In this novel, New York high society is governed by a vast array of social rules that dictate almost every aspect of its members’ lives. These rules almost always go unspoken, and generally, the need to actually spell them out means that someone has shamefully transgressed them (as Ellen Olenska does). New York society wants, above all, to avoid scandal and the headache that goes along with it, and these rules aim to safeguard all people from any unpleasantness.
As Wharton describes it, the social code revolves around “form,” “taste,” and “family.” “Form” spans questions of fashion and it dictates that everyone in high society conform to certain standards of action and dress so that no one particularly stands out from the crowd. However, form seems to explicitly deal only with outward appearances; it is unconcerned with any hypocrisy flourishing underneath.
“Taste” is regarded as presiding over and dictating “form.” Taste seems to deal more broadly with what it is and isn’t proper to do, particularly in matters involving sexual relations. Taste relates to the society’s obsession with innocence; characters cannot let on through any action or way of dressing that they are not perfectly ignorant of everything regarded as taboo. For example, Ellen wears a dress to the opera that is judged to be in bad taste because it’s too low-cut.
“Family” acts as a unifying principle in New York, as people are expected to exhibit loyalty to their relations above all, and the families frequently intermarry, which consolidates loyalties and connections. Families must do their best to keep their members in line with society’s rules, but they must also present a unified front when one of their members does transgress “form” or “taste”—in other words, in the face of scandal. For example, though the Wellands and the Archers don’t entirely approve of Ellen’s way of life, they band together to help her when other families socially reject her.
At the beginning of the book, Archer lives unquestioningly by society’s rules and he even prides himself on his knowledge of how to navigate them. If he has toyed with transgression, as in his affair with the married Mrs. Rushworth, he has done so in the socially accepted way and he has never gone too far, nor rejected the system as a whole. However, throughout the course of the story, Archer begins to doubt the wisdom of these rules. He realizes that they set men and women up for failure in marriage, and that they prevent people from interacting with each other in any sincere or honest way. Overall, social rules make his life dull, monotonous, and dissatisfying. Archer also questions society’s rules in a way that can be considered feminist. He pronounces that women should be free to do as they like without fear of estrangement, and he comes to see the value of divorce. He perceives that society doesn’t allow women to develop as whole people, but instead carves them into its stilted ideal.
Ultimately, Archer is forced to fall back into line with society in order to avoid being a complete scoundrel by abandoning his pregnant wife. Once Ellen leaves, he lives a more conventional life than that he had hoped; he watches society change around him, but mostly declines to participate in these changes. In the last chapter of the book, however, Wharton shows that in Archer’s older age New York society has loosened up, and the new generation is constantly acting in ways that would have been considered unacceptable in Archer’s youth. Wharton suggests that social rules aren’t correct just because they’re traditional, and neither are they set in stone, even if they seem to be. Sooner or later, progress will wipe away the most foolishly constricting customs, even if change comes at the price of innocence.
The Rules of Society ThemeTracker
The Rules of Society Quotes in The Age of Innocence
...[A]n unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.
“Living together? Well, why not? Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”
He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.
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.
“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.”
No, it was worse a thousand times if, judging Beaufort, and probably despising him, she was yet drawn to him by all that gave him an advantage over the other men about her: his habit of two continents and two societies, his familiar association with artists and actors..., and his careless contempt for local prejudices.... [T]he circumstances of his life, and a certain native shrewdness, made him better worth talking to than many men, morally and socially his betters, whose horizon was bounded by the Battery and the Central Park. How should anyone coming from a wider world not feel the difference and be attracted by it?
I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—an unfairness—to somebody else.... What sort of life could we build on such foundations?... I’ve wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which might make it right that they should—should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged... pledged to the person we’ve spoken of... and if there is any way... any way in which you can fulfill your pledge... even by her getting a divorce... Newland, don’t give her up because of me!
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...”
In all the rainy desert of autumnal London there were only two people whom the Newland Archers knew; and these two they had sedulously avoided, in conformity with the old New York tradition that it was not “dignified” to force oneself on the notice of one’s acquaintances in foreign countries.
Mrs. Archer and Janey... had so unflinchingly lived up to this principle... that they had almost achieved the record of never having exchanged a word with a “foreigner” other than those employed in hotels and railway-stations.
“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—”
[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.
“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.
“She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”
Archer received this strange communication in silence.... At length he said in a low voice: “She never asked me.”