By the time the bloody chaos of the First World War finally came to an end on November 11, 1918, the American novelist Edith Wharton had already been living as an expatriate in Paris for five years. During that time, she had essentially ceased to write fiction and had turned her energies instead to the Allied effort by providing war relief for soldiers and refugees. Her devotion and enthusiasm for her work was, in fact, enough to win her the French Legion of Honor.
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By the end of the war, however, Wharton found herself disturbed by what she saw as the profound social disruptions that had been brought on by the war. In the months after the armistice, she again picked up her pen to write what many critics consider to be her war novel.
One would be hard pressed, however, to find any elements within The Age of Innocence that even remotely address the disruption and the bloodshed of the First World War. Set in 1870’s New York, Wharton’s novel depicts a society that is in many ways the antithesis of war-devastated Europe. Old New York, Wharton’s term to describe this wealthy and elite class at the top of the developing city’s social hierarchy, was a society utterly intent on maintaining its own rigid stability. To Wharton, Old New York imposed on its members set rules and expectations for practically everything: manners, fashions, behaviors, and even conversations. Those who breached the social code were punished, with exquisite politeness, by the other members.
The differences between the fractured society following the First World War and the Old New York of The Age of Innocence are without a doubt dramatic. However, there is more of a connection between them than may first appear. Edith Wharton herself was born into the claustrophobic world of Old New York. When she began, at the age of fifty-seven, to write what would become her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, she had already witnessed an astounding amount of social change. Both horrified and fascinated by the chaos and the freedom of the new century as it headed towards modernism and war, Wharton was prompted to compare this new age with that of her own past. The Age of Innocence, then, stands as both a personal recollection of the culture of Wharton’s youth and an historical study of an old-fashioned world on the brink of profound and permanent change.
It is believed that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” once specifically referred to Edith Jones Wharton’s parents, who were known throughout New York for their lavish social gatherings. Born into such an atmosphere of opulence, Wharton had access to all the privileges of an upper- class upbringing: education, travel, and the assurance of a good marriage.
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