The Use Of Irony In The Age Of Innocence

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is a 19th-century romance that is told from Newland Archer's point of view. He lives at a time when tradition and social status means everything. Archer, who is the main character, is in love with two women who are complete opposites. May Welland is sweet and pure and beautiful, whereas, Ellen Olenska is separated, had an affair with another man, and not even beautiful anymore but definitely more exciting and worldly than May. May represents the 'old, traditional New York of Newland's youth while Countess Ellen Olenska figures the new progression, a world where people look forward rather than backward'. Should Newland choose the one he really wants to be with, or do what is expected of him by tradition and what society thinks? Irony appears throughout this whole story in its characters and in its plots.

The story begins with some of the characters at the opera in New York at the old Academy of Music. The important people of New York still come because it is the thing to do. It is ironic that they still come considering a new opera house is soon to be constructed. One would think that the old opera house would not be good enough for them. Also, most of the people who come are more interested in being seen than seeing the program itself. Also, another ironic detail is that rather than making a grand entrance in their fancy carriages, they have someone come get them so that they can leave as soon as the play is over. 

Newland Archer walks in late to the opera. He does this because it is the thing to do. He is all into what is in and wants to show the world what a fashionable person he is. Ironically, he likes thinking about the excitement of the opera more than he actually likes being there. When he gets to the opera, he sees his fiancé, May Welland, sitting in the box across from him. She is holding the 'Lilies of the Valley' flowers that he sent to her. This flower represents purity and May dressed in all white is a vision of purity. Archer is worldly in comparison to May. This is the reason he chose May. Her sweetness and innocence intrigue him. This, too, is ironic in that he is the complete opposite of May. He wants to be with someone who is not like him. He wants to be the one to change her into someone like him.

Archer notices that a lot of people are looking at the box where his fiancé is sitting. They are all looking at Countess Ellen Olenska who is May's cousin. She left her husband and lived with her husband's secretary. Because of this, she has a bad reputation and Archer doesn't want May's reputation to be ruined because of her. Then later Archer defends Ellen to his mother when his mother says that Ellen's actions are conspicuous. He says it wasn't Ellen's fault that the husband she married turned out to be a 'brute' and she has the right to act any way she wants. Later to the men, he says; 'Women ought to be free – as free as we are.' How ironic it is that in one instance Archer doesn't approve of Ellen and then in another instance he is defending her.

The thoughts of Ellen as compared to May has Archer worried that maybe May would not be such a good marriage partner after all. He is worried that her innocence is brought about by women who think that is what men want. Ironically he thinks that maybe May is putting on an act, that she is not as innocent as she lets on. Also, the other men he knows lie and cheat on their wives. He does not want this in his marriage. He has already kept some things from May like his own affair with Mrs. Rushworth. Ironically he feels that they really do not know their real selves.

Then the Mingotts decide that they would have a party for Ellen. No one accepts their invitations due to Lawerence Lefferts. This too is ironic in that he supposedly told everyone about Ellen's bad reputation when he himself has had a lot of affairs. Archer's mother goes to talk to Louisa van der Luyden, her cousin. The Luyden's are the most influential family in New York society. Luyden thinks that since the Mingotts are ok with Ellen than everyone else should accept Ellen. The Luyden's cannot come, instead, the reception is to be with the Duke of Austria who is even more influential. He is so important that it doesn't matter that Ellen has a reputation. This too is ironic in that just being with someone important can change the way society feels about someone's reputation. In Archer's society, it does.

For example, Ellen is invited to a party at Mrs. Struther's house. Mrs. Struther's parties were considered improper because of smoking, drinking champagne, and wild music. Now everyone who is anyone is upset that Ellen would go to such a party especially after the Lyuden's party where they tried to save her social status. Now she was putting the van der Luyden's social standing at risk. It was ironic how she could attend one party and be accepted, and then attend another party and be shunned.

Next Archer's boss wants Archer to be Ellen's lawyer. How ironic. He is to convince Ellen not to get a divorce. He tells Archer that it would hurt too many people if she did. 'There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free'. Archer convinces Ellen not to get a divorce. Later, he tells Ellen he would like to marry her. How ironic is this? He convinces her not to get a divorce, yet he would like to marry her. Ellen blames him for her not being able to marry him. By convincing her not to get a divorce because of the scandal it would cause and how marriage is a sacred institution, Archer has changed Ellen's way of thinking. He had made it almost impossible for them to have a relationship. Now Ellen thinks that they must do what society expects them to do. 

It is ironic that May is the one who pushes Archer towards Ellen. She wants him to be nice to her, not realizing his increasing attraction for Ellen. May tells Archer that she 'believes 

That two people who love each other should be together even if it goes against public opinion'. She goes on to tell him that she wants him to be with the one he loves if he has already told her that he wants to be with her. She is talking about his affair with Mrs. Rushworth. She thinks he is still thinking about her. Archer wants May to move up the wedding. It is not because he is wanting to get married in order to be with May. It is to get it over with before something happens between Ellen and him. Finally, May agrees to move up the wedding. The irony here is that Archer was going to use the fact that May wouldn't move up the wedding the reason for breaking up with her in order to be with Ellen. It is all Archer's fault that he has fixed it so that he has little chance of being with Ellen now.

At his wedding, Archer realizes that all the things that he thought were so important: the way people dress, their customs, their thoughts, are now no longer important to him. This type of living prevents people from being honest and truthful about life. Rather they are focusing on things that don't really matter. When May comes down the aisle, Archer is still looking for Ellen. He even forgets to give May his arm when they are to walk down the aisle together after the wedding ceremony is over. The irony again is that May is happy and Archer, who did exactly what New York society expected of him, is miserable.

Yet another irony is that the house he and May are to spend their wedding night in sprung a water leak and now they are to stay in the same house where he and Ellen were at. He thinks about Ellen and wishes she were there instead of May. After the honeymoon and life get back to normal, Archer treats May the way society would have him treat her. He realizes that May loves him, and he could always count on her to be there for him. His previous thoughts of changing her into a worldly wife are gone. Ironically, he has reverted to his old way of living and thinking. May is influencing Archer in a way that he doesn't like.

Then Archer finds out Ellen is in Boston. He lies to his wife and tells her he has a business meeting in Boston. He is, ironically, becoming like the other men in his life: lying to their wives to see other women. He tells Ellen he loves her and wants them to be together. Ellen, however, has been changed by Archer in the way she feels about life. She likes New York society and their way of life. She has made it her goal in life to protect others. That means she cannot ruin May's happiness. She tells Archer that 'you hated happiness brought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before – and it's better than anything I've known'. Therefore she cannot betray May. If Archer breaks it off with May, Ellen says she will go back to her husband, which Archer does not want.

Archer lives his life with May and keeps up appearances. Ironically, Archer is not really living life at all. He keeps thinking about Ellen. To him this is real. Everything else is just a dream to him. Then Archer finds out that Ellen is in financial trouble because Mrs. Mingott lowered the amount of money she gives to Ellen. Everyone thinks Ellen is having an affair with Beaufort, and that he is helping to support her. Beaufort is in trouble and may lose everything he has. If this happens Ellen would be cut off from financial help totally. Everyone believes that she should have gone back to her husband when he offered to take her back. Ironically it is Archer that told her not to go back to her husband, even though everyone else was telling her she should go back for the money. Very upset, Archer goes to Washington to talk to her. Before he leaves, May tells him to go see Ellen. Ladies were brought up to hide what they really want to say. This was, ironically, May’s polite way of letting Archer know that she knows about him and Ellen.

When Mr. Beaufort is found guilty of the bank's failing, everyone turns against him. He is no longer accepted as a prominent member of society. His wife, too, is in an awkward position. If she stays with him, her reputation will go gradually get worse, but if she leaves him, people will have little respect for her either. Ironically, either way, she loses her social standing. Because of Mr. Beaufort, another irony in this story takes place. Mrs. Mingott has a stroke and her attitude about life changes. She wants all the bad things that have happened to go away. She wants to go back to being 'innocent' and free from problems. She becomes interested in other family members that she had not paid any attention to in the past, and she even asks Mr. Welland whom she did not like to come to visit her. Social status doesn't mean the same as it did before her stroke.

Ellen comes home to New York and Archer picks her up to drive her home. Archer ironically thinks only of Ellen while Ellen thinks of her grandmother too, and not wanting to hurt the family. This was due to Archer. In the beginning, Ellen would not have cared about hurting others to get what she wants. Now she even worries that they are sitting in May's carriage and how unfaithful to her they are being. She is in a turmoil of doing what is right and what she really wants. Both Ellen and Archer does not want to have an affair. Archer ironically feels that they should meet every now and then so that they can be together for real. If this happened, Ellen knows that Archer would leave May, and she cannot let this happen. Archer asks Ellen how they can make their love for each other last. Ellen says 'They can only be near each other if they stay away from each other, or else they're just two people related to May trying to be happy by betraying people'.

Archer watches May and realizes that May is most predictable. She is becoming like her mother and he is becoming like her dad. He hates the same routine and begins to hate his future with May. He feels trapped. He will never be able to get out of the rut he is in. '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 interest held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other'. Yet ironically this is what he wanted in a marriage. He wanted a marriage that society accepts. He wanted to mold May into his idea of a good wife, a wife that everyone around them would admire. Most everyone does admire May and respect the wife that she has become. Archer was desperate. How he wanted to be with Ellen. A thought enters his head. If only May would die it would solve all his problems. How ironic that he would wish death on anyone. He lives to be loved, respected and admired by all who know him, yet he would wish death on May.

Archer tells Ellen that he doesn't want to have to meet her in secret all the time. Yet how else can they be together? If they continue their relationship in New York they would be lying to people. If they ran off together, they would be destroying other people's lives. Ironically they are already hurting other people. Sensing that something is going on between Asher and Ellen, May tells Ellen. She knows that if Ellen thinks that she is pregnant, that she will stop seeing Archer. 

One night Archer and May attend the same opera they had first attended right before they got engaged. That night he had proposed to her. Ironically tonight he wants to leave her. He tells May he has a headache and wants to go home. The others think that he just wants to go home to make love to May. Ironically it was just the opposite. He wants to tell her he loves Ellen. Yet May tells him she has been unfair to Ellen and she knows that she was wrong. She tells Archer that Ellen is going back to Europe. How ironic it is that May is the one to tell Archer that Ellen is leaving and that she is having a going away party for her. It too is ironic because May can't wait for Ellen to leave, and Archer can't stand the idea that she is going. Yet they are both giving her a going away party.

It has been 26 years since Ellen left. Ironically, Archer was outwardly faithful to his wife all these years. Then when she dies, he really does miss her. Archer had learned that 'it didn't matter if the marriage was dull, as long as it maintained its dignity'. Archer's son, Dallas, is to be married to Beaufort's son. How ironic that Archer gives them his blessing even though Beaufort had disgraced the whole family and the fact that Archer did not like him. Archer has learned that family takes precedence and sacrifice over one's own wants. He also learns that his children's generation is more apt to get what they want out of life instead of settling for what society wants for them.

His son Dallas tells him that his fiancé asked him to stop and see Ellen in Paris. Ironically, Dallas knows about his dad's love for Ellen. He tells Archer that the day before his mother died she told him that Archer would always be there for them because 'he had once given up what he most wanted when she asked him to'. Archer tells him that May never asked him that. Dallas says that in Archer's generation, one had to guess what the other was thinking because no one ever said what was actually on their minds. 'In reality, they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs'.

Now that May and the count are dead, Archer has a chance to meet Ellen again. He is fifty-seven years old and he tells himself 'it's too late for anything but friendship'. Ironically, Dallas knows that Archer and Ellen were in love with each other, but gave up their own happiness in order to keep everyone around them happy. Dallas takes Archer with him to see Ellen. But when it is time to go up to Ellen's, Archer decides not to go up to her room. He knows that 'it's more real to me here than if I went up'. He tells Dallas to tell Ellen that the reason he doesn't want to see her is that ' I'm old-fashioned: that's enough'. Here he does it again. He would rather see the meeting played out in his mind than to face Ellen and it not be as real. Archer gives up a chance to love and be loved to stick with old traditions and values. 

Lastly, the author's title 'The Age of Innocence' is very misleading to readers. One would expect to read about innocence in characters. But throughout the story, the characters are far from innocent. They all have secrets that are both shameful and not what an upstanding and honest person would take part in. It is ironic that the only innocent character in the whole story appeared to be May Welland. However, she too was not that innocent. May knew about his love for Ellen and did everything she could to keep them apart. Archer, however, does not feel guilty about his affair. He wishes that May had experienced life a little more like he had. Maybe that was so that he would feel less guilty about his own faults. He had already experienced love with a married woman. However, he justifies his affair by thinking that someone had to have some experience or 'they would be doomed in life'. 

Archer chose the girl whom society would have him marry. 'Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if the marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways'. Archer ends up giving up a second chance for real happiness. He does not listen to his heart and what he feels. 'She is just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. . . He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth-floor balcony. He says to himself . . . It’s more real to me here than if I went up'. Then he walks away from Ellen. He gives up Ellen again rather than face the reality that she might not love him as he loves her. He was not willing to take a chance. Ironically he will probably live the rest of his life wondering if he had made the right decision.

Works Cited

  • Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton; a Woman in Her Time. Viking Press, 1971.
  • Evron, Nir. Realism, Irony, and Morality in Edith Wharton's22 The Age of Innocence. Journal of Modern Literature. Indiana University Press. Volume 35. Number 2. Winter 2013.
  • Hadley, Kathy Miller. “Ironic Structure and Untold Stories in ‘The Age Of Innocence.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 23, no. 2, June 1991.
  • Hoeller, Hildegard. Edith Wharton's Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction. University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Jesse, Margaret Jay. 'Narration and Masking in The Age of Innocence.' Journal of Modern Literature. The University of Alabama at Birmingham. Indiana University Press. Volume 36. Number 1. Fall 2012.
  • Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence: Dover Publ., 1997.
16 August 2021
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