The Age of Innocence

American Identity in The Age of Innocence: A European Affair College

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton attempts to recapture the essence of Old New York, a moment in late 19th century American history when social interaction was dictated by rigid standards of propriety and style. As Wharton explores this milieu through her protagonist Newland Archer and the conventional and transgressive characters in his life, the issue of American identity becomes a prominent theme in the novel. Although staunchly committed to the society they have built and the customs they consider devastatingly important, the New Yorkers constantly compare America to the continent from which their ancestors came. Their views of the place, ranging from interest in Europe’s alluring, dramatic reputation to disapproval of its lax moral codes, actively reflect and inform their beliefs about American society. It is as if the Americans only know their own country through its relationship to Europe. While Wharton explores this issue of national identity in her novel, director Martin Scorsese, in his 1993 film adaptation of the tale, is less concerned with America’s quest for an independent understanding of itself. Where the novel is able to examine theoretical and abstract issues like how 19th century American social identity...

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