Irony, in which meaning is inverted to suggest the opposite of what is written, is used throughout “The Age of Innocence” to highlight and gently mock the superficiality of the New York elite. The very title of Wharton’s novel establishes a profound sense of irony in its nostalgic yet satirical tone. It is unclear whether Wharton sees New York’s 19th century “innocence” as an endearing feature of a society still free from modernism, or as a sign of its naivety and ignorance.
The characters’ innocence is reflected in their belief that their society is immortal but “The Age of Innocence” is written with the benefit of hindsight making the reader wise to the immaturity of such a conviction. Whether Wharton laments the loss of this ostensibly innocent society or rejoices in its inevitable demise remains ambiguous. The setting of the opening chapter of the novel, an elitist New York opera house, immediately reveals Wharton’s criticisms of 19th century society.
The very foundations of opera are kept alive by conventions, mirroring the almost ritualistic orthodoxy of Newland and his contemporaries.
Indeed, in keeping with the “unalterable and unquestioned” tradition of Opera, the performance has been “translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English speaking audiences,” highlighting the ironic nature of this austere setting in that none of the audience can understand the singers they have paid vast sums to see. Wharton also emphasizes that the music is translated from the “German” lyrics of “French” operas sung by “Swedish” artists, demonstrating through this list of different nationalities the imported and absurd nature of the operatic tradition.
The Opera House itself aims to “compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals,” implying that its American audience, whom the “press had already learned to describe as ‘exceptionally brilliant’” is in competition to be more glamorous and “European” than Europe itself. Wharton reveals in these ironic descriptions both the far reaching influence of the rich and the extent of their insecurities as they insist on being recognized as “brilliant,” even if the authenticity of such a compliment is diminished by the fact the press have “learned” to give it.
Conservative New York society also frequents the opera house as it is “small and inconvenient,” thus preventing the intrusion of the “nouveaux riches. ” This term was used to describe financers and industrialists who had grown wealthier than the aristocrats who were the opera house’s traditional patrons. New businessmen both threatened and intrigued the old families of New York, who recognized the competition they posed to their own financial status while still being drawn to such wealthy and potentially powerful people.
It was this obsession with wealth that attracted New Yorkers to the opera, as demonstrated by Wharton’s panoramic description of the extravagantly decorated music hall. This provides a highly effective introductory setting to her novel that acclimatizes the reader to the fashions of Old New York while also presenting the operatic elite as a sort of clan united in a desire to show-off its high-brow tastes in art and entertainment. However, the audience’s interest in the opera itself is limited.
Its members prefer to occupy themselves with scrutinizing the fashions and manners of their peers, from the clothes they wear to the means of transportation by which they arrive, “in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient ‘Brown coupe. ’” The richly ironic language used to contrast the “private,” “spacious” carriages, with the “humbler” public coupe reveals the aesthetic snobbery of the New York elite. Its members go to the opera, not merely to listen to music, but more importantly to prove they have the means and inclination to do so.
Indeed, soon after arriving at the opera house, Newland Archer “turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house,” finding more entertainment in appraising his peers than in the performance on stage. Archer’s attitude reflects that of his fellow audience members, most of whom want to “get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it. ” Wharton’s description of her characters desire to “get away” from social gatherings is supremely ironic, suggesting that they only attend the opera in order to conform to the stereotypes of 19th century New York society.
Wharton describes the evening at the opera as a predictable event: one arrives fashionably late, every family has a carriage waiting for them at the entrance, and the evening “never fails” to culminate in the Beaufort’s “annual ball. ” Wharton emphasises the predictability of these events to reflect the monotony of Archer’s stultifying environment. No one dares to behave differently to anyone else or to change annual tradition as an unusual dress or flippant attitude may signify not only a lack of taste, but also a disregard of moral values.
As demonstrated by their ostracism of the alluring Ellen Olenska, New York’s aristocrats fear any wanton behaviour as it undermines and threatens to destabilise their delicate moral code. Wharton ironically compares the stringent societal rules of upper class New York with those of primitive or ancient cultures, commenting that Archer’s obsession with ritual – he insists on arriving at the opera late as it is “not the thing” to arrive early – is no different from the “totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago. Newland has become imprisoned by unspoken societal laws, terrified to act in a way that might be considered bad “form” by his peers. Wharton’s ironic tone here gently mocks New Yorkers as, in their determination to become cultured and civilised, they have come to resemble prehistoric societies. Form, the code which dictated the acceptable tastes in fashion and manners, was extremely important to New York society.
At first we are unsure of the exact terms of this code, however, Wharton’s skillfully ironic prose introduces us to the world of the New York elite in a way which draws us in, showing us through the character’s behavior the conventions of their society. This adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the humorous opening section as we immediately become involved in their intricate web of gossip, wealth and snobbery.
Wharton peppers the opening of the Age of Innocence with small, seemingly irrelevant details, describing the “glazed black walnut bookcases” and “finial-topped chairs” in Newland’s “Gothic library. ” Wharton’s detailed descriptions of furniture and clothes paint a picture of the superficial world to which we are being introduced, implying the rich are defined by their material possessions rather than by their personalities or opinions. In a society where personal wealth is gratuitously displayed, each object reflects both the economic status of the owner and their tastes, interests, and values.
Wharton uses irony in the opening pages of “The Age of Innocence” to demolish the illusions of grandeur associated with the New York aristocracy. The reader is treated to a vivid and amusing description of the characters’ ludicrous sense of their own self-importance and their obsession with trivial societal codes. Wharton is careful never to openly criticize her characters, allowing her readers to decide for themselves which characters conform to the conventions of New York society and which, if any, have the audacity to follow their own moral code.
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