Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence is set in the aristocratic New York of the late nineteenth century, and uses irony throughout to demonstrate the contradictory nature of that society, as well as the inconsistency and hypocrisy of many of the characters. The title itself is evidence of an ironic slant on that society, since it is clear throughout the narrative that whereas innocence is something which is, at least on the surface, admired and prized, in fact the actions of the characters show that they are for the most part lacking in that virtue. .
Wharton looks closely at the double standards which were employed by society at the time, and the importance of conforming to social codes however constraining and inegalitarian these were. There are strictly imposed concepts of acceptable behaviour, with regard to interpersonal relationships, suitable business occupations, marriage customs and so on: despite the superficial politeness which people display, the penalties for breaking these codes are severe, in terms of the social ostracism which results. .
For example, whilst adultery is not officially condoned, men who have affairs gain the tacit approval of their peers, whereas women are condemned. As Deter (2002) points out, Mr Beaufort's behaviour is glossed over and ignored, whereas his mistress is treated with contempt. There are rigidly structured social expectations imposed on both men and women, however. Men are expected to be successful in business and to provide for their families: consequently, it is Beaufort's failed business dealings which cause society to condemn him, not the affair which he has with Fanny. For men, it is essential to succeed in their professional life, whereas for women, maintaining their personal moral standards is seen as more important.