Part of why I love The Age of Innocence so much is for the very reason my students hate it--the subtlety of action in a society constrained by its own ridiculous rules and mores. In Old New York, conformity is key and the upper-crust go about a life of ritual that has no substance or meaning. Both men and women are victims in this world as both are denied economic, intellectual, and creative outlets. All the world's a stage in Wharton's New York and everyone wears a mask of society's creation. Such is the norm until Newland Archer.
Symbolically, Newland represents an America on the cusp of modernization, the awkward period of transition between the Victorian era and World War I. At first a devout member of New York aristocracy, Newland is awakened as one from a trance with the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen decides to separate from her abusive husband, Count Olenski, and is rumored to have escaped the Count by having an affair with his secretary--a scandalous circumstance that brings her back home to her native New York. Vibrant, intellectual, and free-spirited when compared with the dowdy and restrained women he's known, Ellen's predicament is a revelation to Newland. As he himself has just ended an affair with a married woman and knows the ease with which society forgave his indiscretion when contrasted with Ellen, Newland begins to acknowledge the inequality amongst the sexes. However, there's a serious roadblock to Newland ever being with the captivating Ellen: Ellen is the cousin of May Welland, Newland's fiancee.
Wharton writes with cutting wit about the hypocritical and ludicrous customs of blue blood society and cunningly plots events to work against Newland, the archer whose target is a "new land" in which he and Ellen can be together. The pity is that, ultimately, May proves to be the more cunning huntress who cleverly stalks and traps her quarry in the labyrinth of society.
Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder