As suggested by its title, The Age of Innocence focuses on New York society’s stubborn insistence on a blinding and damaging pretension of innocence. In many ways, this performance stems from society’s avoidance of scandal at all costs, and it often amounts to characters pretending that they don’t understand things that they actually understand completely.
In particular, New York society insists that women remain innocent and pure. Women have long been valued for purity and scorned when they fall from this ideal, particularly through sexual experience. In the society of the novel, innocence is a woman’s foremost virtue, and May Welland embodies this ideal. She leads a sheltered life with little knowledge of the world beyond what her mother sees fit to tell her. As a result, she comes rather unprepared to her marriage with Archer, making him feel that they’ll never be able to really relate to each other or have honest, meaningful discussions.
However, it becomes clear that May’s innocence is partly an act. For example, Archer eventually realizes that she knows of his feelings for Ellen, and she has intentionally made it impossible for him and Ellen to run off together. Even so, May never acknowledges what she knows or what she’s done; instead, she maintains the illusion that Archer has successfully concealed his affair. This is what society demands, and she never strays from its path.
Although the characters don’t directly discuss women’s virginity, the idea of innocence is intimately connected to it. First and foremost, in order to preserve their innocence, women can’t know about topics surrounding sexual desire, marital infidelity, or divorce. May’s purity of mind is represented by the lilies-of-the-valley that Archer always sends her; these flowers are white, a color traditionally associated with virginity. Archer perceives that women are trained to preserve their innocence so that their husbands can have the pleasure of stripping them of it, but he notes that, realistically, this doesn’t make for a happy marriage either for husbands or wives.
As May’s character foil, Ellen Olenska represents experience, the opposite of innocence. For one thing, she’s already married, and thus she is no longer a virgin. Furthermore, she’s seen far more of life than any of the other female characters of her age: she has struggled in her marriage and has escaped from it, and she has traveled widely, both of which make her wise. Although Archer is initially irritated by the negative social repercussions of Ellen’s lack of innocence, it soon becomes one of the characteristics that most attracts him to her. Ellen’s experience allows Archer to meet her as an equal, whereas he has to hide parts of himself to protect May and he often feels that he can’t have sincere discussions with her.
Published in 1920 but set in the 1870s, this novel also comments on the supposed loss of innocence occasioned by World War I, which ended in 1918. By focusing on the rampant hypocrisy of New York society, Wharton suggests that the prewar United States may not have been as innocent as it seemed then. Additionally, the characters in this book seem particularly foolish to a world looking back to the 1870s through the lens of a devastating global war, as the characters’ lives are focused on little more than keeping up proper appearances to sustain the approval of those around them. In this way, the title, The Age of Innocence, can refer both to a time when New York society prized innocence above all else, and to a time when society was laughably ignorant of the horrors of the more complicated world to come.
Innocence vs. Experience ThemeTracker
Innocence vs. Experience Quotes in The Age of Innocence
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... 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; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent, it was full of the twists and turns and defenses of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of a factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.
The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at the dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared with hers. It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.
Traces still lingered on [her features] of fresh beauty like her daughter’s; and he asked himself if May’s face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
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. That was what I’d never known before—and it’s better than anything I’ve known.... I can’t go back now to that other way of thinking. I can’t love you unless I give you up.
A stormy discussion as to whether the wedding presents should be “shown” had darkened the last hours before the wedding; and it seemed inconceivable to Archer that grown-up people should work themselves into a state of agitation over such trifles.... Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with worldwide significance.
“And all the while, I suppose,” he thought, “real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them...”
“Is it a bad business—for May?”
He stood in the window... feeling in every fiber the wistful tenderness with which she had spoken her cousin’s name.
“For that’s the thing we’ve always got to think of—haven’t we—by your own showing?” she insisted.... “[I]f it’s not worth while to have given up, to have missed things, so that others may be saved from disillusionment and misery—then everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by contrast so bare and so poor because no one there took account of them—all these things are a sham or a dream—”
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.
“Poor May!” he said.
“Poor? Why poor?” she echoed with a strained laugh.
“Because I shall never be able to open a window without worrying you,” he rejoined, laughing also.
For a moment she was silent; then she said very low, her head bowed over her work: “I shall never worry if you’re happy.”
“Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy unless I can open the windows!”
And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers.... He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything....
It was the old New York way, of taking life “without effusion of blood”; the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.
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.
“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.
He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.