's novel The Age of Innocence
would seem, with a cursory
reading, to be no more than a conglomeration of stories
from her past in New York high society
of the 1870
's. However, the book deals directly with themes of entrapment
also succeeds in creating an environment that is conducive
to a subtle and elegant rendering
themes. In small details
she illuminates inequalities
and frustrations brought about by the expectations of society
and the desire to be accepted and to seem "respectable
". The three characters Wharton uses throughout the work are Newland, May and Ellen.
She chooses Newland as her main character. He is tormented by attempting to reconcile his own ideals with social norms. Early in the novel he espouses equality between the sexes, but does little to further his notion; his position in society doesn't allow it. Later, when confronted with the problem of resolving his desire for Ellen with the comfortable life that May has to offer, he equivocates and chooses safety and duty instead of happiness. Wharton's choice of a male as her main character is quite shrewd. She is likely to attract more male readers who attempt to empathize with a character who is trapped by convention and narrow mindedness. In so doing, she causes them to think about roles not only in high society, but also attitudes in all personal interaction-- perhaps specifically-- attitudes regarding women.
Wharton's repeated use of strong female characters is a corollary to this idea. Characters like Ellen and the matriarchs of the households are clues to her underlying theme. Even May is shown to be not a two dimensional as she seems in scenes such as Newland's departure for Washington.
The themes explored by Wharton suggest more than the trivia of her medium would indicate. She constantly barrages the reader with how ridiculous and arbitrary New York society can be in the 1870's. She speaks of the tumultuous state of this society in ways that are witty, biting and cynical. Her ultimate indictment is not of how pitiful the life of a young man can be if deprived of personal freedom, but rather the criminality of depriving anyone of their liberty. Perhaps in writing about Newland's predicament, Wharton attempts to illustrate the value and honesty of another novel relating a similar dilemma.
There are many similarities between Newland and Kate Chopin's character Edna in The Awakening. Both characters lead lives that they don't want, and both are trapped by convention. Their attempts at freedom are well-directed but ultimately fail, and their spouses contribute to their personal downfalls.
In Chopin's The Awakening, Edna stands naked on the shore before the ocean that will pull her to peace. While on the shore she considers an eternity of thoughts before walking into the water. Newland sits on the bench, reflecting upon his life as it has unfolded to this point. He sits naked, stripped of his delusional duties, and watches a servant close the awnings and the blinds-- as Edna's society closed her off from happiness. The question hangs there, unwritten on the final page-- what is the difference between Edna's journey into death and Newland's somber walk to his hotel room? What is the difference in a life of quiet desperation if led by a man or by a woman? The reader is left with Wharton's true message: there is no difference.