As Wharton is writing about a period approximately fifty years before her own time, her retrospective view of the 1870s lays bare all of the changes that have come about since then—even the very title, The Age of Innocence, suggests that the story takes place during a definable period that’s now over. This sense of change over time is magnified by the central conflict of the novel: Archer and Ellen chafing against the social rules of their era, trying to change them, and failing to do so quickly enough that they can benefit from the results. Ultimately, Wharton gives a complex judgment on the value of change; while she seems to advocate caution in seeking change too quickly (it’s important, she suggests, to first discern which aspects of society are good and should be kept and which are harmful), Wharton’s novel emphatically argues that change is inevitable and progress is to be lauded.
In The Age of Innocence, New York society is naturally resistant to change, as its cornerstone is tradition; in the eyes of the strictest adherents to society’s rules, change can only ever mean destruction. Mrs. Archer, in particular, is known for lamenting the ways in which she sees society changing around her, believing that all changes are for the worse. The changes she abhors most often involve people being accepted into society whom she thinks are not refined enough or don’t have the family heritage to justify their inclusion, such as Mrs. Struthers. Mrs. Archer perceives these people to be dangerous to the fundamental values of high society, but in reality, their different perspectives often lead to progress. Wharton suggests, then, that the future will perceive social change as positive, even though high society perceives it as negative in the moment.
Throughout the bulk of the novel, Wharton portrays changes both in individual characters and in society as a whole, suggesting that the former will eventually cause the latter. The most notable change is Archer’s gradual broadening of mind under Ellen’s influence, but events such as Beaufort’s bank failure also modify the dynamic of society, forcing new perspectives on conservative people. For much of the book, however, society’s rules are so stifling that even the major changes exert great influence on only one or two people—for example, the Beauforts are the only ones whose lives are entirely transformed by their bank failure, while everyone else grapples with the fallout only as much as their closed-mindedness allows. The last chapter of the book, however, presents a very different situation. Because this final chapter takes place twenty-six years after the bulk of the novel, Wharton is able to show how all of the small stirrings of change, which seemed to have little momentum, have actually gathered strength over time to transform society in a larger way. For example, in his youth Archer lamented the lack of artistic life in New York and the lack of diversity in career options, but in the last chapter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is filling with treasures and the young men can do as they please with their careers.
In this final chapter, many of the rules that made Archer and Ellen so miserable have slackened; people have real pursuits to focus on and don’t care so much about policing their neighbors’ lives. This softens Wharton’s criticism of society by implying that society always had in it whatever was necessary for this change to gradually occur. She seems to suggest that not only change, but progress—change for the better—is inevitable given enough time. Though this knowledge can’t lessen the pain of Archer and Ellen’s thwarted love, it can provide hope that their tragedy doesn’t have to be repeated.
Wharton also conveys a sense of changes not limited to New York high society, particularly in terms of technological advances. Technologies such as the telephone and electric lighting seem unimaginable to Archer in the 1870s, but they’re perfectly normal both in the later setting of the last chapter, as well as to Wharton’s readers. These technological changes that affect the entire world help Wharton show that societal changes, too, aren’t confined to New York high society—humanity as a whole inevitably progresses over time, no matter how hard short-sighted people fight to stop it.
Change and Progress ThemeTracker
Change and Progress Quotes in The Age of Innocence
“Sincerely, then—what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility—the certainty—of a lot of beastly talk?”
“But my freedom—is that nothing?”
... “But aren’t you free as air as it is?” he returned. “Who can touch you? Mr. Letterblair tells me the financial question has been settled—”
“Oh, yes,” she said indifferently.
“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers—their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust—but one can’t make over society.”
His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.... It had seemed so exactly the place in which he ought to have found Madame Olenska; and she was far away, and even the pink sunshade was not hers...
[P]unctually at about this time Mrs. Archer always said that New York was very much changed.
Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non-participant, she was able... to trace each new crack in its surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables. It had been one of the amusements of Archer’s youth to... hear her enumerate the minute signs of disintegration that his careless gaze had overlooked. For New York, to Mrs. Archer’s mind, never changed without changing for the worse....
As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.... Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.
And as he had seen her that day, so she had remained;... generous, faithful, unwearied; but so lacking in imagination, so incapable of growth, that the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change.... And she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own, and resigned to leave it because she was convinced that, whatever happened, Newland would continue to inculcate in Dallas the same principles and prejudices which had shaped his parents’ lives, and that Dallas in turn (when Newland followed her) would transmit the sacred trust to little Bill.