Essay on Age of Innocence
- February 13, 2017
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Free Essay
(First 3 Pages)
According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, the turn of the twentieth century in America is called the transformational era (1-29). It is called such because between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, America was completely transformed. Before the Civil War, America had been basically a rural, agrarian, isolated republic made up of idealistic, confident, and self-reliant inhabitants; by the time the United States entered World War I as a world power, it was an industrialized, urbanized, continental nation whose people had come to conditions with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, as well as with profound changes in its social institutions and cultural morals. The major feature of the period, which resulted in the various social and cultural changes, was nation-wide industrialization.
This industrial revolution produced a group of men known variously as buccaneers, captains of industry, self-made men, who, attracted by the exclusiveness of elite society, tried to buy their way into it with the aid of their new money and social ambition. Therefore high society governed by the old conventions started to witness an inner incoherence: there remained the old conservative aristocracy, to which was added the young aristocracy who were rich and somewhat vulgar pleasure seekers, and then appeared the nouveaux rich who squeezed in through business success and challenged the narrowness of the well established groups. Against this stood the ancient European aristocracy and its age-old traditions of powerful scholar currents, sensibilities, and life-style. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was written against this background.
William Dean Howells as the truthful treatment of material has defined realism.
According to his theory, realists are believers in democracy in that they describe the common, the average, the everyday life in their fiction; they are also supporter in pragmatism for they concentrate their writing on the present time and place instead of seeking something more remote or supernatural; the truth they search for and express is a relative truth “associated with discernible consequences and verifiable by experience” (Holman 397). Realistic writing tends to be experimental, for realists are everlastingly experimenting to create the proper means for the proper ends. According to Howells, the democratic attitudes of realists prompt them to attach great significance to the individual and to give priority to characterization in the novel, for the realists think the feeling of fidelity to life stems from individualization and particularization of individual figures. The social side of these individual figures, which is the most visible, the most comprehensible, and the most varied, provides the best vehicle in lieu of the period the realists live in and want to convey in their fiction. In formulating their analysis of society and providing criticism of it, the realists select and reproduce the things “affecting the lives of the greatest number, which happen often in the realm of instincts, desires, and passions” (Cady, 31).
The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, but it was set in the time of Old New York in the 1870s and 1880s. Wharton centered her story around the society she was most recognizable with New York upper class, which was wealthy enough to care about leisure, yet was strict in its decorum and narrow in its conventions. As Edith Wharton remarked in The Age of Innocence, “what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totems that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago” (4). In this novel, Wharton offers a realistic and comprehensive picture of a society where manners, morals and codes of conduct are a key to the understanding of the way in which people behave. Using such details as fashion and dress, the things people ate, the books they read, the places they went for entertainment, the way they talked, the things they said and the things they did not say, Wharton is talented to reveal her desire for change and the consequences of the failure to change in both personal and social terms. Wharton’s characters are also created out of her memory of the several individuals “who thronged her parents’ drawing room or whom she encountered at the dinner parties and the great balls” (Lewis 430). There is, as her biographer remarks, “a procession of living and recognizable ghosts” (430) walking behind her characters’ life in her imaginary world. By presenting the realistic details and individuals, Wharton has revivified her Old New York, which she both abhorred and was drawn to. It was this world that persisted in holding its “form,” but was impinge upon by transform initiated by commercialism.