The Age of Innocence was a softer and more gentle work than The House of Mirth, which Wharton had published in 1905, and which was set in the time of her childhood. In her autobiography, Wharton wrote of The Age of Innocence that it had allowed her to find "a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America... it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914." Scholars and readers alike agree that The Age of Innocence is fundamentally a story which struggles to reconcile the old with the new.
Wharton was raised in the old world of rigid and proper New York society which features in the story. She had spent her middle years, including the whole of World War I, in Europe, where the devastation of a new kind of mechanized warfare was felt most deeply. As explained by Millicent Bell in the Cambridge companion to Wharton, "The Age of Innocence was composed and first read in the aftermath of Roosevelt's death and in the immediate wake of World War I. We frame the ending remembering the multiple losses… not only the loss of Roosevelt but the destruction of the prewar world and all that Wharton valued in it."