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The main theme of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is the conflict between the desire of the individual and the conservatism of the group. The novel's title suggests its values: during the age of innocence, people conformed themselves to the dictates of the social code, no matter how much they wanted to take their own measures to ensure their happiness. This choice of the group or the family over the individual is shown in the course of the protagonist's life to be the nobler choice.
The minor theme of the novel is the changes society went through over the course of thirty years from the 1870s to the turn of the century. Edith Wharton writes of this change with realism surprisingly free of nostalgia. She writes of both the moral strengths and the moral failings of the old society and she celebrates the new society in choosing a very positive character as its representative.
The mood of The Age of Innocence is sometimes stifling, sometimes amusing. With subtle irony, Wharton writes of the foibles and pettiness of old New York society as one who recognizes its faults as well as its comforts. There is a great deal of narrative distance, but every paragraph is full of a sense of the rigidity of the times. Overall, there is a tragic tone in the love story of Ellen and Newland. There is painfully evident frustration and powerlessness.