked by the turn of events because, in the very house where he was going to consummate his relationship with Ellen, he will now do so with May.
The dramatic irony comes across in the way in which May believes it is “too dear and kind of Mr. van der Luyden” to offer them his fancy home, as, unlike Archer and readers, she has no idea what this place represents for her new husband. The dramatic irony is furthered later in the conversation when May exclaims, “Ah, it’s just our luck beginning—the wonderful luck we’re always going to have together!” Of course, they do not have wonderful luck, as Archer will continue to long for Ellen throughout their entire marriage. This is one of the moments in which May’s innocence and naiveté is apparent.
Throughout The Age of Innocence there is tension between the American and European characters (including Ellen, who has spent so much of her life in Europe that she speaks and acts according to European customs rather than American ones). In an example of situational irony, the upper-class New York women in the novel buy the latest French fashion, only to put it aside for years so as not to seem too French, as Sophy Jackson explains:
“[I]t was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one’s Paris dresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper.”
The irony here comes through in the story that Sophy tells about Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow—she meticulously ordered the finest French fashion items only to die before she ever wore them. By including stories like this, Wharton is highlighting how Americans at the time wanted to see themselves as separate from—and superior to—Europeans, while, in reality, they were still looking to Europeans as leaders in the realms of fashion and culture.
In the final chapter of the novel—which takes place 26 years into the future—Archer reflects on his son Dallas’s engagement to Beaufort’s daughter Fanny. His reflections capture the situational irony inherent to their engagement:
What was left of the little world he had grown up in, and whose standards had bent and bound him? He remembered a sneering prophecy of poor Lawrence Lefferts’s, uttered years ago in that very room: “If things go on at this rate, our children will be marrying Beaufort’s bastards.” It was just what Archer’s eldest son, the pride of his life, was doing; and nobody wondered or reproved.
The irony here is that the occurrence the uppity Lefferts finds so unthinkable and frightening—"our children […] marrying Beaufort’s bastards”—has, in fact, come to pass. While “bastards” is a derogatory term for children born outside of marriage, and Fanny technically was born to a married couple, she is the daughter of Beaufort and Fanny Ring, the prostitute he had an affair with before marrying. Thus, her birth is not entirely "respectable" by their society's standards.
There is another layer of irony here, too, which is that, while the rules of elite New York society felt immovable to Archer when he was a young man, they actually were quite moveable. In other words, while Dallas and Fanny’s marriage would have seemed scandalous in the 1870s, it is much more acceptable here in the 1900s. Their engagement suggests that progress and change are inevitable and no man-made social structures are ever permanent. Archer naturally reflects on this with regret as, had the rules been different when he was young, he could have married Ellen instead of May.