Any academic discussion of point of view in The Age of Innocence entails having an insight into the general tendencies characterizing Edith Wharton’s most literary works as far as narrative technique is concerned. In general, Wharton doesn’t favour the recourse to third-person omniscient narrator; she opts for novels and stories where the tale works itself out and where a set of various narrative techniques are used.
Wharton’s successful manipulation of narrative technique is at the origin of the success of The Age of Innocence. Her narrative strategy consists in the use of authorial telling, showing, and commenting of which the purpose is to provide the reader with insight into the whole social background of characters. Narrative effect is achieved through the use of dramatic presentations which aim at depicting a truthful, accurate, credible, and vivid image of New York society.
In presenting a comprehensive, exact picture of this society, Wharton makes full use of characters; throughout the novel, we see how characters themselves take part in the narration process as if they were dolls manipulated by a masterful master. It is this shift from authorial telling, showing, and commenting to characters’ lending a hand in narration which renders the narration smooth and flexible. Wharton narrates the story, but she withdraws whenever it is necessary to do so. The scene at the Van Der Luydens chapter 8, for example, is presented through Newland Archer’s vision, which is very significant in that it gives this vision more credibility and transparency via avoiding the intrusive effect of the author-narrator, making the scene thus appear less artificial and more natural.
Wharton makes use of a combination of narrative techniques. Authorial telling, summary, and use of a central consciousness are used in alternation, depending on the intended effect. Her consistent switching from one narrative technique to the other is bound up with the effect intended to be achieved as well as with the point of focus of narration. The scene of the wedding ceremony is an example of Wharton’s use of different narrative techniques to attain different effects.
One strategy adopted by realistic writers to present the reader with a truthful image of things revolves around their tendency to design a central consciousness. Newland Archer is the centre of consciousness in The Age of Innocence. The nature of the relationship between Archer and other characters as well as the very fact that Archer is an “insider” both physically and ideologically gives him a vantage point to be a central reflector. Furthermore, his critical mind and intellectual understanding elevates him to a higher level, and qualifies him as a reliable perceiver and judge of people and events in the story.
By way of summary, Wharton’s Realistic background underlies her tendency to avoid authorial intrusion as possible as she can in order to give the impression that the work does, to a great extent, reflect reality as it actually is, rendering, thus, the novel one of the best masterpieces of its time. Indeed, The age of Innocence mirrors Wharton’s mastery of when and how a particular narrative technique is to be resorted to.