Social Order Versus Personal Fulfillment
In the regal, and superficial high-class New York world presented in The Age of Innocence there is one particular, unchallenged rule of social order. This rule of complete social grace has been, instead of branded in stone, been impounded deeply in the minds of every generation raised under the canopy of money and fashion. The desire for etiquette is so overwhelming that it manages to suppress the simple human yearnings for personal fulfillment, otherwise enjoyed by those not imprisoned by clothes or cash. This conflict between society and human emotion is extremely prevalent.
From the beginning of the tale, the description of old New York and its inhabitants seems rigid. The people are bent on their customs and beliefs. From the promptness of the Beaufort Ball, the inflexibility of decorum (including dress, meals, and room presentation), and all relationships, personal or business. The severity of the conformity makes the presence of radicals such as Ellen, Mrs. Mingott, and even Newland, fodder for subversive scandal and gossip.
But these radicals are merely people who are unyielding to the harness of the rich. They have attempted to achieve their own satisfaction, however unsavory to the rest of the order. Ellen and Newland’s personal feelings for each other are passionate, burning, and intensely primitive. The impact an unmasked relationship would have is extremely far-reaching. It would be devastating to Newland’s wife, May. The waves would also be felt internationally by Ellen’s husband in Poland. Newland and Ellen would be ostracized by the entire upper-rank, ruining not only their own lives, but others’ as well.
The complex set of rules and regulations that accompany living in such a society is analogous to a house of cards. If one card is disturbed, the entire thing may crash down. The effect of diversion is foreshadowed by the treachery of Julius Beaufort. He debauches the whole system and gains the scorn of all the other elitists. Further scandal is achieved by Mrs. Regina Beaufort when she abandons her husband in time of crisis and attempts to get the backing of her maiden family. The rules are broken and the aftermath felt far and wide. Similar catastrophe would follow if Newland and Ellen decide to fulfill their personal desire. They do realize the consequences and therefore remain reticent about their affair, and eventually gave up all hope and stay within the confines of social order.
Edith Wharton’s message about social order versus personal fulfillment can be summarized in the statement “The good of the many, outweighs the good of the few.” Many would be hurt, and the delicate balance of the high-ranks would be disturbed if a few key characters were allowed to act on their own impulses. The main characters understand this balance and realize the futile nature of rebellion and resign themselves to abandoning their ambition and then fall in with the pattern of normal life.